Alumna is 2016 National Women's History Month Honoree

Photo of Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, former Minnesota Commissioner of Health

Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ’44 to be honored as part of 2016 National Women’s History Month

St. Catherine University alumna Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ’44 is among 15 women who will be honored during March as part of this year’s National Women’s History Month.The theme for 2016 is “Working to Form a More a Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.”

Sister Mary Madonna’s reach has been extensive. She has tirelessly used her gifts to care for the people of the Twin Cities and Minnesota. And, as Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are called to do, she continues “moving always toward profound love of God and love of neighbor without distinction.”

The first woman, nun, and non-physician to serve as Minnesota Commissioner of Health, Ashton took on big tobacco and dealt with the rising number of AIDS cases in Minnesota.

A convert to Catholicism while in college, she majored in sociology and psychology and graduated from St. Catherine (then College of St. Catherine) 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) at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. After obtaining a Master of Hospital Administration from the University of Minnesota, she moved into administration at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis where she ultimately served as president and CEO for 20 years.

Trail-blazing for public health

Shortly after she left St. Mary’s Hospital, Minnesota Governor-elect Rudy Perpich came knocking, asking Sister Mary Madonna to serve as Commissioner of Health.
“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!”

During consecutive terms totaling eight years, she helped tackle smoking and AIDS, becoming a highly respected and successful Commissioner of Health.

“Our original goal was to eliminate the sale of tobacco in Minnesota. We ended up outlawing smoking in public places, including hospitals, places of employment, and eventually, restaurants,” explains Sister Mary Madonna, who had to take on the tobacco industry in what became a landmark legal fight. “I spent weeks with lawyers preparing for what would become days of testimony and cross-examination on the stand.”

Ultimately the State won and smoking in public places and on public property in Minnesota stopped. Sister Mary Madonna is quick to note that major changes of this magnitude requires work from many organizations and individuals, but Minnesota’s success would start a nationwide movement.

“We were also the first State in the Union to obtain money from the State legislature to address teen smoking,” reflected Sister Mary Madonna, “and as a result of the Department’s efforts, Northwest Airlines (now Delta) eliminated smoking on domestic flights and the Minnesota Twins baseball team stopped accepting tobacco ads at its stadium.”

Another public health focus during her tenure was on AIDS. “When I took office, there were only four reported cases of AIDS in the state. I really didn’t know what AIDS was, but I learned along with the community. 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.

Taking public health into neighborhoods

After her term, she focused her energies on addressing a lack of healthcare for those living on the margins. “We came up with the idea of having neighborhood clinics for people who where uninsured and weren’t eligible for government programs.”

She suggested that her religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, use some funds from the sale of a previously sponsored health institution for this purpose. Sister Mary Madonna used her impressive network of contacts to find a host of volunteer physicians, nurses and support personnel to staff what became St. Mary’s Health Clinics (SMHC).

“We opened our first clinic in January of 1992. We thought it would be temporary.”

National healthcare, she thought, would surely be just around the corner. By the time Sister Mary Madonna retired in 2000, SMHC had 11 clinics throughout the Twin Cities. Even with the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA or Obamacare), which was signed into law in 2010, there are still plenty of people who don’t qualify and need help. The nonprofit continues serving those children, women, and men.

Leading and influencing at St. Kate's

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.

She has been recognized for her many achievements with the St. Catherine Alumnae Award, the University of Minnesota Public Health Alumni Leadership Award and the U-MN Minnesota Medical Association Shotwell award, as well as honorary doctorates from St. Catherine University and Hamline University.

At 92, Sister Mary Madonna now resides with other retired Sisters at Carondelet Village in St. Paul.

Noted National Women's History Month Honorees

Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ joins an impressive and distinguished list of women honored by the National Women’s History Project including: Bella Abzug, Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Margaret Bourke-White, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dorothy Day, Emily Dickinson, Martha Graham, Anita Hill, Coretta Scott King, Winona LaDuke, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sally Ride, Eleanor Roosevelt, Beverly Sills, Gertrude Stein, Gloria Steinem, and a host of others.

Editor’s note: Mary Madonna Ashton, CSJ, ’44 is among St. Kate’s faculty, leaders and alumnae profiled throughout March as part of Women’s History Month.

by Ann Thompson