WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sister Carol Keehan, who led the Catholic Health Association of the United States for 13 years as president and CEO and was a longtime advocate of health care reform, received the Spirit of Francis Award from Catholic Extension at the first dinner for the award to be held in Washington.

Pope Francis was among several church leaders who commended Keehan, a nurse and Daughter of Charity, during an awards banquet May 25 at the Library of Congress sponsored by the Chicago-based papal mission society that supports ministries in poor dioceses.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, conveyed the pope’s congratulatory message, which was read by Archbishop Christoph Pierre, papal nuncio to the United States.

The pope recognized Keehan, who leads the Health Task Force of the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission, for “her many years of dedicated leadership in continuing the healing ministry of Jesus Christ” in delivering and advocating for quality health care for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable.

The message also said the pope appreciates Keehan’s “generous service to the Holy See and her fidelity to the charism of St. Vincent de Paul, carrying out the apostolate of charity in ‘the consciousness that we are responsible for the fragility of others as we strive to build a common future,'” the message said, quoting his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti.”

Keehan’s time at CHA is noted for her backing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which expanded health care access to millions of uninsured people after weeks of debate in Congress and across the United States. Then-President Barack Obama specifically cited her support as key to passage of the legislation.

Time magazine in 2010 named Keehan as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” She also has been lauded by other organizations for her work in promoting access to health care.

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, chancellor of Catholic Extension’s board of governors, also attended the event.

“Sister Carol stands in a long line of consecrated women who have led the way in providing quality health care that leaves no one behind,” Cardinal Cupich said during the banquet. “To this day, she continues to show great leadership, advising the Holy See on health care issues, and most recently, cooperating with Pope Francis’ initiatives to educate the world about COVID-19 vaccination.”

Presenting the award, Father Jack Wall, Catholic Extension president, cited the strong connection between Keehan’s ministry and the mission of his organization.

“We both believe deeply in our vocation to live out the Gospel by transforming our society, our country and our world,” he said.

Prior to joining the CHA, Keehan served in various administrative and governance positions at hospitals sponsored by her religious congregation, including 15 years as president and CEO of Providence Hospital in Washington. She retired from CHA in 2019.

Catholic Extension said the award is inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis and its founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley.