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.