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.”