March 28, 2017

Sister Mary Madonna: Public health pioneer shapes a healthier Minnesota

Minnesota Commissioner of Health Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ (pictured at mic) announces legislation requiring the labeling of smokeless tobacco products. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet / St. Paul Province archives

She was known as a health care professional, as a hospital administrator. Beyond that, there was very little known about her. She turned out to be one of the greatest health commissioners in the history of the state.”

–Mike Osterholm
MN state epidemiologist, 1984-89
"Sister Mary Ashton receives prestigious Women's History Month award," Star Tribune

Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ ’44 took on big tobacco and won, tackled the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and later forged a lasting solution to address healthcare for Minnesota’s uninsured — forever changing public health in the region for the better.

A convert to Catholicism while in college, she majored in sociology and psychology and graduated from St. Kate’s in 1944. After receiving her Master of Social Work from St. Louis University, she became a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and began her career in medical social work (then a new field). After obtaining a Master of Hospital Administration from the University of Minnesota, Sister Mary Madonna moved into administration at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis where she ultimately served as president and CEO for 20 years.

Shortly after she left St. Mary’s Hospital, Governor-elect Rudy Perpich appointed her to lead the Minnesota Department of Health in what was considered a highly controversial move.

“There was a tremendous amount of opposition,” she recalls. “I wasn’t a doctor. It was the first time they appointed someone who was not a physician. I was the first woman appointed and on top of that, I’m a nun!”

But her two decades of experience at the helm of St. Mary’s, and a “no-nonsense leadership style that blended science and human kindness” eventually laid any skepticism to rest.

The first woman, nun, and non-physician to serve as Minnesota Commissioner of Health, Sister Mary Madonna spent 8 years in the position, from 1983 to 1991. Most notably, she took on the tobacco industry in what became a landmark legal battle that ignited a nationwide movement.

“I spent weeks with lawyers preparing for what would become days of testimony and cross-examination on the stand,” she said. The State of Minnesota ultimately won and smoking was outlawed in public spaces, including hospitals, places of employment, and eventually, restaurants.

Sister Mary Madonna also faced a relatively new public health threat during her time as commissioner: HIV/AIDS. There were only 4 reported cases in Minnesota as she took office.

“As the epidemic took hold, and we came to realize the associated threat to the community’s blood supply, we had to act and fast.” By the end of Sister Mary Madonna’s term, protections for the community’s blood supply were in place.

After leaving public office, she spearheaded efforts of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet to create what would become the region-wide St. Mary’s Health Clinics (SMHC). They opened the first clinic in 1992 as a “temporary solution” until national healthcare was in place.

By the time Sister Mary Madonna retired in 2000, SMHC had 11 clinics throughout the Twin Cities. Today, the nonprofit continues to provide free medical care, outreach and education to low-income, uninsured families and individuals who are not eligible for government programs.

A founding member of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health Advisory Council, a trustee emerita and member of St. Kate’s Centennial 100, Sister Mary Madonna was a trustee of St. Mary’s Junior College from 1974 to 1986 and at St. Catherine from 1986 to 1995 — shepherding both institutions through the merger that would, in 2007, become the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health.

At 93, Sister Mary Madonna now resides with other retired Sisters at Carondelet Village in St. Paul.

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Quiet influence: The Legacy of Mother Seraphine Ireland
Elizabeth Sudmeier '33: The spy who shattered the glass ceiling
Women's History Month 2017: Jeanne Arth '56
Sister Mary Thompson '53 forged path for women in chemistry