After 50 years leading Stella Maris, Sister Karen McNally earns break

Religious Sister of Mercy Karen McNally has served Stella Maris in Timonium for half a century. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

TIMONIUM – Sister Karen McNally, a Religious Sister of Mercy who retired Sept. 27 as head of Stella Maris after giving it 50 years of service, knows the power of saying “yes.”

“Never say no to anything,” Sister Karen said. “It’s so enriching when you say yes. So always say yes.”

She said yes to a summer at a leprosy hospital in Guyana, and a mission trip to El Salvador, when soldiers patrolled with machine guns while she sat with locals, shared their food and learned lessons of hospitality.

“It’s very humbling,” Sister Karen said, “but it’s also so beautiful to know such strength exists.”

A Baltimore native and graduate of the former Mount St. Agnes High School, Sister Karen grew up in Blessed Sacrament Parish and was a big fan of the Baltimore Colts, which her photographer father, Lawrence McNally, covered for the Baltimore News Post.

She was a 25-year-old nurse when she said yes to Stella Maris, arriving in 1969. For 43 of her 50 years there, she worked alongside Sister Louis Mary Battle, who named her director of nursing after only one year on staff.

“Don’t worry,” said Sister Louis Mary, a new administrator herself. “I have done it and I’ll teach you.”

“We were a good team,” Sister Karen said. “We were both young and energetic.”

Pat Harbin was the first nurse Sister Karen hired in 1970.

“She really encouraged us and made it possible for us to grow as the place expanded,” said Harbin, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley who retired in 2009 but at 85 still comes to Stella Maris twice a week to volunteer in the pastoral care department.

John Cochran, the chairman of the advisory board at Stella Maris, said that without Sister Karen and Sister Louis Mary, “Stella Maris wouldn’t be what it is today. Sister Karen is one of the saints doing God’s work while she’s down here with us.”

Along the way, she helped Stella Maris grow from a small home for the aged to a comprehensive health care center.

She became chief administrative officer in 1997. One of her first acts was after Stella Maris had been acquired by Mercy Medical Center was instituting that advisory board.

“She felt it was important to keep contact with community leaders,” Cochran said.

Regina Figueroa, left, assumed the role of chief administrative officer of Stella Maris in Timonium following the retirement of Sister of Mercy Karen McNally in September. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Her first fundraising efforts yielded $4 million for Stella Maris’s first hospice inpatient care unit.

“We wanted it to be their home,” she said, which meant private rooms with their own bath, as well as space for families to rest and children to play.

When Sister Karen set out to build a new wing to expand Stella Maris’ transitional care unit, consultants predicted she’d raise only $7 million. She raised $10 million.

“Those funds would not have been raised if not for Sister Karen,” Cochran said.

Regarding fundraising, she said, “I used to be very shy about that, but it gets easier when you have a mission.”

That unit will open in summer 2020, with 60 private rooms, the latest technology, space for families and a state-of-the-art rehabilitation gym.

“There’s lots of space for families so they don’t feel so institutionalized,” Sister Karen said.

With “things in health care changing so rapidly,” as she put it, two floors will be fully outfitted but the third will be left empty for whatever is needed next.

“Sister Karen is always focused on holistic care: the care of the whole person, their support system, their families,” said Father Larry Johnson, director of pastoral care at Stella Maris.

A Mission Ambassador Program is designed to keep the staff in every department aware of the mission, recognizing core values of respect, hospitality, justice, dignity, excellence, stewardship and prayer.

“We want it to belong to everybody,” she said.

Continuing that tradition will now fall to lay staff once Sister Karen leaves.

“It’s all about all of us being about mercy, not just the Mercy Sisters,” said John McLoughlin, Stella Maris’s director of operations and part of the Missions and Values Committee.

Sister Karen finds her strength in her spiritual life, Mass almost every day, daily rosary and turning over her day to God, or as she says it, “OK, God, you’re in charge now; help me.”

After handing the leadership baton to Regina Figueroa, the new chief administrative officer, Sister Karen is taking a sabbatical year. She will visit relatives and friends, and maybe take an Alaska cruise or visit Rome.

“My goal is to meet Pope Francis,” she said.

While the break is “going to be fun,” she said, she also intends to visit religious women working with migrants and refugees in Laredo, Texas.

“That is really hard, hard work,” said Sister Karen, who has helped raise funds to support their efforts.

She told her community she’ll also be discerning her next ministry during her sabbatical.

“Who knows what will influence me during this year?” Sister Karen said.

Mary K. Tilghman

Mary K. Tilghman

Mary Tilghman is a freelance contributor to the Catholic Review who previously served as managing editor, news editor and staff writer for the Review.

A parishioner of St. Ignatius in Baltimore, she and her husband have three adult children. Her first novel, “Divided Loyalties” (Black Rose Writing), a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, was published in 2017.