One of Mary Heinen’s nieces said her aunt “was kind of like the third parent, the fun parent.”

It’s a family perspective on a woman who also was a nun and a health care educator and executive who led her religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet, St. Paul Province. Sister Mary Heinen died on Jan. 1 at age 81.

“She took me to my first couple of rock concerts back in the day,” said Jane Velde, one of Heinen’s 13 nieces and nephews. She also recalled many sleepovers and pool parties with her aunt, who helped raise her and her two brothers in the 1960s and ’70s.

Mary Heinen was born on May 14, 1933, in New Ulm. She was the fourth of five children of Arthur and Clara Heinen. She graduated from Holy Trinity High School in New Ulm in 1950 and joined the St. Paul Province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1951. At that time there were about 1,100 sisters in the St. Paul Province; by 1990 the number had shrunk to 557, and currently there are 228.

In Heinen’s early days, young nuns were assigned to professions by their superiors and Heinen was assigned to nursing, where she went on to have a long career as an educator and administrator.

In 1958 Heinen earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul; a master’s in nursing and nursing education from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in 1963; and a Ph.D. in higher education and administration from the University of Minnesota in 1975.

Early in her career she worked as a nurse’s aide or nurse in a number of hospitals including St. Michael’s Hospital in Grand Forks, N.D.; St. John’s Hospital in Fargo, N.D., and St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

The Sisters of St. Joseph’s owned and operated St. John’s Hospital in Fargo and an affiliated nursing education program. From 1968 to 1971, Heinen established a nursing program at North Dakota State University by incorporating the CSJ School of Nursing in Fargo into associate and baccalaureate degree programs.

It was the first of several moves that Heinen helped facilitate as the order merged their programs and businesses with other religious or secular organizations.

According to her friend and longtime roommate, Sister Mary Madonna Ashton, a former Minnesota commissioner of health, Heinen made decisions in keeping with the principles of her order: “Go where the need is greatest.”

From 1980 to 1988 she worked as vice president for mission for the CSJ Health Care Corp. in St. Louis. “It was another important time in the history of hospitals,” said Ashton. “Hospitals were beginning to merge to form big systems.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph formed their own system involving hospitals from their four provinces. “She was instrumental in getting that organized and operating successfully,” said Ashton.

That network laid the foundation for Ascension Health Network, a collaboration involving the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and three other religious communities. Today Ascension is the nation’s largest Catholic and largest nonprofit health care system, with $16.6 billion in annual revenue and operations in 23 states.

In 1988 she returned to St. Paul, where she was elected province director. This included responsibilities for the province’s ministries in education, health care and social services.

“It was during her tenure that St. Mary’s Hospital was sold to Fairview,” Ashton said.

With proceeds from that 1991 sale, Heinen asked Ashton to start a group of neighborhood health care clinics around the Twin Cities to provide care to the uninsured. “She had very strong opinions about where we should be going with health care,” said Ashton.

Heinen later served as the director for advocacy and ethics for Carondelet Life­Care Ministries (the St. Mary’s Clinics) from 1992 to 2013. She also continued to serve on a number of boards and committees.

Aside from her work, Heinen’s other passion was her family. “Her family was her recreation,” said Ashton. “That was her chief hobby, doing things for them.”

She remained active with her nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren. Velde said she was practically the personal nanny to her 5½-year-old grandson. “She just cherished him.”

Heinen was found to have advanced cancer in September. She decided against pursuing chemotherapy or radiation treatments and died at the Carondelet Village in St. Paul cared for by members of her order and surrounded by family. Services have been held.