Raised by devout Catholic parents in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sister Mary Jo Grethel realized as a child that she wanted to devote her life to God, she just wasn’t sure how. The answer came when she was in the 8th grade, after a close friend confided that she wanted to become a missionary. Almost instantly, Sister Mary Jo realized that she wanted to do the same.
Entering the Medical Mission Sisters in 1962 she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing, then began her first overseas assignment in Afghanistan, where she served as a nurse-supervisor and then as a program director in a new government nursing school.
Sister Mary Jo reflects, “That was exciting. It was my first mission abroad. My experience was fantastic. I will always hold it dear to my heart.”
After leaving Afghanistan in 1974, Sister began vocation work in Philadelphia. She later served 15 years in Ghana, first at a retreat center and later training catechists, after which she became MMS Vocation Director and served at the national level as Executive Secretary. In 1998, Sister Mary Jo went to Kampala, Uganda, where she would stay until 2017. There she was active in vocation ministry for seven years, taught nursing ethics and was involved with the Christian Caring Community that had an informal school for HIV/AIDS orphans. Today, Sister Mary Jo serves as Integration/Formation Coordinator for Unit North America.
Medical Mission Sister Maigualida (Mai) Riera del Valle, visiting from Venezuela, shared with our Sisters, Associates and staff in Philadelphia what is happening for our Sisters and their neighbors in her home country. Although Sr. Mai’s sometimes trembling voice expressed the emotional toll of seeing her neighbors in Barquisimeto suffer, she also described hope in the children singing in the Latidos Choir she founded and in the powerful experience of seeing neighbors helping neighbors.
Caption: Over 200 children from the barrio have joined the Latidos choir, bringing joy and healing to a neighborhood staggering under devastating hyperinflation and lack of resources.
Born and raised in the North Indian state of Gujarat, Sister Smita Pamar is a fearless activist in the fight against India’s oppressive caste system. Entering the Medical Mission Sisters in 2002, Sister Smita was later assigned to the North Indian city of Hajipur, where she works to empower the Dalits and Mahadalits who occupy India’s lowest caste system. Bravely, she has stood up to high caste authorities, demanding justice and, through her efforts to help local women develop leadership skills, Dalit women have begun to do the same. For instance, when a high caste man beat a low caste named Tuntun Manzhi so badly that Tuntun had to be hospitalized, Sister Smita and outraged local women marched for miles, some bare-footed with babies in their arms, to demand that the village council compensate the injured man.
Even though the council members were visibly furious about having to meet with people from a lower caste, the women refused to be intimidated. Sister Smita recalls feeling “deeply touched” by the sight of Dalit women speaking without fear. Thanks to their courage, the case was won and the council compensated Tuntun.
Sister Smita shares: “The women we work with have become fearless. They raise their voices whenever the need arises. My heart is dancing with joy, and it makes me humble and grateful to God for calling me and calling us.”
Associate Tom Sexton has been on a “search for self” for as long as he can remember, and says that he was a very idealistic young boy. He left his home in New Jersey at age 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps and, in 1959, he entered the seminary at St. Jerome’s College in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Although he left after three years, opting to finish his education at Villanova University instead of entering the major seminary, his experience contributed greatly to his spiritual growth. He later found a job teaching English and Latin at Pitman High School in New Jersey, where he discovered his passion for coaching cross-country. He accepted a job at Cheltenham High School in Philadelphia in 1966, eventually publishing a book about motivating athletes respectfully called Creating a Team Like No Other.
Tom has been married to his wife, Marge, since 1982. They both had children from previous marriages and lovingly embraced their new “blended family.” When the couple lost their beloved son Ron in 2015 they were both devastated, and Tom did everything he could to be a healing presence for Marge. He shares: “I can’t describe what an honor it is to be married to Marge and to know that I am making her daily life more peaceful and manageable.”
As part of her determined effort to transform her grief into a healing presence, Marge made her First Associate Commitment in 2017 and, in October 2018, Tom made his First Commitment. He shares: “I feel God’s love here. I feel very grateful that the Sisters allow me to worship here and to be a part of the Community.”
Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) in Hajipur, Patna, are working to secure education and financial support for seven recently orphaned Dalit children. Sister Smita Parmar says that the children were in shock when she visited them shortly after their parents’ sudden deaths. Collaborating with other local groups, MMS organized a program called “Help to Each Other” to provide the children with food, clothing and other necessities.
Caption: Sister Smita Parmar is pictured second from right in the first row, along with the children and others from their village.
In the early 1970’s, Sister Dolores Kannampuzha came upon a group of police officers in the town of Kottayam in Kerala, South India. Their batons raised, they were clearly intent on beating several local women engaged in prostitution. When Sister Dolores stepped in the way and asked them to beat her instead, the officers walked away.
“The war ended for the time being,” Sister Dolores said. “At that time what came to my mind was the Gospel story of the adulterous woman. The crowd and all those who came to stone her put down their stones and went back one by one. Jesus and the woman left at the end.”
Since entering the Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) in her native Kottayam, in 1952, Sister Dolores has devoted her life to helping the most marginalized members of society, including those incarcerated and those without homes. Since its founding in 1999, she has led the Cancer and AIDS Shelter Society (CASS), helping to spread awareness of AIDS/HIV as well as provide homecare and life-saving treatment. On a recent International Women’s Day, Sister Dolores was honored by the Kottayam YMCA as an outstanding woman in social work. In summer 2018, when South India was hit by a devastating flood, she and other MMS in the community opened their facilities to survivors and helped to distribute food, clean water and other supplies.
There was a time when Associate Dr. Erika Voss wrote secret letters to the Medical Mission Sisters. A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her parents worried about her moving too far away from home. After attending Marquette University and securing a summer job in the local County Hospital, she realized how strongly she wanted to be involved in the medical field. Eventually Dr. Voss’s parents accepted the idea of her leaving home and she entered MMS on her 21st birthday in 1949. She completed medical studies in 1956 at Georgetown University and afterwards served as a physician and surgeon in Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Pakistan and Uganda. In the U.S., Erika joined two other MMS in Rossville, Tennessee, helping the Poor People’s Health Council establish their clinic. In 1974 Erika left the official MMS community and, returning to Wisconsin, she spent six years in a rural community that had been without a doctor for twelve years. She later worked in an inner-city clinic which served the poor and volunteered at a medical clinic for those without homes. Now retired, Erika Voss has been an MMS Associate since 1984. Her activities center around helping with projects at a homeless clinic, being a medical consultant at a local food pantry, doing water quality testing in the river and gardening. She shares, “The two greatest gifts I have received in life are my two families: The one I was born into and Medical Mission Sisters.”
Medical Mission Sisters in South India are assisting relief efforts at flood camps in Kerala, India. They were able to access emergency funding from the Hilton Fund for Sisters, and went to the camps last week, helping in any way they could with the immediate needs of flood survivors, such as purchasing commodes for two paralyzed persons, and offering a healing presence to the families they visited.
As a child, Sister Angelika Kollacks moved from Canada to Austria, and then from Austria to Germany. Music and singing were the only constants in her life and they are still her passion today. After entering the Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) in Essen, West Germany, in 1972, she studied music and gestalt-therapy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1992, Sister Angelika went to Berlin with Sr. Michaela Bank to establish a counselling center to help lower-income people improve their level of wellness. She also worked as a music therapist for local women and, in 1995, she graduated with distinction from the Fritz-Perls Institute in Music and Gestalt Therapy.
Today, Sister Angelika has her own music therapy practice, where clients might experience one of several healing techniques involving the use of sound, like lying down in what looks like a canoe, which has ten strings on each side that are played to elicit the sensation of being held.
“I rely on God being present in every person, and I trust in the healing power inside everyone,” Sister Angelika shares. “Music touches us on a deep level and evokes memories, emotions and different worlds. It helps us to connect with the spiritual ground in ourselves, with the cosmos, with God.”
A native of Cameroon, Sister Evelyne-Mathilde Mballa was a healing presence long before she became a Medical Mission Sister (MMS). She earned social work degrees in Cameroon and later in France, where she eventually became a citizen. Through her positions with various governmental and nongovernmental agencies Sister Evelyne has worked with marginalized groups including migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, indebted individuals and families and HIV-positive pregnant women. She has also worked in child protection services and with those suffering from physical and mental disabilities.
When she first encountered Medical Mission Sisters in Ghana, their mission of being a healing presence resonated strongly with Sister Evelyne. She reached out to our Community, moved to the United States and joyfully made her First Profession of Vows in 2017. Today, Sister Evelyne is engaged in a “ministry of presence” in Camden, N.J., where she is a healing presence to refugees at Catholic Charities Services, helping them to settle into new apartments, teaching them English, and comforting their children as they adjust to their new environment.
“My heart is joyful and refreshed whenever I meet those kids,” Sister Evelyne reflects. “I am also filled with hope knowing that I am beholding the next American generation, because the integration of newcomers in America has been the soul of America and has built the American dream for centuries.”