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Sister Michaela Rock, who helped create health clinics for low-income Sonoma County residents, dies at 80

Sister Michaela Rock had no time for small talk, bureaucracy or excuses.

She knew that people with little money, power and access to health care were suffering. As an activist nun with the order that founded Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the hard-charging Sister Michaela carried the ministry of St. Joseph Health out into the streets.

Through a decade that began in the early 1990s, the former Catholic school teacher struck out into underserved communities in Sonoma County and played major roles in the creation of accessible health clinics - among them the one that has grown into the nine-campus Santa Rosa Community Health Centers.

“She was an incredible force for good in our community,” said Naomi Fuchs, the centers’ director.

Sister Michaela died June 7 at a home for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange in Orange County. She was 80.

As she prepared for her death, she left no autobiography but was specific about the text she wanted printed in the booklet for her funeral Mass. It’s a statement by philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, one that Robert Cogswell, communications director for the Sisters of St. Joseph, said is viewed by many who knew Sister Michaela as a “self-?portrait of her in words.”

Russell wrote, “The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain … A searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfiguring and infinite … I do not think it is to be found - but the love of it is my life.”

A native of San Francisco who wasn’t yet 20 when she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Michaela arrived in Santa Rosa with a jolt in 1994.

She called together about 50 of Sonoma County’s movers and shakers for frank talk about the unmet needs of people in areas such as the largely Latino neighborhoods southwest of Santa Rosa, and about getting to work to address them.

Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron wrote at the time, “Sister Michaela is what you might call a nun with an attitude … She’s an upfront, opinionated, independent thinker who has come on a crusade to bring people together in Santa Rosa’s neighborhoods. She is also funny, which is a great leavening agent. She has come with the intention of bringing people together. She’s come to make things change. And she will.”

Named St. Joseph Health’s first vice president of community benefit, Sister Michaela obtained from the nonprofit health system an $850,000 operating budget. She then set forth to make Sonoma County a healthier and more just place to live.

Early on, she trained a team of community organizers to go into low-income neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Sonoma Valley and Healdsburg and work with residents to improve their access to health care and their quality of life.

Sister Michaela helped open a health clinic on the campus of Elsie Allen High School, west of south Santa Rosa’s Corby Auto Mall.

A mobile clinic operated by Memorial Hospital served residents in need of medical and dental attention.

Sister Michaela also was a primary force in the creation of the Southwest Community Health Center off Sebastopol Road. She used her access to medical expertise at Memorial Hospital to support and equip the fledgling clinic’s medical and management staff.

Clinic director Fuchs witnessed the potent mix of personal qualities that Sister Michaela brought to bear to get things done for people in need.

“She was super straight forward,” Fuchs said. “You always knew where she stood and what she thought and what she believed in.”

Added the health care administrator, who still oversees the Southwest Community Health Center as director of the encompassing Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, “She was passionate about social justice. And she had a great sense of humor, was super funny.”

Engaging and unapologetic about her sense of urgency to help empower the disenfranchised, Sister Michaela was aware she was impatient and demanding, and she sometimes bruised feelings and ruffled feathers.

“With my mouth, I have to stay a nun,” she told The Press Democrat with a laugh in 1994. “Otherwise I couldn’t get away with what I say sometimes.”

She also said, “I don’t have much patience or tolerance for people and institutions that waste time with processes and committees. I act more quickly. If you want me to come to a meeting you had better tell me the issue, the agenda for discussion and the plan for action.”

The sister added, “I’ve always told my superiors not to send me to a small hospital because it couldn’t absorb me. Santa Rosa may not be big enough to absorb me.”

Prior to being assigned to Sonoma County, she was among the nuns who oversaw operations and outreach at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.

She’d begun her service as a nun by teaching, then acting as principal at Catholic schools. Sensing the magnitude of her intellect and potential, superiors sent her to St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and then to UCLA, where she earned a master’s in business administration.

She switched from education to health care, once observing, “If I could run a school, I could run a hospital. I figured it would just be taller kids and there would be more zeros at the end of the decimal points in the budget.”

Becoming active in the health mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Sister Michaela served at St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank and at St. Mary of the Plains Hospital in Lubbock, Texas, prior to her decadelong stint at the order’s hospital in Orange County.

After she helped to improve access to health care in Sonoma County, she moved on shortly after 2000 to Eureka, where she founded the St. Joseph Center for Social Change.

She had been active in the health care ministry for 36 years when she retired to the Sisters of St. Joseph’s Regina Residence in 2017.

She shared while in Sonoma County 25 years ago, “When I die and see God, I want him to say. ‘You did okay, let’s talk.’”

Planning has begun for a Sonoma County celebration of Sister Michaela’s life.

Memorial donations are welcome to the ministries of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, 440 S. Batavia St., Orange, CA 92868.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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