A Dominican sister was one of the first to suggest providing free tattoo removal to former gang members in order to erase the visible ink markings preventing their re-entry into society.

“This was before Homeboy [Industries] was doing it,” said Sister Colleen Settles, OP, MA, referencing the Los Angeles-based charity that provides the service to former gang members. Sister Settles started her program in the 1990s. Today the program has grown into one of the largest free tattoo removal programs in California.

Getting creative to make real change is something that Sister Settles is known for. She’s grateful to Providence Health and Services for taking a chance on those sometimes strange-sounding ideas. “If you come up with a creative way to solve a problem, Providence would try to make it happen,” Sister Settles said. “It was a gift to work in an organization that trusted some crazy ideas.”

On Oct. 23, the Dominican sister flew in from Spokane, Washington, to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to accept the 2016 Excellence Award at the annual White Mass honoring health care professionals. During the award ceremony following an afternoon Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown Los Angeles, Sister Settles was honored for her outstanding commitment to Catholic health care in the archdiocese and the Midwest U.S.

In particular, Sister Settles is being honored for pioneering the establishment of the Parish Nurse Partnership program, where a community hospital partners with local faith communities to improve the health of the local residents. More than 30 churches in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys are part of the program to date.

During her 30 years of service in the medical field, Sister Settles — who currently serves as vice president of Mission at Providence St. John’s — has had a special concern for the poor and the vulnerable. Through her work at Providence, she has helped improve access for those who lacked health insurance or the money to pay for their care.

The White Mass event honors Catholic doctors, nurses and health care providers. Many medics attended the celebration dressed in their white medic coats. Suzanne Healy, LMFT, was also a recipient of the Excellence Award. She is coordinator for the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Dr. Gina Lawson, medical director for St. Luke’s Northland Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, received the 2016 National Catholic Doctor of the Year Award.

Archbishop José H. Gomez was the main celebrant for the White Mass. He thanked the attendees for their dedication to the poor and their suffering, while asking for the intercession of St. Luke, the patron saint of healers, and of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

“During her lifetime, Mother Teresa was the face of Christ to the sick and dying,” Archbishop Gomez said of the recently canonized saint during his homily. “She was a living proof that God hears the cry of the poor.” He added that the saint’s life “reminds us that when we are serving the sick, we are serving Jesus Christ himself.”

The Catholic perspective on service and care for the poor is more necessary today than ever, said Sister Settles, especially since the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. She added that the work of a Catholic health care professional will be “more difficult now than ever because the winds are blowing against us.”

Sister Settles said she believes that with proper chronic pain management and financing, people may change their minds about ending their lives. “What we never want is for someone to feel that they have to choose assisted suicide because of economics — because their family can’t afford for them to be sick anymore.”

She also believes in a proactive approach to dealing with future obstacles. “Catholic hospitals have to be excellent at palliative care, and not just for those [patients] who can afford palliative care.”

Still, she said, good health care goes beyond the role of doctors. “We have a responsibility beyond the hands-on care. We have an advocacy and lobbying responsibility.”

Sister Settles also has a message for Catholic medical professionals: “If you are working with the poor, you might not make as much as you would working for the rich, and yet you are able to live the Gospel message.”