Before They Were Sisters, They Were Soldiers: MMS in the United States Military

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.

Sister Agnes Hager, 1944.

Several of our Sisters are proud veterans of World War II.  Before “enlisting” in the Medical Mission Sisters, they served in the U.S. Naval Reserve (WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and of course, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC).  This wartime experience was transformative for the Sisters, and in some ways, started them down a path that would lead to MMS. 

The WAVES were established in July 1942 to release shore-stationed naval officers and enlisted men for overseas duty.  The women in WAVES filled a variety of functions for the U.S. Navy, including encoding and decoding messages, working in administrative positions, delivering mail, serving in hospitals and dispensaries, and working as mathematicians, technicians, and weather forecasters.  More than half of all WAVES were stationed in Washington, D.C. – including Sr. Agnes Hager, who served from 1944-1945.  Sr. Agnes, who completed post-high school studies in accounting, worked in administration and bookkeeping, and oversaw the linen department.

In addition to enlisted women, the WAVES also had commissioned officers.  Officers were required to have college degrees, or an equivalent combination of education and professional experience.  Sr. Helen Elizabeth Leary, a dietician from Reading, Pennsylvania, served as a WAVES officer from 1943-1945.

Sister Helen Leary, 1940s.

 Sr. Helen worked as Assistant Commissary Officer at naval stations in Illinois and Washington, D.C.                                                 

The U.S. Army had its own women’s branch, known as the WAC.  The WAC was founded in 1942 as an auxiliary unit and converted to active duty status in 1943.  WACs served in a variety of supporting, non-combat roles as mechanics, weather forecasters, cryptographers, drivers, and switchboard operators, among many other positions.  Sr. Rose Laliberte was a Sergeant in the WAC from 1943-1947.  Sister initially drove a shuttle bus in the Transportation Corps and was later promoted to command a platoon of WACs who served as technicians in an army hospital.

Sister Elizabeth Dougherty, date unknown.

Four of our Sisters served in the Army Nurse Corps.  The ANC was established in 1901, and its nurses were granted full military rank in 1944.  During World War II, army nurses were assigned to hospital ships, trains, and planes, as well as field hospitals, evacuation stations, and station and general hospitals.  Sr. Elizabeth Dougherty joined the ANC in 1943 and served in England, France, and the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI).  She and her fellow nurses worked in field hospitals set up in barns, tents, and schoolhouses.  When the War ended, she was transferred to occupied Germany, where she remained until being discharged in 1946.  Sr. Kathleen Fitzgerald served as a nurse in the ANC from 1943-1946.  Stationed in England at the 231st Station Hospital, Sister and her fellow nurses cared for Air Corps aviators and Army infantrymen.  Following the invasion of Normandy in 1944, the hospital staff managed to find dozens of additional beds to receive wounded soldiers.  On the other side of the world, Sr. Martin (Helen Mary) Heires served as an ANC nurse in the Pacific Theater from 1944-1946.  Stationed in both general and field hospitals, she cared for wounded soldiers following the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Sr. Karen Gossman enlisted in the ANC in 1945 and served on hospital ships in the Panama Canal Zone, the Philippines, and Germany.  She was discharged in May 1946. 

Sister Kathleen Fitzgerald, 1944.

Antithetical as it may seem, these Sisters’ wartime experiences provided job training for life as Medical Mission Sisters.  They experienced communal living in a mission-driven environment. They developed the ability to respond quickly in an emergency, be flexible, and “make do” under less than ideal circumstances.  These skills surely came into play when, as MMS, they worked in hospitals in Pakistan, Africa, Vietnam, and the United States. 

In the words of Sr. Elizabeth Dougherty, our MMS veterans “traded allegiance to the military army for the army of God.”  As Sisters and as soldiers, these women upheld an oath to heal others and serve with dignity. 



  1. What good research and well organized in this blog. I knew all of these Sisters–Sr. Kathleen Fitzgerald the best–and she is still with us.

    One personal reflection–I feel the article is more up-to-date without the last paragraph, i.e. last two sentences. I say this because the quote from Betty wasn’t accurate, our mission has evolved somewhat over the last 70+ years as the world has also changed.

    Again, thanks for a delightful presentation, including the photos.

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