DUARTE — 'Everybody has a talent. God gave me a talent with bricks.'
--Mother Margarita Maria Chairman, Board of Governors Santa Teresita Hospital
She is frail in body now. She struggles--like someone carrying a load of bricks, perhaps--to get from her wheelchair to her desk. The doctors have even interrupted her lifelong custom of arising for prayers at 4:30 every morning.
"They said they don't want me up so early," shrugged Mother Margarita Maria, a tiny figure in flowing nun's habit, seemingly barricaded behind an oversized desk stacked with papers. "Now I get up at 6."
The robust personality of the 83-year-old mother superior still cuts a wide swath in the quiet domain of Santa Teresita Hospital, which she helped found more than 56 years ago as a tiny tuberculosis sanitarium in the middle of an orange grove.
In her office in the convent on the 17-acre grounds of the hospital, Mother Margarita, her round face jutting from the tightly wrapped wimple of the Carmelite order, is still very much the restless executive, with too much to do in too little time.
Rushing Amid the Clutter
"Look at all this mail," she said, raising her hands helplessly, mirroring the picture on the wall behind her of Pope John Paul II spreading his arms wide in benediction. "It looks like I'll never catch up. Not till after Christmas."
She rustled through the clutter in front of her, sent an assistant scurrying away on an errand and handled a telephone call with disarming abruptness, whisking the caller away with a series of gentle negatives.
Then, between anecdotes about her origins in Mexico and the vicissitudes of building a hospital from scratch, she punched a number into the phone.
"Sister, do you happen to know the whereabouts of that publication I had yesterday?" she said, pleading in slightly accented English. "I can't find it anywhere . You know, the one on hospital bankruptcies?"
These are tough times for hospitals, especially the medium-sized ones like Santa Teresita. The competition from major medical centers is stiffening, Medicare and Medi-Cal reimbursements are a lot leaner than they used to be and, like other industries in the throes of government cutbacks, the hospital industry as a whole is undergoing a major shakedown. According to the American Hospital Assn., 61 hospitals closed in the United States last year, 67 the year before.
Santa Teresita also has gone through some lean times in recent years, according to Sister Mary Ann, the hospital's administrator for the past year and a half.
With many of Santa Teresita's 283 beds standing empty, the hospital charted a survival course in the early 1980s. The plan, said Sister Mary Ann, was to modernize the hospital's medical facilities, diversify services, entice doctors to a five-story medical center and go after patients like a salesman selling encyclopedias.
Although the hospital still suffers from some financial ills, the plan apparently has worked, with a little help from the Carmelite Sisters, 65 of whom help to staff everything from the operating rooms to the public relations department.
"Compared to a lot of other hospitals, we have a much greater chance of survival," said Sister Mary Ann, who in the past two months has overseen the opening of a new surgical wing and a 21-bed unit for the care of comatose patients.
Mother Margarita, despite the circulatory problem she calls "the trouble with my legs," is smack in the middle of the effort to shore up her dream. Although she stepped down as the hospital's administrator three years ago, she still chairs the board of governors, oversees all the construction and renovation projects and heads the endless drive to raise funds.
Despite her advanced age, her colleagues say, she is still the hospital's driving force and its spiritual center. A miracle worker? "She must have a connection with somebody," said Duarte City Manager Ken Caresio. "The accomplishments have been just tremendous."
Mother Margarita, a short, bespectacled woman who gestures a lot when she talks, reacts to such talk with a dismissive shake of the head, finding her own efforts far from miraculous.
"I could say, 'I have a headache,' and take two aspirins," she said. "I get rid of the headache, so it's a miracle."
The real secret, she teaches her fellow Carmelites, is to find solutions through hard work and prayer. Explained Sister Mary Ann, who was trained by Mother Margarita for her present post: "One of the maxims she passes on to us is, 'Work as though all depended on you; pray as though all depended on God.' "
But there was always a strong charm factor at work there, too, friends say. Mother Margarita's powers of persuasion have become legendary, both in the Los Angeles Archdiocese and in the cities of Duarte and Monrovia.
'Can't Turn Her Down'