Medical Mission Sister Janet Gottschalk

Medical Mission Sister Janet Gottschalk, age 91, died Jan. 18.

While still a young sister, she was a nursing supervisor for six years in Venezuela, an experience that changed the trajectory of her mission focus. Deciding against becoming a medical doctor, she instead dedicated her education and life’s work to social justice and public health.

She believed that the way to change the health status of people wasn’t through modern, medical care in a high-tech hospital, but through community-based medicine and through efforts in public health.

She received her PhD in Public Health from the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health in 1976 and went on to become a powerful advocate for women.

“She was a recognized authority and leader in public health around the world,” said her friend Rose Berger, senior editor of Sojourners Magazine. “And her students and coworkers never stopped calling on her for her wisdom, expertise, and incisive questions to keep their work grounded in the real experiences of women.

“I’m glad her final assignment to Sector Heaven has come through so she can get back to work. We need her brilliance, commitment, unvarnished speech, and skilled organizing at work among the Cloud of Witnesses.”

Sister Janet was the first religious sister to represent the Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) at the United Nations in New York. She published two books relating to the history of the congregation: “Drawn by God” and “She Stepped Out of Her Class.”

She had 11 academic appointments and wrote dozens of articles on issues of public health and social justice.

She hailed as her greatest work that of teaching nursing students in Laredo, Texas on cultural competence and international and border health, seeking “justice for all.” She said she was humbled and inspired listening to the students’ changed world views and their commitment to justice and an end to world poverty.

In 2004 she received the Ruth B. Freeman Distinguished Career Award from the Public Health Nursing Section of the American Public Health Association, the organization’s highest award. She also served in a variety of leadership positions for MMS, including a three-year term as Unit North America Superior.

People were drawn to Sister Janet because she was not angry or embittered by her work. She once said, “I have seen incredible violence, sub-human degradation and misery. Yet I have also been humbled by the love, example and commitment of courageous people throughout the world.”

In 2018, distraught by public policies, Sister Janet inspired the formation of the Hot Topics discussion group in her residential setting.

In April 2021 she moved to hospice care at the Philadelphia Protestant Home and told other sisters that she was ready for her final journey to God.