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Sr. Isabelle Harmon

Sister Isabelle Harmon, also known in religion as Sr. M. Leonard, was born on January 3, 1929, in Baltimore, MD, into a Catholic family with two brothers and one sister. Already as a young girl she felt called to be a missionary. She joined the Medical Mission Sisters in 1948 after one year at Mount St. Agnes College.

                After receiving training as an X-ray technician at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, Sr. Isabelle was sent to Our Lady of Coromoto Hospital in Maracaibo, Venezuela in 1955. In 1961, she moved to the newly established Muashir Memorial Hospital in Amman, Jordan. She was the X-ray technician at Muashir Memorial until 1966, and then worked at Holy Family Hospital Berekum, Ghana from 1966-77 after which she returned to the U.S.

                Sr. Isabelle started nursing school, a new venture that suited her warm and gregarious nature well. She earned her degree in 1979 and from this point on, she devoted her life to her true passion: primary healthcare. Over the course of the next three decades, and in three countries, Sr. Isabelle worked to put “health in the hands of the people.”

                From 1979 to 1990, Sr. Isabelle was a primary health care nurse in Abease, Ghana, where she established health care programs in the villages. Among her impressive list of accomplishments in Abease are: teaching 100 Health Promoters, including two midwives for each village; opening ten small clinics so no one had to walk more than five miles for health care; developing Health Committees in 16 villages; developing and organizing water projects in six villages; and petitioning for better roads at the district and regional level.

                Leaving Ghana, a place she loved deeply, was heartbreaking for Sr. Isabelle. However, she soon developed great affection for Oaxaca, Mexico. From 1991 to 1997 she worked with PROSA (Promotoras de Salud), a program of CEDEPIO, the Diocesan Pastoral Center for the Indigenous in Oaxaca. The goal of PROSA was to support and encourage health promoters in villages who were able to teach in their local language. They also incorporated traditional medicinal practices, which at the time were being replaced by pharmaceuticals. PROSA was a holistic effort to put health care in the hands of the indigenous farmers through education and by respecting the traditions and lived realities of their communities. Sr. Isabelle helped to organize and plan the promoters’ work in their areas and dispensed traditional medicines, pharmaceuticals, and supplies. She also made weekly visits to those who were sick.

                Sr. Isabelle spent the final stage of her life in southern Florida. She taught classes on healthy diets and herbal medicines at the Guatemalan-Mayan Center and English classes at the Women’s Circle. According to Sr. Lorraine Ryan, who was a co-director of the center, Sr. Isabelle was “never tired of helping our women at Women’s Circle. She would do anything for them. And the staff, too.” Sister Isabelle also participated in the community gardens and volunteered at PATCH- Planned Approach To Community Health, where families could come in to talk about health matters.

                Sister Isabelle Harmon is just one of our incredible Sisters:  talented, indefatigable, devoted to her communities and her work. The following is a quote from a ca. 1979 interview with her:


“I have learned a lot more than nursing in the last two years. I suppose each step in our lives we learn to know ourselves better and understand our strengths and weaknesses. The most important thing I have learned is that we all have these weaknesses at one thing or another and it is O.K.   That when you are working together as a team, we are able to help each other. One person’s strength is supported by the group’s just as the parts of us that are not so strong. I believe that when we are in a supportive community, we can accomplish so much more and we can do so with affirmation instead of criticism.”   

-Lucy Hall (MMS Archivist)