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

01/28/2019 11:45 am

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. 


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Helping to Create a Healthy World

01/10/2019 4:35 pm

Sister Elaine Kohls helps with the final stages of adding cement rings to a well built in 1986 in an Ethiopian village, Koromea.

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.

Sister Pauline Sadiq teaches children in Pakistan’s Lahore community about the nutritional value of an apple.

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.

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Partners in Mission Part II

12/13/2018 10:28 am
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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The Medical Missionary: Our (Occasionally) Forgotten Treasure

11/28/2018 8:53 am

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.



Partners in Mission.

11/16/2018 7:57 am
Since building the first Medical Mission Sisters hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, MMS have sought the expertise of people in the local community. As our Society evolved, the benefits of seeking community involvement – and of developing working partnerships with community members – became increasingly evident, leading to a General Chapter meeting in 1967 in which a “great turning” occurred. In the first of an ongoing series about the experiences of MMS serving as “partners in mission,” we are excited to offer the observations Sister Estelle Demers has graciously shared about her encounters and lessons learned in mission around the world.

Sister Doctor Anke Boeckenfoerde enjoys a conversation with several of her Indonesian patients.

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.”


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Bonding Across Cultures

10/24/2018 3:38 pm


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.

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Overcoming Obstacles in Education

10/24/2018 3:35 pm
September 28, 2018


In many cases, a person migrating from rural Ethiopia to the city of Addis Ababa has a lot more to get used to than just living among 3.4 million other people. Back home, they may have awoken when the chickens did and went to sleep when the sun disappeared. They may have had no running water or electricity in their grass huts, let alone books. They may have even become addicted to chewing the popular narcotic leaf called khat, a stimulant that, among other side effects, can eventually lead to lethargy and difficulty concentrating.
Sister Carol Reed, who teaches English to many students who moved into Addis Ababa from the countryside, observes: “Their reality is just very different. They’re not stimulated and learning, they don’t have a custom of reading. Following a time table is an incredible adjustment. It just strikes them as completely foreign.”
In mission in Ethiopia since 2002, Sister Carol, who teaches English at Cathedral High School and St. Francis Seminary, found that many youths were learning only to memorize and regurgitate information, reading by memorizing what specific words look like without necessarily knowing how to distinguish one letter from another. To address this problem, she created new course materials that are designed to help students improve their critical thinking skills.
Around the world, families are faced with a variety of other obstacles that stand in the way of education. In places like Chumukedima, a community in the Indian state of Nagaland, Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) noticed many families who were so poor that sending their child to work seemed more practical than paying to send them to school.
In 2005, Sister Mary Alex Illimoottil collaborated with two laywomen to launch a literacy program in colonies composed of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, a group that was particularly marginalized and underprivileged. The migrants were almost entirely illiterate, and some children were so malnourished that their growth had been stunted. Some were infected with worms and many were anemic. So, in addition to offering literacy classes, the program also provided healthcare and nutritional aid.
Some of the students were child laborers and working women who attended classes only whenever possible. Still, they were eager to learn and studied their copy books in the dark of night. In just six months, 70 children and 20 women learned to read. While there were some children who left the program in favor of finding work, there were many reasons for Sister Mary to feel hopeful when the program ended in 2011 when public schools were declared free by the government. Although the schools still charged an admission fee, MMS and others from the community provided financial assistance to the families. With Sister Mary’s encouragement, parents who now understood the value of education began sending their children to school.
Reflecting on the program’s successes, Sister Mary shares: “What inspired me most was the joy radiated by the children on receiving the colorful textbooks in their hands. Also, the women who were very shy would come out of their houses begging for the books while carrying their babies on their backs.”
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The “Blessed Flood”

09/13/2018 9:00 am















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.”

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Sr. Madeleine Sophie

08/30/2018 1:03 pm

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

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New Jerusalem

08/30/2018 9:42 am
August 30, 2018

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.”
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