The Pope and the Sisters

As Philadelphia buzzes with excitement for Pope Francis’ visit, we take a look at the historical role of religious sister nurses in providing healthcare globally.

Barbra Mann Wall, PhD, RN, FAAN

This week, Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia to participate in the World Meeting of Families, a Catholic gathering begun by Saint John Paul II in 1994. Catholics from all over the world are attending, and prominent among them will be a large contingent of Catholic sisters for whom the Pope’s message resonates for the work in which they have engaged over decades.

Men have always been the public face of Catholic authority, the Pope in particular, so it is not surprising that his visit is garnering tremendous attention. Yet when it comes to health care, a major concern for all regardless of faith, it is sisters who represent the face of the Church. Sisters have been the ones who established numerous Catholic hospitals in the United States over three centuries. In 2013, more than 5.2 million patients were admitted to 645 Catholic hospitals. Every year, one person in six in the country receive care in a Catholic hospital; and in some areas, Catholic hospitals are the only health care facilities in the area. Further, Sisters participate in health care on several different levels. For example, sisters were in the vanguard of American health care reform that culminated in President Barack Obama’s signing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. While their work in the United States has been groundbreaking, what is less known is that, beginning in the late 1930s and extending into the decolonization and independence eras in sub-Saharan Africa, Catholic sisters expanded their work globally as they became heavily involved in starting Catholic hospitals and clinics and eventually in providing relief and working for social justice.[1]

One community of sisters that has been particularly active across the globe is the Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries, or Medical Mission Sisters. In her 1945 publication, Mission for Samaritans, Anna Dengel, foundress of this international religious community, advocated a distinct framework for mission work that combined religious commitment and medical science. Her vision of health care was a “branch of missionary work through which skilled medical care is given to the sick and poor of mission countries, as a means of relieving their physical suffering and bringing to them a knowledge and appreciation of our Faith.” Although missionary priests and sisters had worked for centuries in relieving the sick, Mother Anna’s vision for mission work was new: it was “organized, systematic medical care by people…who have been trained in the medical field as doctors, nurses, or technicians.”[2] Further, the sisters would care for “all whom we see sick and suffering, even if we know that they will not therefore accept our Faith.”[3] Founded in 1925, the Medical Mission Sisters were the first of their kind in the health care field, its sisters were not only religious but also professionals who worked as physicians, surgeons, obstetricians, midwives, pharmacists, laboratory and x-ray technicians, and nurses.[4] As early as 1945, Mother Anna wrote that sisters’ endeavors to heal would be of little help unless they were accompanied by an attendance upon “basic social and economic structures.”[5] This attention foreshadowed similar ideas of social determinants of health that are of such great interest today.

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rath­er than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.- Pope Francis

Other women became key players in the health care field in Africa. While the Medical Mission Sisters went to Ghana in 1937, the Irish Medical Missionaries of Mary were established in Nigeria in 1936 and the American based Maryknoll Sisters went to Tanzania in 1948. African women increasingly joined religious congregations exerting an active presence in the health care field. For example, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Mother of Christ was founded in Nigeria in 1937 to teach and to nurse. All of these women helped transform the mission from one that expanded the Catholic Church and biomedical care to that of helping the poor to claim their worth within their own social systems.

After World War II, sisters further expanded their health care facilities in sub-Saharan Africa that included hospitals, clinics, and schools for nurses, midwives, and auxiliaries. They taught indigenous workers to carry on what the nuns had started. Indeed, a major significance of sisters’ work was establishing access to health care that eventually came under the control of the local populace providing one solution to an uneven allocation of health care. It was also at this time that sisters moved toward closer association with the poor. They partnered with local people, national governments, international organizations such as the World Health Organization, and aid agencies to create a more comprehensive approach to health care. This included learning from indigenous healers and building bridges between them and biomedical practitioners.

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Given their history in expanding access to health care to those often forgotten by the developed world, Pope Francis’ visit this year is particularly significant for Catholic sisters. In 2013, he issued his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). He stated, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rath­er than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”[6] I expect Catholic sisters smiled broadly when they heard this exhortation, because it sanctioned what they have been doing for decades. And they will be among the many celebrating Pope Francis’s visit to the US this week as he brings his message which so closely follows the one the sisters have been spreading for decades.

[1] For further explication of this topic, see Barbra Mann Wall, Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Medical Missions and Social Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] Anna Dengel, Mission for Samaritans (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1945). First

quotation is on p. 1. Second is on p. 3.

[4] Angelyn Dries, The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History (Maryknoll, NY:

Orbis Books, 1998); Ellen S. More, Elizabeth Fee, and Manon Parry, eds., Women

Physicians and the Cultures of Medicine (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[5] Dengel, Mission for Samaritans, 5.

[6] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.pdf.

[6] https://www.chausa.org/.

[6] For further explication of this topic, see Barbra Mann Wall, Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Medical Missions and Social Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

[6] Anna Dengel, Mission for Samaritans (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1945). First

quotation is on p. 1. Second is on p. 3.

[6] Ibid, 1.

[6] Angelyn Dries, The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History (Maryknoll, NY:

Orbis Books, 1998); Ellen S. More, Elizabeth Fee, and Manon Parry, eds., Women

Physicians and the Cultures of Medicine (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[6] Dengel, Mission for Samaritans, 5.

[6] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.pdf.


Barbra Mann Wall, PhD, RN, FAAN holds the Thomas A. Saunders III Professorship at the University of Virginia School of Nursing. Her research focuses on the gendered story of hospital establishments and the nursing profession. Dr. Wall’s newest book, Into Africa: A Transnational History of Catholic Missions and Social Change (Rutgers University Press, 2015), explores the intersection of religion, medicine, gender, race, and politics in sub-Saharan Africa after World War II.

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