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.
This past September, Medical Mission Sisters gathered on our Fox Chase campus to celebrate the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Society. As part of the celebrations, Sisters met in our community room to share tea, cookies, and memories of their time in mission. To inspire conversation, issues of The Medical Missionary, the Society’s first magazine, were placed on tables.
As Sisters chatted and casually flipped though the magazines, exclamations could be heard around the room. “Oh my goodness, that’s me!” a Sister would say, pointing to a grainy black and white photograph from the 1940s. Images of their shared past unfolded in the room – pictures of Sister-Doctors in surgery, eyebrows lowered in concentration, or smiling young women making first vows. These pictures hadn’t been seen in forty, fifty, even sixty years. For a moment, the Sisters were transported back to some of the most pivotal moments in their lives. This experience served as a reminder of what a valuable resource The Medical Missionary is, not only for Sisters, but also for scholars and students of Catholic medical missionary life.
The idea for The Medical Missionary was conceived in June 1927, less than two years after the Society was founded. At the time, there were several Protestant and Catholic missionary magazines in circulation. However, there were no Catholic medical missionary publications on the market. It was this niche that Dr. Anna Dengel and her budding Society hoped to fill. “We want our magazine to be a voice for non-Christian women,” she wrote. “In this purpose lies its special appeal, uniqueness and the justification to start a new magazine. Of course,” she added, “we also need it as a voice for our Society.”
Indeed, The Medical Missionary was a means of promoting the work of the Society. For $1 a year, subscribers received ten editions of the magazine. Each edition included eight pages of articles dedicated to Catholic medical missionary activities in India, Asia, and Africa. The magazine featured editorials written by Dr. Dengel, accounts from SCMM members in mission, articles by Catholic clergy, and even health reports for major hospitals and international cities. Perhaps the most striking aspect of these early editions were the honest, sometimes unsettling photographs of patients and people in need.
As the Society grew, so too did the magazine. No longer did Mother Dengel have to write the editorials; there were soon Sisters aplenty to contribute articles. With new missions established in India, Africa, and the United States, The Medical Missionary ran recurring columns such as “Twi Talk,” “Chits from India,” and “Profession and Reception.” In addition, the evocative photographs that peppered earlier editions were replaced by artwork created by the Sisters.
The 1960s were a decade of great change for MMS, and this evolution was reflected in the magazine. As the Society adjusted to life in a post-Vatican II-era, and the international world emerged from its colonial past, the magazine featured fewer but more in-depth articles about the Sisters’ work in mission countries. Poignant photographs were again used to highlight the Society’s need for both financial and prayerful support. In 1966, the magazine rebranded as Medical Missionary.
Despite winning several journalism and printing awards, the Sisters began to question the magazine’s efficacy and relevance. In 1968, editorial staff launched a readership survey to determine the future of the magazine. The response convinced the magazine staff that a format change was necessary. And so, the final edition of the Medical Missionary magazine was printed in Winter 1970. It was replaced in 1971 with a short newsletter simply entitled “MMS News.”
For our Archives patrons, The Medical Missionary is often the first step on the research journey. It is our best source for first-hand accounts of life in mission; of the public health struggles of the Global South; and the history of the entire Society. We even use it to help our Sisters rediscover friends from their earliest days in MMS! The recent Foundation Day events serve to remind us of the value of The Medical Missionary and our wish to share this important resource with the greater MMS community.