Medical missionaries mark 70th anniversary

BOSTON -- The sisters of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, an international congregation that has for decades ministered in Boston, recently marked the 70th anniversary of their foundation.

The story of their founding is credited to an Irish woman, Mother Mary Martin, who lay ill in a hospital bed in Port Harcourt, Nigeria when the long-awaited news came through from Rome that she could make her religious profession and establish the sisterhood of medical missionaries.

Mother Mary had first gone to Nigeria as a young nurse and midwife in 1921 at the age of 29. She already had extensive experience having been a nurse in Malta and France during World War I. In Nigeria she was touched by the plight of countless communities she witnessed without healthcare. Her primary concern was for the welfare of mothers in childbirth.

At that time, the Catholic Church did not permit religious women to practice surgery or obstetrics. Mother Mary was among many voices throughout the world that drew the attention of the authorities in Rome to the pressing needs for health care in Africa and other parts of the world. In 1936, the Church’s restriction was lifted and Mother Mary returned to Nigeria with her first companions to prepare for the foundation of the sisterhood.

Already suffering from a cardiac problem, Mother Mary became critically ill when struck by malaria. When she made her vows during a simple ceremony in the Government Hospital in Port Harcourt there were fears that she would not survive the journey back to Ireland.

“Never let me see that woman in Africa again,” were the words of her doctor, as they put her on the first ship sailing for Europe.

Mother Mary lived until 1975 and watched her young congregation grow to number 400 women from 16 different nationalities, trained as physicians, surgeons, nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists and other allied professions. She made her first visit to the United States in 1950 at the invitation of Cardinal Richard J. Cushing of Boston.

Today the Medical Missionaries of Mary have communities in the Boston, New York, Chicago, Richmond and San Diego dioceses, where they work to ensure support for their overseas missions which are carried out in Brazil, Honduras, Angola, Benin, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.