Catholic hospitals have a long and rich history in the United States. By 1872, there were already seventy-five such hospitals in operation around the country, founded and staffed mainly by women’s religious congregations-the Sisters of Charity, the Benedictine Sisters, the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Ursulines, and many others. These women were motivated by a vocational call to care for the sick, which they did with distinction despite considerable hardship, earning along the way the deep and lasting gratitude of the varied constituencies they served.
The institutions they founded have since undergone massive transformation, mainly in the last forty years, as the demands of the modern era of medicine and plummeting numbers of young Catholic women entering religious vocations have forced significant structural changes in how the hospitals are run. Most Catholic hospitals in the United States are now no longer standalone facilities. Rather, they are part of regional “systems”-such as Catholic Health East, with thirty-three hospitals in eleven states-and governed by boards that include ample numbers of lay experts in addition to representatives from the original sponsoring congregations. As fewer and fewer women have joined the orders which had traditionally been active sponsors of health care services, the older sisters in those orders have had to pull back from their day-to-day involvement in the operations of the institutions their predecessors founded.