By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
It’s been 70 years since Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, a former missionary bishop, invited Mother Anna Dengel to establish a motherhouse for her infant congregation, the Medical Mission Sisters, in Philadelphia.
As a laywoman and a medical doctor, Austrian-born Mother Dengel had spent four years ministering to sick women and children in Rawalpindi, Northern India (now Pakistan). Under Muslim law observed at the time, male doctors, other than a husband, could not treat a woman, and there were no programs for training woman doctors.
Mother Dengel founded her congregation in 1925, originally in Washington, D.C., and Cardinal Dougherty was so impressed with the work he not only encouraged the Medical Mission Sisters to relocate to the Fox Chase section of the city, he was instrumental in persuading the Vatican to change its rules for women religious, who were at that time not permitted to practice medicine or obstetrics.
Eventually Mother Dengel transferred the generalate for her growing congregation in Rome, where she died in 1980.
Fox Chase has remained their North America headquarters, and the core mission of providing medical service to the poor has remained, not only in Pakistan, but in 17 countries around the world.
Just recently, three Medical Mission Sisters returned to America after a career of service at Holy Family Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, which the congregation has turned over to the local diocese. All three entered during Mother Dengel’s lifetime.
Sister Celine Bernier, originally from Woonsocket, R.I., and Sister Elona Stanchak, originally from Middlefield, Ohio, who are both registered nurses, served at Holy Family since its foundation by Mother Dengel in 1952.
Sister Helen Marie McGrath, from Cleveland, joined them in Karachi in 1962 after Mother Dengel left for Rome.
Sisters Celine and Helen Marie, who are at Fox Chase, spoke of their foundress and mission.
Sister Celine first heard about the congregation when Mother Dengel spoke to her nursing school class, and “also a friend of mine had joined and that influenced me,” she said.
During her training in Fox Chase Mother Dengel was one of her teachers.
“She was a tremendous woman, and I feel privileged to have been taught by her. She [felt] for all of the sisters, and she told us how much the women were suffering (in Pakistan),” Sister Celine said.
In her early years in Pakistan Sister Celine recalls, they would come home every five years; later it was changed to every four years. They would stay for six months updating their medical training.
As Catholic nuns in Muslim Pakistan, they could not evangelize directly because it was forbidden by law, but “Mother Dengel told us we don’t proselytize, we teach by example,” she said.
Although there is still a need for medical care for women in that area, things are slowly changing, Sister Celine said, and “now there are some Pakistani female doctors too.”
When Sister Helen Marie entered the congregation in 1962, Mother Dengel was living in Rome so she did not see her often, but her spirit and influence remained in Fox Chase.
“‘She was a great woman, ahead of her time in the world,” Sister Helen Marie said.
Sister Marie joined the congregation because she’d read about it.
“I was impressed by their mission, and after visiting, by the sisters’ simplicity, poverty and joy,” she said.
The congregation remains true to the ideals of Mother Dengel, although “we change with the times,” Sister Helen Marie said. “I think she would be quite satisfied with what the sisters are doing; working with the poor, their deep faith and their love for the liturgy.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.