In life, very few people get the chance to turn down a million dollars, and Sister Estelle Demers is among that minority. In the late 1970’s she led an effort to establish a community health center in Edmonton, Canada, and she was quite serious about the
October 19, 2018
Sister Christine (Christi) Kancewick will never forget the girl she met while visiting a children’s choir rehearsal facilitated by a Medical Mission Sister (MMS) in Germany. The child was about ten years old and, when she realized that two of the Sister’s guests understood English and not German, she expressed concern to the Sister in charge. This prompted the group to include in their practice some songs they knew in English.
“To experience a child who was so sensitive to other people’s feelings was beautiful,” Sister Christi reflects.
Sister Christi would make many more cherished memories during her five-week visit to Germany as part of MMS’s Gathering of Newer Members (GNM), an opportunity for Sisters from around the world who have made Final Vows to connect with one another, often meeting for the first time. This year, they gathered in small groups at various missions in Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. Sister Christi, the only MMS from North America eligible to participate in this year’s gathering, began by visiting Sisters in the Ruhr region and was introduced to the mission involvements there. She then traveled to Frankfurt and joined a small group of GNM participants to experience the culture and MMS mission in that area – in particular, work with refugees, migrants and the homeless.
All the Sisters participating in the GNM then met at the Missionary Benedictine Abbey in Germany. The gathering, Sister Christi reflects, was a “rich experience of mission, deep prayer and discernment, living as a ‘witnessing community,’ powerful input sessions, along with treasured bonding experiences with other Sisters and a lot of fun and laughter during times of recreation and entertainment – learning each other’s dances, telling jokes, performing skits and sharing stories.” During their time together, the Sisters celebrated several birthdays and shared meals together. On a beautiful, bright Saturday they went for an outing together in Wurzburg, where they enjoyed visiting the “Landesgartenschau,” a large garden exhibition.
“Every day had special moments,” Sister Christi shares. “It was interesting for me to see a place I have never been in, like Frankfurt, and see it not only through my own eyes but be enriched by taking in and appreciating responses from other participants who have had different life experiences.” For example, while grocery shopping with other GNM participants in preparation for cooking a blended international meal, Sister Christi noticed something intriguing.
“When you are with a Pakistani Sister meeting a Pakistani vendor, you have a greater connection and very friendly experience,” she said. “It was also fun to be with an Ethiopian Sister and meet other local Ethiopians while waiting at a stop light or at a bus stop and have them help direct us to the stores with Ethiopian foods.”
To top things off, the Sisters enjoyed a day trip to the birthplace of our foundress, Mother Anna Dengel, in Steeg, Austria. “What a thrill to walk where she walked and to see some of the sights she looked at!” Sister Christi says, recalling the experience of visiting the waterfall where Mother Dengel often went to meditate. The Sisters had the added treat of visiting the Dengel family home and meeting Mother Dengel’s niece and grandnephew. That evening, they had a celebration with her family members and people from the village.
Before returning to their home countries, the Sisters agreed to stay in touch with each other. Shortly after arriving back in the United States, Sister Christi had her first “video chat” with one of the participants. Now as she prepares for her mission assignment in Uganda, she cherishes “the joy of being one with my Sisters from many other cultures,” an experience she describes as transformative.
On one of her trips to help with relief efforts in Kerala, South India, Sister Dolores Kannampuzha noticed something that struck her. Despite the country’s traditional caste system, she saw rich people and poor people working together and helping one another.
“That is why I say it was a ‘blessed flood,’” Sister Dolores reflected. “Throughout this time the unity of the people in prayer and helping each other was remarkable.”
Unfortunately, it is a blessing that came with a heavy cost. The floods started in July, caused by unusually heavy rainfall during the monsoon season. By the beginning of August, the government decided without warning to open the overflowing dams and the result was catastrophe. Thousands of people had no choice but to flee their homes without enough time to bring anything with them. The water level rose minute by minute, destroying or greatly damaging every building in its path. Of the more than 400 people who lost their lives, many were killed by falling debris and building collapses, while others died because they had no access to food and clean water. It is likely that the death toll would have been in the thousands if not for the prompt response of rescue workers. Thanks to social media, footage of the flood got out quickly and volunteers joined with fishermen, as well as government, military and navy officials to rescue people from flooded areas, register them in relief camps and find supplies.
On their trips to the camps, Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) were touched by the people’s resilience in the face of such great loss and uncertainty. In Kottayam, Sister Mary Joseph Pullatu observed that people were able to “smile even in their difficulties.” She met a family whose home was nearly destroyed by the waters, and most of their belongings ruined or greatly damaged. Still, the mother proclaimed: “We got our life back. We are healthy. We have everything we need.”
While some Sisters were busy bringing much needed supplies to the camp, others in the Ayushya community welcomed more than 40 people from the camps to take shelter in their facilities. When the government approved the Ayushya Center as an official relief camp the number grew to more than 70. For one week, the people practiced yoga, prayed and received health education, counseling and relaxation therapy.
Sister Theramma Prayikalam worked in the kitchen at Ayushya, helping to sort out provisions and ensure that enough food was provided. The work was exhausting, but she also found it meaningful. For those few days, she says, God gave her the inner strength to step outside of herself and forget the pain caused by her rheumatoid arthritis. She describes what for her was the most touching moment of the week, when the Sisters, staff, volunteers and their guests shared a meal and sang songs together during an Onam celebration.
Sister Theramma shares: “It was a very meaningful celebration as we reflected on how God’s intervention is being continued today, just as in the Onam legend, through the good will and dedication of people in a time of natural calamity and disaster.”
By the end of August, the water had receded in some areas and the people left to return home and face the daunting challenge of rebuilding their lives. Despite the hardships ahead, many expressed their gratitude to the Sisters and felt they had learned valuable life lessons from MMS and the other families they met during their stay.
Sister Elizabeth Vadakekara shares: “God’s invitation ‘fear not’ and the promise that ‘I am with you always’ is indeed a big consolation and keeps us going with renewed strength and enthusiasm.”
In this monthly blog series, we share tales of faith, ingenuity, and derring-do unearthed from the Medical Mission Sisters North American Archives. Please join us in re-living the expression of our charism in the early days of our organization.
There’s a phrase that almost all Medical Mission Sisters can be heard to utter from time to time. When faced with a difficult situation, the sisters often shrug and say, “What to do?” before diving headfirst into problem-solving. This good-natured acceptance of life’s trials is a trademark characteristic of Medical Mission Sisters. Today, we share the story of an MMS who embraced this grace while interned in a German prison camp during World War II.
Sr. Madeleine Sophie, born Louise DuVally, entered the Society in 1936. The 36-year-old from Providence, Rhode Island, worked as a boarding school nurse and housemother before joining the Medical Mission Sisters. With this background, she was assigned to be postulant mistress in the MMS house in Osterly, England in 1938. Within a year of moving to England, she was sent to Heerlen, Netherlands, to assist with the foundation of the Society there.
In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Life in an occupied country grew increasingly tenuous for Sr. Madeleine Sophie. At one point, she was given the opportunity to return to the United States through the services of the American consulate. She turned down the chance, unwilling to leave Sr. Eleonore Lippits, who was the only other professed sister in the house. In September 1942, Sr. Madeleine Sophie found herself interned as an enemy alien in a concentration camp in Amersfoort.
Amersfoort served as a transit camp, and Sr. Madeleine Sophie was interned there for six weeks. In her letters, Sister was optimistic and reassuring, even going so far as to make jokes about her circumstances. In a letter from October 23 she quipped, “We can do our laundry now. You would laugh if you could see the array of hankies and underwear spread out over the barbed wire.”
In early November, Sister learned that she would be transferred to an internment camp in Liebenau, Germany. “I am so glad we are leaving here,” she confided to Sr. Eleonore. “This is a place of horrors. One sees much, hears much and feels it all around one and one really learns the wretchedness of hate and fear but horrible stories and talking about it doesn’t help, one can only hold on in faith knowing God sees and it will all come to an end sometime.”
At Liebenau, Sister was relieved to find a much different camp. Whereas she was one of the only Catholic sisters in Amersfoort, in Liebenau she was surrounded by religious men and women, with a chapel and the opportunity to celebrate mass twice a day. She tended the sick, helped serve meals, and taught English to the other internees. “I offer this for all good things for you and our Society,” she wrote to Sr. Eleonore. “I can be a real missionary here with God’s help and only pray that I am and keep close to God in any circumstances.”
Sr. Madeleine Sophie was released from Liebenau in a prisoner exchange with Germany in January 1945. She sailed home on the Swedish ship M.S. Gripsholm, arriving on February 21. The sisters in Philadelphia were happy to see her again – but not as thrilled as she was to be home!
Sr. Madeleine Sophie DuVally’s experience during World War II is an example of how the MMS spirit can be expressed in even the most trying situations. As she wrote to Sr. Eleanor in November 1942:
“I find everything can be put to good use for God…I do not know when I may be able to come home, but if everyone prays for me, I shall try to be a good Medical Mission Sister.”
Submitted by Jenna Olszak, Archivist
At 23 years old, Calvin is the youngest member at New Jerusalem Now, an addiction recovery program in Philadelphia. The child of Cambodian immigrants, he doesn’t flinch as he recounts his parents’ story of standing in an “execution line” at a concentration camp. They don’t understand, he says, why he can’t overcome his drug addiction, just as they overcame their own struggle.
For the 30 or so of those recovering from addiction living at New Jerusalem, it’s just not that simple. Sister Margaret McKenna compares addiction to a desert. In her words, either “purification happens or you lose your life.” Many people in recovery don’t get it right on their first try, of course, and Sister Margaret accepts that. The good news, though, is that they have a better chance in her program. Studies have shown that programs like New Jerusalem which are founded on the concept of “addicts helping addicts” are more successful in preventing relapse than more traditional outpatient treatment.
Sister Margaret was introduced to this model for recovery after moving to North Philadelphia in 1989. She met Reverend Henry T. Wells who was running One Day at a Time, a program for those in recovery, and then decided to establish a program for repeat relapsers, a population that One Day at a Time wasn’t supporting.
Nearly 30 years later, Sister Margaret’s program, New Jerusalem, encompasses four houses, and a community garden that is spread out over a dozen vacant lots, tended to over the years by the hundreds of members who have come and gone and, in some cases, come back again. Members of New Jerusalem live in self-sufficient houses, pooling their wages and SNAP benefits, and taking on leadership roles. Don, who is a returning member and professional sous chef from Baltimore, finds joy and a sense of purpose in his role as kitchen coordinator for the entry-level men’s house, where he prepares three meals a day for residents.“It doesn’t feel like a facility, it feels like a second home,” Don shares. “A lot of people are re-discovering themselves; it’s eye-opening. It can be like looking at your own reflection in the mirror.”
Of course, there’s something else that sets New Jerusalem apart from other treatment programs- the Medical Mission Sister who founded it. New members soon learn about Sister Margaret’s passion for social justice activism. She takes the New Jerusalem residents out to marches, rallies and other political events.
Sister Margaret links political action to the overall recovery process, explaining: “It’s a very important dimension of human and spiritual life to be concerned about others and to root that in something that’s deeply interior to you.”
Indeed, a key part of recovery is helping members discover the selves they had previously masked with drugs and alcohol. At New Jerusalem, people have learned to read, have earned their GEDs, and gone on their first camping trip.
“The nature of our program is to embrace life and make it right,” Sister Margaret explains. “Getting a taste of a good, authentic life, of mutual support. We try to enhance life for others while advancing our own understanding in the process.”
July 16, 2018
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 as she learned to speak new languages and acclimate herself to new cultures. In many ways, music was a sort of therapy for her, a way of reconnecting with herself when everything else was foreign and confusing. Her passion in life now is to share that same form of healing with others.
In Sister Angelika’s therapy practice, clients might experience one of several healing techniques involving the use of sound, like the “sound cradle,” for example. In this experience, the client lies on their back in what looks like a canoe. On each side of the “canoe” is a monochord with ten strings that are played to elicit the sensation of being held, inducing images and leading to a spiritual experience of being loved and held in God’s hand.
“Music touches us on a deep level and evokes memories, emotions and different worlds,” Sister Angelika explains. “It helps us to connect with the spiritual ground in ourselves, with the cosmos, with God.” She describes what she does as soul work, helping people to discover their own personal “tone” and express inner thoughts and feelings that would be next to impossible to describe with words.
Sister Angelika reflects: “I rely on God being present in every person, and I trust in the healing power inside everyone.”
Like music, visual art also offers a mode by which to transmit our innermost thoughts into something tangible. In other words, Sister Eunice Cudzewicz explains, an artist tries to make the invisible become visible.
A graphic artist, Sister Eunice began exploring her talent as a young Sister when she was asked to do “paste-ups,” a method of page design that involves literally cutting and pasting words and images onto a poster. She looks back on those “olden days” with a chuckle, recalling how she sat at a table with a glue pot, a ruler and a T-square, making sure everything was as straight as possible.
Over the years, her work continued to evolve as she produced drawings and other creative images for various publications. She uses colors and shapes to create visualizations of love, hope and sorrow. When people ask her about the meaning of a given piece of her art – for instance, someone may ask “why did you use the color blue? What does blue mean?” – she will respond with a question of her own: “well, what does blue mean to you?” The way that Sister Eunice sees it, the meaning is always subjective – art is meant to give the viewer an insight into their own experience more so than that of the artist.
Sister Eunice shares: “I am of the opinion that the liturgy work I do, even [for our MMS publications], they’re all connected to spirituality- they are work that comes from your heart, your soul, that communicates on a level that’s deeper than the image or the words on a piece of paper.”
Tucked away in a back office of our North American Headquarters in Philadelphia, Sister Teresita Hinnegan is hard at work on a documentary film project that is perhaps the culmination of her years of work to fight human trafficking. At 90 years old, she may not have as much of a spring in her step as she did in her younger days, but her “fire and flame” for gender equality burns as fiercely as ever. It is her passion that drives her to continue raising awareness about the plight of women around the world.
On the surface, she and her film-making partner, Camille Whitsett, might not seem to have much in common. Now a specialist in sexual trauma for the Community Health and Rehabilitation Facility, Camille prides herself on the scrappy streak she inherited from growing up in rough-and-tumble North Philadelphia. The two women’s worldviews inevitably clash from time to time, but they make a point to always hear each other out when they disagree. From behind their laptop screens, they laugh and banter through what can at times be a very tedious research process.
Interestingly, they have wildly different stories of how they became involved in the fight to end violence and trafficking. After retiring from a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Sister Teresita helped to co-found Dawn’s Place, a center for trafficked women, in 2007. During that same year, she also opened the Center for the Empowerment of Women in Philadelphia. Since then, she has been an active voice in the struggle for human rights.
Meanwhile, Camille was living in Italy. One day as she strolled through a piazza, waiting for a friend to return from running errands, she noticed a strange man following her. When he finally approached her and began speaking to her in Italian, she noticed that he had a foreign accent. She would later find out that the man was from Albania, a well-known source country for human trafficking, and that he lived in a house with two foreign girls who were undocumented. Even without that piece of information, her gut was telling her that something wasn’t right, that she needed to get away from this strange man.
He knows I’m here by myself, she thought. Luckily, just as she noticed that the man was not alone, her friend finally appeared. She could never confirm for sure that the strange man was involved in trafficking, but the mere possibility that she may have had a brush with such a terrible fate was enough to leave an indelible impact on Camille. When she returned to the United States, she began volunteering at Dawn’s Place and was introduced to Sister Teresita at a local Salvation Army.
Over the last five years, they have worked together on various projects like training hospital workers to recognize signs that a patient has been trafficked. The idea to create a documentary came about last year when Sister Teresita was contacted by a friend who works in production. After reading countless books and articles, she and Camille are now preparing to interview men involved in anti-violence programs.
Sister Teresita explains: “At the present time we’re looking at causes- the demand not only for prostitution, but also the relationships between women and men, the cultural context, how men dominate women. When boys grow up, what happens to them? How are they conditioned by culture, by history?”
Through these interviews, they hope to learn what information is most effective in counteracting the messages that teach young boys to be violent from an early age.
“Empathy is a character trait,” Camille reflects. “People aren’t born to be angry and nasty and malicious toward each other. It’s all learned.”
When a Medical Mission Sister (MMS) invited Bonnie Templeton to a Sunday liturgy back in the late 60’s, she couldn’t believe her ears when, as she drove up to the building, she heard bongo drums, guitars and tambourines.
“It wasn’t like any music I’d heard in a church before,” Bonnie said. “I felt right at home and I’ll never forget that.”
Life soon took Bonnie all around the country. A native of Northeast Philadelphia, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing and started working for the Air Force, where she met her husband, Monty. Bonnie ultimately retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1995, having served as a civilian nurse in a total of eight states and, for a little while, in England. After retirement she spent ten years establishing and promoting satellite hospices in Montana and South Carolina.
Throughout her experiences, Bonnie never lost the connection she felt with MMS. As a nurse, she identified even more strongly with the Sisters she’d met while volunteering at MMS in high school, helping to pack medicines to ship overseas.
“MMS were in my backyard,” she said. “I felt like I’ve always been a part of their landscape. I’ve always thought about the beautiful liturgies I was exposed to.” No matter where she went, she kept copies of MMS music with her. She has always been especially fond of “Joy is Like the Rain” by Sister Miriam Therese Winter.
While Bonnie and her husband were visiting in Philadelphia in 2014, she took him to the MMS headquarters. There she ran into Loretta Whalen, who told her about the Associate membership program she had helped to start. That conversation with Loretta never left the back of Bonnie’s mind. In fact, her curiosity grew stronger, so she started researching Associate membership and even attended an Associate commitment ceremony. Her husband, who was a member of the Vincent de Paul Society that offers services to those in need, was also considering becoming an Associate before he passed away in 2016.
Bonnie currently lives in her husband’s home state of South Carolina. She serves as a eucharistic minister for St. John the Beloved, taking communion to Catholic hospital patients. Three times each month, she volunteers as a “docente,” or tour guide, who explains the origins of monastic life at Mepkin Abbey.
When Sister Jeanette McDermott speaks of eco-spirituality, her thoughts gracefully dance from theological perspectives of the intellect to body memories of running down the grassy slopes of her childhood farm, gathering in the cows for milking. Her connection to the earth was cultivated by her father who would show his children a clump of clover he pulled from the ground: the rich soil, the earthworm who cleanses and aerates the dirt, the leaves that feed the cows. Sister Jeanette remembers the symbiotic relationship her family had with the cows, her appreciation for an early morning barn, warmed by the bodies of the cows, who needed to deliver their milk. “The connection with Earth is in my blood,” she says, and then she goes on to describe her understanding of the ongoing evolution of God, of our human evolution as God’s created, and how we are all one – humans, animals, plants, water. We are “sitting on the edge of the mystery,” Jeanette says, “if we don’t stay aware, we miss it.”
Around the globe, our Sisters and Associates of all ethnicities, ages and backgrounds are bound together by their connection with the Earth that sustains us. Like Sister Jeanette from North America, Sister Pauline Sadiq also grew up on a farm. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of her contact with Mother Earth – crawling around in the clay, playing in it and using it to make toys. In her native Sindh, Pakistan, being a farmer’s daughter wasn’t something that people thought she should be proud of – it was associated with poverty. But now she feels pride when she remembers her father walking across the clay with bare feet to bring home fresh, organic vegetables. His connection to Mother Earth made him a gracious, peaceful person and Sister Pauline is proud that he passed his eco-spirituality on to her.
Sister Pauline reflects: “It is part of my heritage. It flows in my blood stream and I carry it in my being. I am grateful to our Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) for making me aware, affirming my roots and enlightening my spirit with the values and richness of being the daughter of a farmer. It means a lot to me indeed!”
Reflecting on the “special purpose” God has in placing the precious gift of Mother Earth in the hands of its living creatures, Sister Seema Bhalrai of South India suggested some simple ways that we can fulfill our purpose in an age when our planet is suffering more abuse than ever before. Aside from perhaps planting more trees or taking time to educate others, we can also help by merely changing some of our daily habits – we can drive a little less and take more walks, use a little less water, turn off the air conditioner and open a window instead. By respecting Mother Earth, we also show respect to the other living creatures living here in communion with us.