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Great Living Cincinnatians: Honorees

Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.

Sister Sally Duffy, SC

Awarded In 2024

Sister Sally Duffy’s 40-plus years of advocacy and service as a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati might look like a career to the secular, but to her, it is much more than that.

“It’s not a career,” said Duffy. “It’s a ministry. Because you’re mutually doing what you and the Sisters of Charity Community feel like God is calling you to.”

The middle of nine children, as a young child, she knew she was Irish, Catholic, and a Democrat (her father John was a Franklin County Municipal and Appeals Court judge). And she was interested from the outset in helping others.

“My parents definitely put a focus on the common good and that’s the reason we’re here, is for love and justice,” said Duffy. “To make the world a better place for everyone.”

She began as a girls’ basketball coach while she was in high school herself, and then, while a sophomore at now Ohio Dominican University, helped found the girls athletic program at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus. She graduated college in 1971 and then became the girls’ athletic director at Bishop Watterson, before moving onto coaching women’s basketball at Notre Dame University. Being called to religious life was not on her radar.

Duffy’s father passed away suddenly and young – just 52 – in 1969. Duffy was left grappling, working out her relationship with God, struggling to remain in conversation with God.

“While at Notre Dame in 1976 a grace-moment from God helped me to conclude that God didn’t cause my father’s death,” said Duffy. “My father was now enjoying eternity, eternal peace and joy and every tear wiped away. So it was more of resolving that his eternal life was better than the void, the emptiness and the loss I was experiencing.”

While at Notre Dame, she was taking doctoral classes in counseling psychology – she had received her master’s from Xavier University in guidance and counseling – with the hopes of getting a doctoral degree. As a student affairs staff member, she was also able to audit classes, and she began attending theology courses.

“One of the classes was called the Autobiography of God,” said Duffy. “The professor, John S. Dunne, was a Holy Cross priest, [and] had a quote from Pascal: ‘The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.’ It made me look at the pattern of my life, and the pattern seemed to be clear. I was always being pulled to a larger group of people, rather than just a particular person. I enjoyed time to serve and to pray.”

Religious life offered a synergy in the heart for Duffy. However, the path she did not take had its appeal, to continue working at Notre Dame, and Title IX had recently been enacted, offering all kinds of potential opportunities for her career.

“The circumstances seemed to be saying, ‘Go for it,’” said Duffy. “And then there’s this other part in my heart saying, ‘Let God lead and follow your heart.’”

So she did. In 1977, she left Notre Dame University and joined the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. This Women’s Religious Community was founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint and familiar to almost all American Catholics, and responsible for the advent of Catholic education in America.

It was a literal leap of faith.

“Anytime one of us embarks on a commitment, the unknown is there,” said Duffy. “I love that song by Garth Brooks, The Dance, [with the lyric] ‘I wouldn’t have missed the dance’ – because we don’t know how things will end, but if we don’t do it, we’re missing the dance. God was leading the dance.”

Duffy’s dance later led her to Colorado Springs and earning a master’s in public administration from the University of Colorado, and working for the Penrose-St. Francis Health System. In 1990 she was asked to serve at St. Mary-Corwin Regional Medical Center in Pueblo, Colorado and became president and CEO. While on sabbatical in Chicago, she also earned a master’s of divinity in 1998 and served as VP Student Affairs at Barat College.

In 2000, Duffy was asked by the late Sister Maryanna Coyle, then president of the SC Ministry Foundation in Cincinnati, if she would come to the foundation, as Sister Maryanna was looking to retire in a few years. Two of Duffy’s sisters were in Ohio, one with a special needs child and one recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

“Maryanna’s asking me to come, it just seemed…providential,” said Duffy. “Like God calling me.”

In one of those little twists of irony that can make even non-believers take a second glance, Duffy’s employer in Chicago, Barat College, was in the process of being merged into DePaul University, which wanted her to stay. It is ironic because Elizabeth Ann Seton wrote the rule for the Sisters of Charity – which was based on an American lens of Vincent DePaul’s rule.

“There was a tie there,” said Duffy. “Because the merger was finalized, it just needed to be implemented, and I had been part of the group that had been working on finalizing the merger, so it just seemed like, this is a good time to return to Ohio.”

Duffy found her master’s of divinity to be excellent preparation for the administration of her duties as eventually president of the SC Ministry Foundation, a public grant-making organization that promotes the mission and ministry of the Sisters of Charity.

“It was three years of studying theology, spirituality, and social justice, all of that intersects with what you’re trying to accomplish and fulfill in the mission of the SC Ministry Foundation,” said Duffy. “We put a real emphasis on advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, making sure immigrants had legalization services, ending the death penalty was a focus, looking at the systemic or root causes of poverty. Certainly providing programs that address poverty, but really, we are not going to program our way out of poverty. We must ask who is winning, losing and deciding in our society and who is deciding who is winning and losing in our society.”

Poverty was a cause that remained close to Duffy’s heart even after she retired from the Foundation in 2017. She was a co-chair of the Children’s Poverty Collaborative, an initiative established with the successful goal of reducing poverty locally for 5000 adults and 10,000 children. She is serving or has served on several boards, including TriHealth as their corporate secretary, Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority, and as a founding board member of Price Hill Will. She also serves as a consulting member for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and on the development committee for Catholic Charities of SW Ohio.

In 2017, Duffy was named an Enquirer Woman of the Year. In 2022, she was among the group of women honored by Notre Dame University on Title IX’s 50th anniversary for helping pave the way of success for the university’s women’s athletic program. This year, she’s adding Great Living Cincinnatian to the list.

“I was a little shocked,” said Duffy. “It’s not something I wake up every day and think about. I am just trying to do my part to make the world a better place and to do what God’s asking me to do. And I’m one Sister of Charity. We believe where one Sister is, we all are. And so for me, I think this is hopefully a recognition of what the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati have, are and will continue to do for our city, our region and nationally.”

 

Nominate a Great Living Cincinnatian

Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization