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Meet the Medical Mission Sisters

Missionary sister


Susan E. Wills - published on 08/13/14

This extraordinary religious community of MDs, nurses and related professionals are providing holistic healthcare to the underserved across the globe.

In the early 1920s, Doctor Anna Dengel served as the only physician for thousands of women and children in what was then Northern India (now Pakistan). Muslim customs did not permit women to be seen by male doctors and she recognized that the need was much greater than she alone could meet. She then took the unprecedented step of founding the Community of Catholic women doctors, nurses, and other health professionals—the Medical Mission Sisters (MMS).

In 1925, there was no precedent for Catholic Sisters to be physicians, surgeons, and obstetricians-gynecologists. To the contrary, there was a Church ban—under Canon Law—against it. It took 11 more years of petitioning Rome and demonstrating, by dedicated service, that “it could be done,” before the Church permitted Catholic Sisters to be engaged in the full range of medical work, especially in mission lands.

During the 86-year history of the Medical Mission Sisters, hundreds of these Sisters have helped millions of people in 43 nations.

MMS’s pioneering activities have included the following:

–    building and staffing hospitals and health centers
–    starting nursing schools and programs for nurse-midwifery training
–    offering vital health and nutrition education to mothers, so they would have healthy pregnancies and deliveries
–    monitoring closely the health and growth of children under five
–    caring for people suffering with HIV/AIDS
–    working towards justice for the poor and voiceless, at the U.N. and in local areas
–    creating ecologically-friendly work and living environments
–    being present to women who are imprisoned or trafficked

Mother Dengel encouraged the community “to prudently push on, not being rash, but not afraid either to dare something when it appears important in the building of the kingdom.” Following her example, the MMS continue to pioneer new forms of healing ministry wherever there is great need.

Here are just a few examples of the work of the Medical Mission Sisters.

Sharing life and ways to better health among the Maasai people in Loitokitok, Kenya

Sister Pat Patton from Tarrytown, New York, was in mission in Africa for over 40 years. From 1971 to 1982, Sister worked as matron at the first hospital in Maasai land, Loitokitok District Hospital in Kenya. The Bishop then invited her to establish a community health program in Ngong Diocese, which covers most of the tribal lands of the Maasai. “This meant preparing myself for an entirely different approach to health care, and combining health care with the development of people,” she explained.

The first step was to do a basic survey, to identify the primary health care needs. The community then selected the women and men they wanted to be trained as Community Health Workers (CHWs). Over 300 CHWs were trained in concepts of basic hygiene, disease prevention, and other health issues. They then went out and taught their individual communities what they had learned.

An integrated group from a number of areas in the parish also formed to address the problems of HIV/AIDS. “We decided to have a resource center, so that we could reach teachers, secondary school students, and the local population,” Sister Pat explained. “We started with a series of classes in our parish, and then we linked up with the Centers for Disease Control in Nairobi.” The center, Boma la Tumaini (House of Hope) was dedicated on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2004. 

Over 100 people come to Boma la Tumaini each month for testing. If they are positive, they are able to get anti-retroviral drugs through a private clinic. “The most rewarding part of working with these people is to watch women develop their leadership qualities. They start with health education, and go on to the development of their community,” says Sister Pat.

Sister Pat spent her last years in Africa working with FRIFAT (Friends Fighting AIDS together). FRIFAT is a support group of 60 HIV-positive persons that meet weekly for classes, sharing, and celebrations. They learn income-generating skills (bead making, sewing, etc.) and work on a communal farm. Some members of FRIFAT have been trained as community health workers, and other members have learned about home-based care. As a result, they have been invited to give talks at prenatal clinics in the hospital, and at youth group meetings and in churches.

Sister returned to the U.S. two years ago, knowing that she had left the Maasai people in and around Loitokitok with much-needed skills for a healthier life.

50 Years of Healing in Uganda

In 1962, Medical Mission Sisters arrived in the newly independent nation of Uganda, once known as the Pearl of Africa. They began their healing mission at Virika Hospital in Fort Portal, where they opened the first nursing school in Western Uganda. Sisters also began to hold regular safari clinics in the remote areas.

Seeing the great need among the people in far-flung areas, in 1979 they turned over the hospital’s management and built a small dispensary in Kasanga, a remote village in western Uganda. Sisters at the clinic treated thousands of people with tuberculosis, cholera, malaria and other diseases, and expanded their work into ten small clinics in outlying areas. Programs for education, immunization, nutrition, and mothers and children were all part of their work.
Eight years later, with the help of local parishioners they were able to begin another small dispensary in Rubanda, Uganda.

Their Primary Health Care program there now covers 45 villages and serves over 20,000 people. Patients receive outpatient, inpatient, lab, pharmacology and maternity services. Special support for adults and orphans affected by HIV/AIDS is also given.

The Sisters are also active in Kampala, the capital of Uganda and home of Sister Therese Tindirugamu, the Sector Coordinator in Africa. Sister Janet Harbauer has been in mission for over 20 years at Rubaga Hospital. Sister Josephine Nafula works at a “de-addiction center” and teaches at the Kibusi Brothers University College. Sister Mary Jo Grethel conducts retreats and psycho-spiritual workshops for Uganda’s priests, religious, and lay persons. Many of them know the Sisters, and some, like Bishop Robert Muhiirwa, were delivered by one of the Medical Mission Sisters.

One of the great blessings of their 50 years in Uganda is the number of new vocations. In 1969, Sister Speciosa Babikinamu, a midwife, became the very first Medical Mission Sister from Africa. More than 30 other women from several African nations have followed her lead.

Outreach to Poor Families in Faisalabad, Pakistan

Ministering in a poor neighborhood of Faisalabad is one of the hundreds of ways in which Medical Mission Sisters and their Associates around the world try to be a healing presence to others today.

in Faisalabad, the Sisters have seen the city grow as people have migrated there from surrounding villages to find work. Five years ago, the parish priest asked them to serve in one of the most neglected areas of the parish, Wazirkhanwala.

Sister Iginia John described it as “one of the most depressed areas of the parish, where the majority are daily wage earners, laborers, cleaners, and employed in other low paying jobs.” Many of the women are domestic workers, often taking their young daughters with them to work in the homes of Muslim families.

The Sisters surveyed the families in the neighborhood, who identified their needs as health care, skills training, and education for young people not going to school. Their team began a weekly health clinic, mostly for women and children, promoting prenatal care, immunization and child assessment. Home visits helped to encourage good health habits among families, and in identifying problems.

Under the leadership of Sister Iginia John, a sewing center and literacy program were started. The sewing center provides women and girls the opportunity to help support their families. Some of the girls who completed the literacy course have been able to begin fifth grade in the regular schools.

Sister Iginia also does pastoral work, preparing children for the sacraments and helping families plan for liturgical feasts.

Marking a Decade of Service at St. Luke’s in Wolisso, Ethiopia

Ten years ago, St. Luke’s Catholic Hospital and College of Nursing and Midwifery in Wolisso, Ethiopia, saw its very first patient. Sister Elaine Kohls, who has served as the hospital’s General Manager since it opened its doors on January 1, 2001, says, “Medical Mission Sisters were involved from the beginning, in the planning and the beginning of the hospital and college, along with other religious congregations.”

Serving a population of roughly 350,000 people, the hospital has more than doubled in capacity over the past decade. It now has 192 beds, and an outpatient department that sees over 300 patients each day. UNICEF has declared it an excellence hospital in the fight against malnutrition.

The college of nursing and midwifery – the only Catholic nurse’s training school in the country – has graduated hundreds of students and continues to offer two three-year diploma training programs. Sister Elaine explains, “80% of the people in Ethiopia live in remote, rural areas. The health coverage is about 50%, as there is inadequate infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals and basic health services… Ethiopia also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and is very much in need of trained and qualified midwives.”

Sisters from four religious communities minister at the hospital and college, which are owned by the Ethiopian Catholic Bishops Conference. The other member at St. Luke’s, Sister Maggie Lupiya, is a nurse-midwife from Malawi with a Bachelor’s Degree in community development. She serves in the Public Health Department, which is very active in both the hospital and in outreach sites.

Ensuring safe water is a priority for the health of the people, and Sister Elaine, with gratitude to many generous donors, says that there are now “27 completed hand-dug wells, 17 protected springs, and 7 boreholes in use serving over 90,000 people.”

To learn more about the life-saving work of the Medical Mission Sisters, please visit their website.

This article has been compiled from newsletters published by the Medical Missions Sisters, with their kind permission. All rights reserved.

AfricaCharityHealth and WellnessPakistan
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