It was clear to Mother Anna Dengel when she founded our Society in 1925 that the Catholic Church needed to evolve to have a greater impact in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and, as our Society has grown, so too have we evolved. The establishment of non-canonical Associate membership more than three decades ago has allowed Medical Mission Sisters to have greater impact by incorporating lay persons who, as described in official Associate literature, have a desire “to serve the people of God according to the mission, philosophy and charism of the Medical Mission Sisters,” making an official commitment to “extend the healing mission of the Community within the context of his/her ordinary life.” In the following article, we happily share the healing stories and reflections of three of the many gifted and devoted members of our Associate community.
Every year in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Associate Dr. Marian McDonald joins other local women at Little LeHigh Parkway for the Women’s 5K Classic run. Emblazoned on the front and back of Marian’s shirt, and even on the sleeves, are the signatures of more than 50 of her patients who have survived cancer. Running to promote fitness among women, as well as to raise money and awareness for breast cancer, Marian shares that “getting to the finish line is an affirmation that we’re all not just still alive, but we’re all living in health and happiness and peace.”
Following Mother Anna Dengel’s call to be a healing presence in the heart of a wounded world, Marian made a recent trip to Peru, where she performed 60 surgeries. Some patients travelled six hours by bus to see her. She felt pride when community members asked her about the cross around her neck, and she happily told them about Medical Mission Sisters (MMS).
Marian’s story reflects the experiences of so many Associates who, because of their connection with MMS spirituality, have joined our Society as non-canonical members.
Conversation about developing an alternative membership program began in the mid-70’s, when the MMS Sector Assembly launched a committee to investigate the possibility, conducting interviews with members of other congregations, people who were formally committed to a religious community, former members of our Society and the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Around this same time Rita Engelhardt, a former MMS who left the Community in 1967, was reunited with Sisters and former Sisters at our Society’s 50th anniversary commemoration. The energy she felt was electrifying and, at the end of the celebration, Sister Mary Louise Lynch made a request that she would not forget. “Rita, do something to keep this going,” she said. A resident of Atlanta, Rita got in touch with other MMS living in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas and, together, they formed the “Southern Gathering” who reunited annually.
The seed was planted, and in 1979, MMS leadership encouraged moving forward with Associate membership, stating in a Constitutional supplement that “there are different ways in which a person can become involved in the life and work of the Society.”
At a Southern Gathering meeting held at Red Top Mountain in the early 1980’s, Rita graciously accepted an invitation to join an affiliation committee, composed of MMS and 15 lay persons interested in affiliation. Soon afterwards, the group humbly committed themselves to the mission statement of the Society’s constitution and our seven Core Values, in addition to signing a Covenant that read in part: “we choose to live… with intention, in study, prayer, reflection and action… supported by the love we have for one another.”
In the following years, a process was developed in which applicants to the Associate program connect with a committed Associate or Vowed Sister and experience an orientation before eventually making their first official commitment. Today, the program is composed of men and women, living in countries around the world, who work in a variety of professions and, as described in the MMS Associate Handbook, “[integrate] their lived experience with the core spirituality of MMS – personal prayer, shared reflection, continued growth toward wholeness and participating in community.”
Writing from Venezuela, Associate Diana Reyes recently described the gritty realities that her students are exposed to. A computer science teacher and educational coordinator in a Jesuit education institution, Diana tries to apply the lessons she learned by witnessing MMS committed to helping the most vulnerable in society.
Diana shares, “I have learned from the Sisters that we need to give the best to our people, so the education has to be quality education. Accompanying [my students] has been a privilege for me. I have hope that I can gradually heal those wounds that block them and do not let them be free.”
Similarly, Marian McDonald, who plans to return to Peru in June, describes feeling inspired by the MMS charism of approaching the world with a “passion for life.” She shares that “my mission is to promote that wholeness and healing in all that I do, in all aspects of my life – medical, spiritual and personal.”
When ten-year-old Anila Sanil Kuthirankavil awoke to the welcome sensation of dry sheets against her skin, she couldn’t resist running up to Sisters Therese Cheruvallathu and Mary Sebastian with a grin on her face. After just three acupuncture sessions, her bed-wetting problem had halted.
Anila Sanil, who has Down’s Syndrome, came to Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Hospital from the Kottyam district of Kerala, South India. She learned to walk at the age of five, though her gait remained unsteady throughout the following years. In addition to experiencing chronic bed-wetting and excessive drooling, she had little appetite and frequent coughing fits and other ailments. Through continued acupuncture, each of her symptoms have diminished considerably and, after a brief relapse, she stopped wetting the bed completely.
Such is the case for each of the 14 children with special needs Sisters Therese and Mary care for in IHM’s alternative health department. The children have a variety of challenges, like the child who was 13 years old but had not yet learned to talk. Several were chronic bed-wetters. In each case, after acupuncture treatment, their symptoms improved or disappeared completely. The 13-year-old has even begun to speak a few words.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the thin needles used in acupuncture treatment re-balance the body’s energy, referred to as “Chi” in China and as “Ki” in Japan, that flows through passageways called meridians. Much remains unconfirmed about what precisely makes acupuncture work but, as demonstrated by the stories from our Sisters in Kottyam, the treatment has consistently been shown to correlate with an improvement in the patients’ symptoms.
Sisters Therese and Mary report that “improved quality of life of the children, happiness of the parents, job satisfaction of the staff, gratitude of the patients who receive timely financial assistance and joy of being able to reach out to the needy cannot be measured in physical terms.”
Like acupuncture, integrated energy therapy (IET) was developed to balance energy that flows through meridians in the body. As people progress through life and experience physical or emotional trauma, their energy pathways become blocked. It is believed that these blockages can lead to a decline in spontaneity, energy depletion and even disease. Instead of using needles, those who practice IET apply pressure with their hands on specific integration points where the flow of energy comes closest to the surface of the body.
When Associate Rita Maute was treated by MMS who operated the Center for Human Integration (CHI), she was fascinated by the power of holistic medicine. Shortly after she began studying different healing modalities and became a certified IET instructor, offering classes at CHI from 2000 until the organization closed in 2008. Since then she has continued practicing various healing modalities and visiting MMS in a local nursing home to offer her healing touch.
“It has been my passion to share this powerful healing modality which has helped me during the darkest time of my life when I lost my son Peter,” Rita shares. “I have witnessed profound healing also when working on clients who faced a variety of stress situations in life.”
In various missions throughout the world, MMS have embraced a holistic approach to healthcare. At the Ayushya Center in Kerala, South India, MMS host several programs to teach local people, especially youth, about “the rhythm of the universe.” Knowledge about earth is a crucial aspect to their psycho-nutrition cure camps, in which participants embark on a 40-day raw food diet, an approach that the Sisters call “fruitarian therapy.”
MMS at the Ayushya Center have found that this form of therapy allows the human body to use its own healing power, thereby healing itself from within. Raw foods like fresh fruits and vegetables clear toxins from the body, reduce acid levels and bring the alkali base to a higher level in the blood. Their approach is supported by several research studies from Calicut University’s department of psychology.
Reflecting on the youth who participate in Ayushya’s programs, Sister Eliza Kuppozhackel shares: “Value education takes place under these trees. The trees teach them to be interconnected, self-giving, loving, and caring. They listen to the singing of birds and various sounds in nature and learn to tune in to the rhythm and music of the universe.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some may consider it rude to decline a drink from their host but, for Sister Elaine Kohls, politeness would have been too risky. The water her Ethiopian hosts offered to her was from the local river and, while some people believed “it tastes better” than water from a well, Sister Elaine was more concerned about what might be in the river water.
When she arrived at Attat Hospital in 1984, Sister Elaine was troubled to find that many beds were filled with people suffering from preventable diseases. Ailments as seemingly benign as diarrhea, worms and eye infections were killing some and causing permanent damage for others. Patients who suffered from repeated trachoma infections- a condition that can cause the eyelashes to turn inward- experienced corneal damage and eventual blindness. Many of the illnesses people endured could have been prevented if they drank clean water. Even the trachoma eye infections were an indirect result of unclean water, since the water attracts flies that spread the bacteria.
“Changes in the ways of doing takes time,” shares Sister Elaine. When Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) first arrived at Attat Hospital in 1969 and offered their neighbors clean water from their freshly dug well, their efforts were initially met with resistance. Over time, and with Sister Elaine’s determination and persistence, the first village well was completed in Koromea Village in 1986, and today there are 133 safe water sites in and around Attat, serving an estimated 144,300 people. With the water project, along with pit latrine use and public health outreach, the diseases that had plagued so many have declined with each passing year.
Sister Elaine recalls: “At first, as the program was started, we were told, ‘the children no longer die.’ As the program developed… we were told, ‘even the old people don’t die!’ Now we are told, ‘the poor do not get sick any more often than the rich!'”
Throughout the world those made poor, especially those who live in rural areas, are often at risk for diseases that could be prevented with clean water or, in other cases, with modern vaccines. In the mountains of Peru, a measles epidemic had intermittently attacked the pueblos of Caylloma since the 17th century. With each outbreak, nearly an entire generation of children would perish.
Until the 1980’s, the Peruvian government’s efforts to provide vaccinations to rural areas had been disorganized and ineffective, according to Sister Pat Gootee, who accepted the government’s invitation to oversee what would turn out to be a successful vaccination program.
A previous vaccination team had failed to warn people that a temporary sore would form in the injection spot, and parents were suspicious and fearful. Sister Pat recalls a few instances in which a child would run up to her and ask her to quickly give them an injection, before their parents could catch them. For one year, Sister Pat and a group of volunteers traveled around the entire province, building trust and administering the vaccine. As the women and men discovered that she was indeed someone they could trust, Sister Pat and her team were able to end a nearly 400-year-old plague.
Today in Pakistan, where federal funding for vaccinations isn’t always so easy to come by, MMS in the Lahore Community are nevertheless working against the odds to reduce the nation’s childhood mortality rates, offering a nutrition program as well as vaccines to fight diseases like tuberculosis, polio, measles, diphtheria and hepatitis B.
In so many ways, Medical Mission Sisters continue to carry the torch of MMS’s four founding Sisters, who carried the fire and flame in their hearts, and were determined to bring health and healing to those most in need.
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.”
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.
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 community aspect. Sister Estelle, a seasoned missionary, understood the importance of ensuring that the people she served were an active part of her mission work. When a funding group offered a million-dollar donation in exchange for ownership of the health center she wanted to build, she knew that the risk of losing community involvement would be detrimental to the center’s effectiveness.
Ten years earlier, Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) were having serious discussions on how we are to be a healing presence in the world. It had become clear that the old way of doing mission – going into a place and working to fulfill the needs of its people – was in some ways a byproduct of a “culture of domination” in which people from developed countries, intentionally or otherwise, impose their will on people from marginalized societies.
“We had to be liberated from the idea that Westerners have all the answers,” Sister Estelle explained. “What we perceive as the right way of doing may not always be the only right way. There can be many right ways.”
Sister Estelle recalls consulting with African witch doctors who, despite their reputation in some circles, are trusted in their communities for providing effective herbal and psychological remedies. Similarly, midwives are trusted for their wisdom and experience. Instead of disrupting these norms, MMS could help build on their effectiveness by teaching doctors and midwives better antiseptic procedures to prevent unnecessary infections, for example.
“That’s what happens when you are a partner in mission,” Sister Estelle reflected. “The people are enabled to develop according to their needs, their priorities, their potentials and their resources available to them. Their involvement evolves according to their authentic cultural possibilities – their social, religious values, their hopes and aspirations. So, their culture changes as they change, but it changes in a way that matches who they are, not that matches us.”
In the decades since the 1967 General Assembly, our Sisters and Associates have experienced the undeniable fruits of community partnership. The Core Aspects of MMS Spirituality, a booklet published in 2001, includes a reflection that describes the tremendous effect of relationships developed with those of other cultures, languages and religions. The writer says, “Despite visible disparities between the rich and the poor, the “poor” have much to share in their own way and culture: they have taught us how to share freely from whatever is available, how relationships are more important than things, and how to live in trust of God’s providence.”
Beyond merely transforming communities themselves, mission partnership has contributed greatly to the personal growth of our Sisters and Associates. In our next edition of e-news, we will share the story of Sister Joan Foley, who spent ten years working as a lab technician and helping to train people in lab work at Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, before eventually helping to facilitate the hospital’s turnover to the local board. In a recent interview, Sister Joan reflected: “Rawalpindi was my most rewarding mission experience because of the development of people and my development.”
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.”