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Sister Marie Celeste Sullivan, pioneer among female health leaders, dies at 87

Sister Marie Celeste Sullivan was the last of her kind — a nun who served as chief executive officer of Tampa's St. Joseph's Hospital when it was under the management of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany.

She is credited with the Catholic hospital's first expansion, from Seventh Avenue to its current site on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. She pushed for the purchase of the Women's Hospital across the street, and John Knox Village, a retirement community on Fletcher Avenue.

Sister Sullivan died Wednesday, Sept. 7, at the motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany in New York. She was 87.

Up until a few weeks ago, she remained a resident of John Knox Village, a continuing care retirement community.

"She was looked up to in so many ways," said Monsignor Robert Gibbons of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "She was a leader for the Franciscan sisters. She was a community leader. And she was a leader in the business community."

For her efforts in the expansion of St. Joseph's, she was named the Woman of the Year by the Network of Executive Women in 1987.

"She was a visionary, for sure," Sister Joan Carberry of St. Paul's Catholic School said. "Not afraid to take risks."

The daughter of Daniel and Katherine Sullivan, she grew up in Boston. She spent her early adulthood as an assistant to the administrator at the Children's Medical Center in Boston.

Then at 23, she pledged her life to the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany.

During that era, the Franciscan orders were dedicated to opening and operating Catholic schools and hospitals throughout the country, Gibbons said.

"They were either teachers, nurses or administrators," he said.

Sister Sullivan remained in the medical field.

In 1954, she was named business office manager of St. Joseph's Hospital in Providence, R.I., then in 1962, she moved to Tampa, where she was initially the assistant administrator, then administrator and ultimately CEO of St. Joseph's Hospital.

"Women did not have that type of responsibility then," Gibbons said. "She was special."

During her tenure, St. Joseph's grew from a single hospital into a health care company.

Besides purchasing the Women's Hospital and Knox Village, she led the construction of St. Joseph's Children's Hospital and bought the land that would become home to St. Joseph's Hospital-North in Lutz in 2010 and St. Joseph's Hospital-South in Riverview in 2015.

In 1994, she was named CEO of Allegany Health Systems, which, as part of the ministry of the Franciscan Sisters, owned the local St. Joseph's system.

Her replacement as leader of the St. Joseph's system was John Biebel, the first lay person to hold the position.

Sister Sullivan then played a role in the 1997 creation of the not-for-profit organization BayCare Health System when a group of area hospitals joined forces to better compete with a big national chain.

BayCare continues to operate St. Joseph's.

"Much of what we are today is a testament to her vision," said Kimberly Guy, BayCare senior vice president.

Sister Sullivan, Guy added, was "extremely successful in her efforts to improve the health of this community during the time when it was rare to be a female executive."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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