Sister Yvonne's Pilgrimage
She led St. Joe's growth. Now she's working to end homelessness.
by Jan Schlain
From the January, 2020 issue
Sister Yvonne Gellise says she was "too young to know better" when the Religious Sisters of Mercy sent her to Ann Arbor in 1968 to become executive director of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.
She was sent to save it. What she calls "the old St. Joe's," on N. Ingalls, was "on a three-year provisional license," she says. "So, you know, you've got to do something."
Now eighty-five, she apologizes for her fading memory of the details. But in a 2008 Ann Arbor News article, she put the situation in stark terms: "State health authorities had given St. Joe a deadline, says Sister Yvonne. The hospital had to build or close."
In Eleanor Luedtke's book The Healing Mission: The Practice of Medicine at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital 1911-99, then chief of staff Alexander Gotz ticked off the problems: St. Joe's was "landlocked in the downtown area ... We had insufficient bed space ... insufficient parking ... and the Michigan Department of Public Health was beginning to worry us about certain structural deficiencies ..."
Four nuns founded St. Joe's in 1911 in a former rooming house across from St. Thomas Church. When Gellise arrived fifty-seven years later, it was still "pretty much run as a doctors-sisters hospital," she says. "We didn't have much lay involvement ... We really had to reach out to and engage the community. It wasn't easy."
She was just thirty-four, but had a bachelor's in accounting and a master's in hospital administration. And despite her youth, former chief of staff Rudy Reichert recalled in the News article, "she was the boss."
"The fracases at City Hall were 'hair raising,'" the News' Judy McGovern wrote. Reichert (who died in 2014) called it "a harrowing time." There was opposition to the sisters' chosen site in Superior Township and even to the idea of a hospital run by a religious order.
There were financial pressures and compromises. "Construction was a struggle," McGovern wrote. "'We were building before the plans were
complete,' [Gellise] says, 'and raising money as we built.'"
But in May 1977, the last patients left Ingalls St. for the new 558-bed hospital on more than 200 acres on E. Huron River Dr. Gellise told the News they'd only wanted fifty acres but had to take more.
The extra land proved providential. An outpatient building named for Reichert soon followed. Then came cancer, women's, and specialty-care centers, and then, in the 2010s, new patient towers with large private rooms.
Gellise, meanwhile, moved into leadership in the hospital's parent organization. She was a founding board member of Livonia-based Trinity Health, which operates ninety-two hospitals in twenty-two states, and still holds the title of senior advisor for governance at the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital System.
Asked what that means, she says, "I sit on governing boards and governing board meetings, and having been sitting on board meetings for all of my career, I've learned what works and what doesn't." Her friend Norm Herbert says she starts her days in the chapel, does some treadmill walking, and then goes to work, as she has for over fifty years at St. Joe's.
Amanda Carlisle, executive director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, describes her as "a very humble leader." Gellise herself passes all praise upward. When someone tells her, "Isn't it great that you built this nice new hospital and got all this land?" she says she thinks, "It's not me, honey, it's God."
"I just think that if we're doing God's work, then we're going to succeed," she explains. "And if we're not, we're not going to succeed--and probably shouldn't."
She recruited Herbert (a former treasurer of the U-M), former county administrator Bob Guenzel, and others joined an informal "cabinet" to build the Sister Yvonne Gellise Fund for Permanent Supportive Housing Services. The name is a mouthful, but the goal is simple: eliminating homelessness in Washtenaw County.
Their goal, Herbert says, is to generate $2.5 million a year for services to keep formerly homeless people housed. To do that, "we would need an endowment fund that is approximately $60 million."
They have a long way to go: in December they were hoping year-end contributions would push the endowment past $5 million.
"We're not going to reach $60 million in my lifetime or her lifetime," Guenzel chuckles. "That's the point. It's really ongoing.
"But in my mind, it's [already] been tremendously successful and reflects the generosity of the community--but also the leadership that Sister Yvonne has displayed around these issues. She goes back to the beginning!"
The youngest of five children, Gellise was born in 1934 in Bay City. "I didn't realize that we could have been classified as poor," she says, "because we were cared for, we had food, we had loving parents. And we went to school and got educated."
She didn't talk about it, but news reports say that she suffered from polio in the 1940s which left her with some weakness in one arm and even deeper compassion for the disabled.
She hadn't always planned to be a nun. After graduating from high school, she went to work as a junior accountant. But after three years, she says, "I thought, 'There's got to be more to life than just money."
Always devout, she began "testing the waters to see if in fact God was calling me." She didn't have to look far for a religious community, because "there were Sisters of Mercy at my family's parish." She entered the order in 1955, earned degrees at the University of Detroit and St. Louis University, and took her final vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service to the poor and uneducated.
She says she no longer remembers just when her concerns expanded from caring for the sick to caring for the homeless. "My mom--I quote her frequently now as I'm getting older--she would always look at me and say, 'Honey, it's hell to get old.' I know what she's saying."
But she does remember the ragged shelters that volunteers created in the 1980s. "There was one for men; it was in an old church, which is still there on the other side of the Delonis Center. They were just there through the night and had to be out in the morning.
"There was another spot--I can't remember the exact location now--for women, and it was a deplorable thing. We would not feel comfortable, sometimes, having our dog in there. And then there was a warming shelter during the day."
She took her hospital board members on the same tour, "because we wanted them to be aware of the situation." Then she took them to meet with Guenzel "to see what we could do about raising funds to build an appropriate shelter--and not just an overnight, but to keep people there until they could move out and get on their own. And that's the Delonis Center." Then came Alpha House, a family shelter on Jackson Rd.
Working through St. Joe's, Gellise also helped found the Washtenaw Housing Alliance. Its mission, Carlisle says, is to coordinate "all of the agencies that offer supportive services available for the homeless."
"It's those types of services that are the critical piece," Herbert explains. Historically, groups working with the homeless would provide services first, "and then, once [clients] demonstrate that they are becoming more stable with the supportive services ... we would have considered giving them housing.
"Now research shows that it's best to get the homeless into a housing unit as quickly as possible, reduce their stay time at the shelter, and then provide the supportive services."
"It's been proven that if they have access to the various services--and there is a range of those; people have different needs--we can successfully keep people housed," Gellise says. "And it's certainly an advantage to the community, because it is cheaper to do that than to put people in jail or have them turn up in our emergency room.
"So if you don't have the feeling in your heart for this, then have feeling in your pocketbook. It's an advantage to the community to support this."
But while federal funding was available to buy and build housing, money for services was harder to find. A homelessness task force began working on education and advocacy, with the idea that once people understood the need, they might support a small tax to fund supportive services.
The Great Recession put a quick end to that idea. "If you want to make God laugh," Gellise says, "tell him your plans."
Rather than compete with other human services agencies for funding, Gellise's "cabinet" turned to the endowment. Their goal is to produce enough income to service 500 housing units.
Working with then CEO Garry Faja, Gellise persuaded St. Joe's to kick things off with a $1 million gift in honor of its 100th anniversary in 2011. The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation then "matched our $1 million, so we started with $2 million," she says. "And then we had I think maybe a $100,000 donation from an anonymous donor."
Guenzel says it was the cabinet's idea to name the fund after Gellise, but "she's been a good sport" about it. Carlisle says they began actively fundraising in 2015, with the goal of $5 million by the end of 2019.
"Sister Yvonne is very quiet, but she's relentless," says Herbert. "She is intent on seeing this fund grow."
Asked about her life, she turns the topic back to her cause. "I mean, who cares about an eighty-five-year-old lady anymore?" she asks. "What's more important is what this eighty-five-year-old lady is trying to do: end homelessness."
"I think one of the gifts I've been given and that I use a lot is the ability to listen," she said. Another is that people listen to her.
"You can't do this work unless it is a commitment," says Herbert. "You become passionate. Any one of us [in her cabinet] would say we are doing it in large part because we know how important it is to Sister Yvonne. Her commitment is our commitment."
He laughs and adds, "She's infected us."
"She has no other agenda except to do good," says Guenzel. "She really is the driving force behind why we keep going."
Recently the cabinet had a retreat--nothing fancy, just a gathering in a St. Joe's conference room with lunch. That's when Guenzel announced that, with Gellise's permission, he was stepping down at year's end. Herbert is staying on for at least one more year.
"It's a big turning point," Guenzel says. "We, the cabinet, as we call ourselves, had certain goals, and we're close to reaching those goals."
But Gellise isn't done. Once again, she's looking for good people to take up the mission.
"We have to find a way to get in touch with more entrepreneurs in Ann Arbor," she says. "Ann Arbor is growing like crazy. Who are the people, and are there any we can touch, who would spend some of their time to be a member of the cabinet?
"That's the work ahead of us. We talked about that at our retreat. Certainly, when I check out, I will keep praying for that."
[Originally published in January, 2020.]
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