Changing the systems that marginalize people

Dominican Sr. Donna Markham has been chosen to succeed Father Larry Snyder as the new president of Catholic Charities USA. The announcement was made Jan. 12 at Catholic Charities headquarters in Alexandria, a suburb of Washington. She is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo / Courtesy Catholic Charities USA)

The next president of Catholic Charities USA has a history of not only attacking problems, but also working to change the systems that cause those problems, her supporters say.

Dominican Sr. Donna Markham will become CCUSA’s president June 1, taking over from Fr. Larry Snyder, who will become vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Markham will be the 10th person – and first woman – to head Catholic Charities USA in the organization’s 105-year history.

“She certainly is someone who as a leader has keen intellect and the ability to look at problems and assess them and come up with creative, strategic ways of addressing those issues,” said Sr. Elise D. García, director of communications for the Dominican congregation in Adrian, Michigan, where Markham served as prioress.

The Dominican sisters in Iraq, García said, have a history of sending sisters abroad during times of war not only for their own safety, but to gain educations they could not receive in Iraq. When the prioress of the Iraqi Dominicans visited the United States and asked Markham if her congregation would host Iraqi sisters, she didn’t hesitate.

“She immediately answered, ‘Yes, we’d be honored,’” García recalled.

While here, the Iraqi sisters obtained master’s degrees in fields ranging from Montessori teaching to theology to peace studies, then returned to serve their people in Iraq, García said. Now they are home, teaching peace, educating children and leading by example.

Last fall, Markham traveled to Iraq herself, not only to show solidarity and be present with the sisters there, but also to meet the families of the sisters the Adrian Dominicans had hosted.

“Having that kind of connection is so tender, and it’s also part of Donna’s legacy here,” García said. “She really cultivated that relationship with our Iraqi sisters. . . . It’s a testament to the depths of her feeling for the people of Iraq, and I think Donna’s strength is having that strategic view.”

Markham shrugs off the idea she is extraordinary, even saying her barrier-breaking appointment as the first woman to lead CCUSA is “not a big deal.”

“I’m very happy to take on this ministry. I feel very honored,” Markham told Global Sisters Report. “I think Fr. Snyder has left the organization in terrific shape, so I feel very confident in the direction the organization is moving in.”

The important thing about her appointment, she said, is that the CCUSA board chose the person they feel has the skills and experience needed to lead the organization.

“Both Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Health Association are led by women,” Markham said. “I don’t know that it’s really news at this point.”

Dominican Sr. Barbara Reid said Markham’s appointment is a milestone. Reid is vice president and academic dean of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where Markham recently joined the board of trustees.

“I wish we could say it isn’t a big deal, that it’s just a normal thing,” Reid said, especially given Markham’s leadership background and the fact that women religious have been providing leadership all their lives, especially in the areas of health care and education. “In one sense, it’s not at all extraordinary she should be chosen, but given the fact that it’s never been held by a woman before, it is notable.”

Reid said Markham is especially skilled at doing more than simply meeting the immediate needs of those being served.

“One of the things I find so exciting about Donna’s appointment as a leader is that she has really fine experience in fighting systems that keep people poor,” she said.

And that aspect is one of the things Markham loves most about CCUSA, noting the organization has been called not just a safety net for people living in poverty, but also a trampoline to lift them out of poverty.

“I thought that was a very good image,” Markham said.

CCUSA does far more than feed people, with services ranging from adoption to social services to mental health. Markham said the services offered are as diverse as the individual diocesan agencies offering them.

“Some [services offered] are particular to specific agencies, some are particular to the diocese,” she said. “Catholic Charities exists for the sake of advocating for people living on the margins.”

She said the agency cannot focus on just one issue, because so many issues are so closely tied together.

“Many people who stand on the margins suffer from mental illness,” Markham said. “And very often people with mental illness can’t hold down a job. So you have to look at both areas.”

Also key is the advocacy side, she said – working to change policies that keep people on the margins.

“There is a whole department in the organization that does the research on issues that affect poor people,” Markham said. “We are a voice for people.”

Markham’s appointment brought wide-ranging praise.

“Sister Donna’s appointment promises a seamless transition at the end of 10 years of outstanding leadership by Fr. Larry Snyder,” Bishop David A. Zubik, Episcopal Liaison to CCUSA’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement announcing Markham’s hiring.

“Catholic Charities USA will certainly benefit from this mingling of compassionate care for those in need and managerial expertise in providing such care that characterizes Sister Donna Markham and her dedication to mission,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, said in the statement.

Markham is a board certified clinical psychologist and president of the Behavioral Health Institute for Mercy Health. Prior to joining Mercy Health, she served 10 years as the president of the Southdown Institute in Ontario, Canada. She also served for eight years as a member of CCUSA’s Board of Trustees, including two of those years as board chair.

Daughter of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, said she looks forward to working with Markham.

“Having known Sister Donna for many years, I believe she has the strategic acumen, energy and commitment to build on CCUSA’s solid foundation and bring the organization to new heights,” Keehan said. “I have tremendous respect for her professional accomplishments and am confident she will make a measurable impact on Catholic Charities and its network.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]