By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Medical Mission Sister Sylvia Strahler, who has been missioned to Pakistan for the past 50 years, knows annual monsoons are a fact of life. But nothing prepared her for the flooding from the monsoon of last August, which at one point had 20 percent of the entire country under water. It caused at least 2,000 deaths, destroyed 1.9 million homes, ruined 1.4 million acres of crops and left many millions homeless with its effects still being felt.

“The flood waters took everything from the families,” Sister Strahler wrote from Faisalabad, where she is based as district coordinator for the Medical Mission Sisters in Pakistan.

Houses, belongings, animals and crops were lost. So were schools, health centers and stores, and water stood for months after the floods, preventing farmers from planting new crops, she explained.

“Now after several months of reconstruction many people have returned to their villages, and began to build their homes,” Sister Strahler said. “The government has given them some help in this.”{{more}}

The Medical Mission Sisters, who have had a presence in Pakistan for almost a century, have helped in various programs for the flood victims, including conducting health camps, giving goats and chickens to poor families, providing seeds and fertilizer to farmers and reconstructing houses, according to Sister Strahler.

The congregation was founded in 1925 in Washington, D.C., by Austrian-born Mother Anna Dengel, who as a laywoman and physician had volunteered in Northern India (now Pakistan), an area desperately in need of medical care for women. Under the Muslim culture at the time, men could not give medical treatment to women who were not a spouse, and there were virtually no women doctors.

Cardinal Dennis Dougherty invited the congregation to the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 1939, at which time they established their motherhouse in Fox Chase. Although their headquarters was eventually transferred to Rome, Fox Chase remains the North American headquarters. Cardinal Dougherty was also instrumental in having canon law changed to permit religious sisters to practice medicine, something that previously had been forbidden.

Sister Strahler, who is originally from Suffield, Ohio, became a registered nurse in 1955, two years before entering the Medical Mission Sisters in 1957.

“My becoming part of the Medical Mission Sisters is the work of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “From childhood I was driven by the idea of helping poor people. I became a nurse and then heard about the Medical Mission Sisters. As I learned more about them I felt this is where God was calling me.”

After her formation in Fox Chase and first vows in 1960, she was missioned to Pakistan where she received her R.M. (midwifery) in 1963.

For Sister Strahler, the most rewarding experience has been “teaching nurses and midwives so they can give adequate care to their own people,” she said. “I am grateful to have had the privilege of journeying with many Pakistani people and making a small contribution in a life-giving way. Even in these days there is a great need to improve the health care of women and children, particularly in the rural areas.”

At this point Sister Strahler is the only American Medical Mission Sister still serving in Pakistan. But that doesn’t matter.

“The growing number of Pakistani sisters in our international community is a sign of hope that the fire and flame of the love and compassion of our foundress Mother Anna Dengel will be carried on in the future,” she said.

And that’s as it should be. At the end of the day, inspiring men and women from the lands they serve to continue the work is really the most important task of missionaries.

For more information on the work of the Medical Mission Sisters visit

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.