Partners in Mission Part II

Like Sister Estelle Demers who shared her insights in a previous newsletter, Sisters Jane and Joan reflect on the power of cultural exchange when it occurs in the context of community partnership rather than in the “culture of domination” in which those with power impose their will on those with less.

From left to right: Sisters Jane Fell, Evelyn Godwin and Joan Foley in the 1960’s with the tower of the Rawalpindi Hospital in the background.


Sister Jane Fell doesn’t think eating beetles is really any stranger than eating shrimp. She reasons, “You take it out of a shell, it’s got long legs and so on.” And once you try beetles, a new world of cuisine opens up to you, one where the menu features flying ants and locusts, as she discovered during her mission work in New Guinea.

Exposure to new foods is just one result of Sister Jane’s broader experience with cultural exchange during her years overseas. In her memoir, At Home in Many Worlds, she recalls her early attempts to learn Urdu while working at the Holy Family Hospital (HFH) in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, which included a humorous incident in which she confused the words for “feed” and “eat,” leading her to mistakenly advise a young mother to “eat” her baby.

While she was still completing her language studies, Sister Jane, a trained nurse, was put in charge of the hospital’s pediatric ward. She recalls the joy she felt in seeing critically ill children’s health restored. However, it was also her first time seeing children die. “I soon learned that, deeper than words, there was a universal non-verbal communication,” Sister Jane reflects. “I quickly came to understand that simply holding a grieving mother in a hug was more powerful than offering words of sympathy.”

In her memoir, Sister Jane recalls yet another important lesson from her time in Rawalpindi. She was at first alarmed by the sight of mothers attempting to crawl into bed with their babies or, more concerning, unhook their tubes and sleep next to them on the floor. Over time, however, their reasons for this behavior began to make more sense to her. “We’ve found out now that positive support from friends and family decreases the time in which someone regains their health,” she explained. “Their healing after surgery is much quicker if they are surrounded by love.” 

As was typical for MMS nurses at the time, Sister Jane also studied midwifery. She went on to eventually supervise five nursing departments, providing clinical supervision for nursing students and helping to train graduate nurses to become head nurses and department supervisors. 

Shortly after the 1967 General Chapter ushered in revolutionary changes for building community partnership, Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) in Rawalpindi developed a plan to train qualified community members who would later take over the Sisters’ positions. They also developed a governing board that would eventually become entirely composed of local community members. 

Sister Joan Foley, a trained laboratory technologist, and Sister Jane both trained their local counterparts in clinical laboratory and nursing service, respectively, to take over their positions at the appropriate time. 

For Sister Joan, this was quite an accomplishment considering that, when she entered MMS in 1954, she was certain that she never wanted to work as a teacher. However, after starting the HFH School for Laboratory Technicians, a two-year program, she found the experience rewarding and was touched by the bond she developed with her students; in some situations, she was even able to get to know their families. 

“It was an exciting challenge,” Sister Joan reflects. “The development of people was exciting. We took the best of what we knew professionally and certain elements of our culture and shared it with our counterparts. There was a combination of both cultures. I felt an enormous sense of trust.” 

In 1973, the decision was made to turn the hospital over and today HFH has evolved into a much larger hospital with 850 beds. The MMS positions on the hospital governing board were also replaced by competent people from the local community. 

Sharing a final reflection as she prepared to say good-bye to those at Holy Family Hospital, Sister Jane describes a time-honored Asian custom in which, before leaving, a person goes to each person he or she knows and asks to be pardoned for any faults that may have disrupted their relationship. Sister Jane recalls: “I first experienced this from an older, Pakistani doctor who was leaving Pindi Hospital, and I was deeply touched. Now it was my turn to honor this custom, and I was grateful that such a ritual was available.” 


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