Updated: May 4, 2013 6:32AM
When Sister Margaret Wright retired as chief executive officer of Palos Community Hospital last week, it was more than a routine business announcement.
It signaled the end of a grand historical lineage that had extended unbroken from the 19th century — a member of a Catholic religious order has been in charge of a Chicago-area hospital since then.
Most hospitals in the region were run that way in the beginning, as charitable organizations, often by the Montreal-based Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph in which Wright serves. The nuns came to serve the health, spiritual and emotional needs of Chicago’s immigrants and its poorest patients.
Wright, 77, was born on Chicago’s South Side, has been a nun for 53 years and ran Palos Community for 35 years. There have been a few other nuns retiring as hospital execs in recent months, but her exit is especially noteworthy because she is the last.
Wright’s years at Palos Community coincided with its rise as a premier, independent community hospital. She has declined interviews for decades, but friends, colleagues and employees said her hospital is a direct reflection of her concern and passion for human values.
A Catholic hospital with a secular name, Palos Community was founded in 1972 and has grown into the fourth-largest independent hospital in the Chicago area. Revenue climbed nearly 6 percent to $359 million between 2007 and 2011.
Bolstered by having a large number of patients on private insurance, the Palos Heights hospital has stockpiled more than $680 million in cash and investments, often outdoing larger rivals. It recently opened a seven-story surgical and patient pavilion with a new intensive care unit — nearly doubling the hospital’s beds to 428.
But as healthy as Palos Community’s bottom line is now, the pressure of changing demographics, older patients and reliance on government payments could make consolidation inevitable.
In any case, Wright leaves the hospital healthy and vibrant, and the community it serves is better for that.