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Number 165 - July 2016
In our July newsletter, you can read about the spirituality that guides our lives as MMMs and MMM Associates. A Rule written by Saint Benedict more than 1500 years ago contains messages still pertinent to the world in which we live. Our foundress, Marie Martin, wanted us to be guided by its spirit, which encouraged a balance of prayer and work, moderation and flexibility.
In the early regulations given to the pioneer group of women in Glenstal, in 1935, not long before MMM was founded, she wrote: ‘Closely bound to this is the spirit of truth and simplicity....St. Benedict is filled with the holy fear of God, that is, the sense of our presence before his eyes...to be true to God, to ourselves and to our neighbour, without “respectability” but in evangelical simplicity and uprightness.’
This month two Medical Missionaries of Mary celebrate fifty years of dedicated service to God and to others. Sister Mary Ann MacRae shared some of her journey over this time, including what attracted her to our way of life. She wrote, ‘We follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. I found him very practical about “seeing and seeking God in all”, and compassionate when he says, “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.”’
We also tell you about the exciting journey that Kathy Velekkakan, an MMM Associate, and her husband, John, made to East Africa. It was a time of renewing friendships, mutual learning and experiencing hospitality, another value emphasized by Saint Benedict.
Again this month, we want to tell you about some generous MMM supporters. Chris and Teresa Smith worked with us at Saint John’s Hospital in Mzuzu, Malawi, when their son was one year old and before their daughter, Joanna, was born. Teresa said that experience had a profound effect on their lives.
Joanna worked in Kitovu Hospital in Masaka, Uganda in 2012. On 25 June she married Jon Croney in Wales. In lieu of gifts Jon and Joanna asked people to give donations to the Fistula Unit in Kitovu. So far we have received or have notifications of gifts totalling over £1600. What a wonderful example of life-giving generosity.
The reality The World Health Organization estimated that in 2014 more than 2 million young women live with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and that each year between 50,000 to 100,000 women worldwide develop an obstetric fistula. While the main cause of fistula is obstructed labour, an increasing number are caused by trauma from rape in conflict situations.
While offering repair operations is essential, the fact that so many women continue to be affected and that fistula can be prevented is evidence of our failure to deal at a deeper level with the political, social and cultural factors that lead to fistula in the first place. Obstetric fistula can largely be avoided by: • delaying the age of first pregnancy; • the cessation of harmful traditional practices; and • timely access to obstetric care.
The editor would also add to this list our failure to deal with conflict situations that disproportionately affect women and children. These affect the ability of governments to provide essential services, including health care, to their populations.
Let us work for the day when repair operations, not to mention refugee camps, are no longer necessary.
Thank you again for your encouragement and support. We remember you in prayer each day.
Sister Carol Breslin, MMM
‘Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for’ (Dag Hammarskjöld).
A debt of gratitude
On 11 July we mark the feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia. A wise teacher, who emphasised moderation in all things, he is venerated in the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Catholic Church. MMMs ‘follow the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict while conforming to their constitutions.’
Benedict’s Rule, written at a time of societal decline and upheaval, offers the ideal of a balanced life of prayer and work.
There is an uncomplicated approach to prayer. ‘Prayer should be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace’ (Ch. 20). ‘If someone wishes to pray privately, simply go in and pray’ (Ch. 52).
To a world that encourages the accumulation of wealth and goods, even to the detriment of others, Benedict says, ‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else’ (Ch. 4). He writes that ‘goods are to be distributed according to need...with consideration for weaknesses’ (Ch. 34). Those who are responsible for the supplies of the monastery are told ‘to regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar’ (Ch. 31). This certainly foreshadows care for the Earth.
The view of each community member is important. ‘As often as anything is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and explain what the business is....The Lord often reveals what is better to the younger’(Ch. 3).
Benedict’s advice to leaders is: ‘Taking this and other examples of discretion, let her so temper all things that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak may not fall back in dismay’ (Ch. 64).
The Rule of Saint Benedict seemed especially appropriate to guide the lives of Medical Missionaries of Mary. In 1945, our foundress wrote to a woman who wished to join: ‘What are you most attracted to in our special vocation? As St. Benedict says, the essential thing is to seek God; our works must also be done with this end in view.'
And therein lies a story.
Beginnings In 1933, women religious were not allowed to practice obstetrics or surgery. Marie Martin was searching to discover what God wanted her to do about founding a medical missionary society, and she approached Archbishop Paschal Robinson, the Pope’s representative in Ireland. Archbishop Robinson said that her ideas were an inspiration from God, but not to do anything until the Holy Father spoke.
She recalled, ‘To cheer me up, he said, “That may be either in ten years or a hundred years hence but God will accept your desire to do the work. Don’t even take a house or live together.”’ Marie was disappointed because she had gathered a group of women who were interested to join her ‘with the one idea.’
When one door closes... Nevertheless, Marie knew how to use her time well. ‘Now, I thought, in case it was in ten years that the Holy Father did speak, would it not be well for me to get some spiritual formation for my own soul and later on to have to pass on to my companions, if God ever blessed me with this great desire to be able to have a group of women for the work in Africa? I was always greatly interested in Benedictine spirituality and I thought that if I could get somewhere near a Benedictine monastery, somewhere where I could get just the principles and fundamentals of religious life, so as to have a good solid basis, so that afterwards God, in His own way, could form the spirit of the Order in any way he wished to meet the needs of the Church and time – but where to do that I didn’t know.’
A providential meeting in September 1933 with Dom Gerard, prior of a community of Benedictine monks in Glenstal, allowed her to have the training she desired in Ireland. She learned that the monks, who had come from Maredsous in Belgium, were struggling with the housekeeping at their boarding school. Dom Gerard was a disciple of Dom Marmion, a well-known spiritual writer, who had been the abbot in Maredsous.
Marie said, ‘When I heard the words “Dom Marmion” mentioned I was overjoyed, for I love his works and it was on his books I wished that we would all be formed... I told [Dom Gerard] that I had a great longing for this work, for the missions, and that we hoped one day, if the Holy Father ever gave permission, that we would be a group that would form a congregation of Medical Missionaries of Mary. But for the time being we had been advised to remain seculars and just to live trusting and waiting for God’s time.’
She offered to help with the housekeeping and infirmary in Glenstal, ‘if you in return would give me and my companions conferences on the religious and spiritual life, that we may be fundamentally right, and that from that may branch out whatever spirit God wants for the new work.’
She struggled to decide whether it would be possible to combine a monastic life with an active medical life. ‘Would it not be more in the spirit of the Church today to have the liturgical life without the strict monastic life of enclosure?' (Letter to Dom Gerard, 1933)
‘What I really seek now is to have for the next year or so, for myself and the first few pioneers, regular spiritual conferences on the Religious Life, and I would like if it were possible to have them under the guidance of the Benedictine Fathers according to the spirit of St. Benedict and Dom Marmion’s conferences, which will give us a solid spiritual foundation as well as the freedom of soul so necessary for the members of an active medical missionary society. You will realise even better than I do the absolute necessity – for our difficult vocation – of a very solid, intense and interior life of love and union with God. The Sisters must be so trained as to seek God in all, and to depend absolutely on God for all. Owing to the nature of our works they will have to be thorough religious in heart and mind, not depending on many rules, enclosure or perhaps even a religious habit...We must be ready to follow [Jesus] in His Public Life...going about doing good’ (ibid.).
Nurturing a seed On 21 March 1934, Marie Martin and Nora Leydon (the future Sister Patrick) arrived in Glenstal Priory. Bridie O’Rourke (Sister Magdalen) arrived in February 1935. On 11 February 1935, Marie wrote: ‘It is now we start in earnest the foundation of M.M.M.’ Caroline Nichols (Sister Immaculata) came in 1936.
Marie's discretion seemed to be rewarded. ‘I believe now at last after all these years of patient waiting that I am under the influence of the spirit God wishes for our new work and this makes me very happy’( Letter to Dom David, OSB, 1935).
In February 1936, Propagation of the Faith in Rome issued an Instruction that permitted religious women to do maternity work in mission countries and encouraged that societies be formed for this purpose. Permission to found a new missionary group that would include all branches of medicine, with special dedication to maternity work, came on 5 May 1936. It was decided that the group in Glenstal, including three other women who had come, would move to Dublin in September 1936.
A flurry of preparations followed: to find accommodation, to make plans for the foundation of MMM in Nigeria, to arrange for training for some of the members. An exciting new venture was beginning - for those women and for the Church. The future MMMs looked forward with faith and trust in the future. They (and we who followed) will never forget the debt we owe to the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Priory, who provided them with a firm foundation on which to build.
A postscript Glenstal Abbey later established a foundation in Nigeria, not far from our MMM house in Benin. Pictured here is the beautiful brass Annunciation in Ewu Monastery.
A year of jubilee
In July 1966, Sister Mary MacRae professed her first vows as a Medical Missionary of Mary in Winchester, MA, USA. Her journey since then brought her to healing ministries on three continents. The following paragraphs recount some of that story and includes a few of Mary Ann’s reflections as she celebrates fifty years of commitment.
Sister Mary Ann was born in Seattle, Washington, USA, in 1946. The elder of two sisters, she completed her early education in Seattle. Her mother, a devout Catholic, instilled a deep sense of God in her daughters. Her father, brought up as an Episcopalian, did not have any religious affiliation when he married but accompanied his family to Sunday Mass and agreed to having his children educated in Catholic schools.
Mary Ann explained, ‘My maternal grandmother died of cancer before I was born and my mother’s telling of it deeply affected me. I decided at a young age that I would become a doctor and find a cure for cancer. That changed when, as a freshman in high school, I became acquainted with books written by Doctor Tom Dooley about his experiences as a doctor in Vietnam and Laos. Something in me shifted and I felt a strong call to become a missionary doctor. I had been given so much in life and I wanted to share it.
‘When I was a junior in high school, Sister Vida Maria, SNJM, my homeroom teacher, asked me if I might have a vocation to religious life. I told her, ‘No.’ I wanted to be a missionary doctor, get married and have children.
That year, two Medical Missionaries of Mary came to our school and showed a film called Africa Pictorial. I thought if I ever entered a convent it would be in this congregation. I was attracted to MMM because of the healing charism as I saw it expressed in the two Sisters but I was very resistant to the idea. I wanted to serve those who had not had the same chance in life as I had, but not as a nun.'
Hearing God’s call ‘God has a funny way of pursuing you and in my senior year a leaflet the MMMs left behind caught my attention. It was then I knew strongly that God was calling me to religious life as an MMM. If they accepted me, I would go. Nevertheless, leaving home was perhaps the hardest thing I ever did. I shed many tears on that 3,000-mile trip from Seattle to Boston to join the MMMs.’
That was in 1963, when Vatican II began to have an impact, changing the face of religious life. After first profession Mary Ann went to Ireland to study medicine at University College Dublin, qualifying in 1974.
Of that time, she said, ‘I learned much more than medicine. Becoming involved in the Charismatic Renewal was a deeply transformative experience, leading up to my taking final vows. In my mind I was now ready to be launched into the next phase of the adventure to which God had called me.’
An adventure in faith After completing her internship and a further year of training, in 1976 Mary Ann was assigned to Nigeria. She was medical officer in Obudu for five years, followed by two years at Eleta, Ibadan. She then completed studies to obtain a Master of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. She returned to Nigeria in 1984 and was medical superintendent in Abakaliki for ten years.
She wrote, ‘During my years in Nigeria, primary health care became a priority. This growing emphasis on making health services more widely available, accessible, affordable and appropriate for the people among whom I lived and worked fired my imagination and zeal for a more grassroots type of care. It was also a time for exploring how to make healing more holistic. I learned so much from the people of Nigeria and I will be forever indebted to them.’
Her next assignment was to Tijuana, Mexico, close to the US border, in 1998. She worked in public health in a clinic near the municipal garbage dump. In that ministry she felt she was ‘able to be at one with the people among whom I lived and worked.’ She had served there just over four years when she was asked to return to the USA to take up a new role as director of the MMM Mission Development Office (MDO), initially based in Somerville, MA. The MDO moved to Chicago in 2006. During her time in Chicago, she also served in MMM leadership for three years.
She remarked, ‘That was a privileged time, getting to know those who have been faithful supporters of MMM. We became friends and I learned something of their hopes and aspirations and struggles. They never failed to inspire me.’
‘Ready to go wherever you are sent’ (MMM Cons.) At our Tenth Congregational Chapter in 2015, Mary Ann was elected to our MMM Congregational Leadership Team. She moved to Ireland to take up her responsibilities in ‘a new phase of this ongoing adventure in faith.’
She says, ‘Fifty years on, the initial attraction has broadened a great deal. Although I am no any longer involved in clinical medicine, I feel more committed to the expression of our healing charism, particularly as an agent of peace. My deepest feeling is of gratitude for the love and support of so many people who have made it possible for me to live this life.’
‘As Dag Hammarskjold said, 'For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, “Yes!”'
A journey to remember
Kathy Velekkakan has known the Medical Missionaries of Mary for many years. After completing a year with us as a novice in Winchester, MA, USA, in 1977, she discerned that God was calling her elsewhere. She married businessman John Velekkakan in 1982. They have two grown children and are the proud grandparents of three-year-old Anna.
Involved with MMM as an Associate (AMMM) since 2000, Kathy has participated in a number of activities. These included sharing her gifts in using ultrasound technology. She made several visits to Tanzania to train staff in the use of ultrasound in obstetrics and gynaecology and to bring donated equipment. She and John are now in a place of transition, planning their retirement - though it doesn't sound like that will come very soon for Kathy.
This year Kathy and John spent two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. Their trip in March included the Saint Patrick's Day holiday, which proved to be an enjoyable choice! It was John’s first time in Africa and Kathy was excited for him to see MMMs where they work. She readily agreed to tell us about their experience.
‘John and I had a wonderful visit. We went to connect with other AMMMs and visit the Sisters, some of whom I've known for more than forty years. One of them is Sister Joan Grumbach in Nangwa, Tanzania. We have been friends since novitiate days in the USA. Some Associates are old friends, like Moira and Eamonn Brehony. Others we had only heard of from the Associate Narrative magazine.
‘In Kenya we met the MMMs in Nairobi. We went to Kibera, Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa, with Charles, AMMM, and saw the program that supports schoolchildren there.
‘In Tanzania, we stayed in Ngaramtoni, just outside of Arusha, and shared prayer, meals and the hospitality that MMMs and the Brehonys do so well. Moira’s welcome was, as usual, the best. My husband enjoyed Eamonn’s company.'
A variety of works ‘We had the joy of spending the weekend with the Sisters in Singida. They run Faraja Centre Community-Based Health Care (CBHC), which provides HIV/AIDS-related services. It contains Faraja Centre Hospice and Palliative Care Programme, which assists people suffering from terminal illnesses, especially with pain control.
‘We had a short visit to Makiungu and I was able to see how the general hospital has grown. Years ago I brought ultrasound education to Makiungu and was delighted to see how that service has developed.
‘Finally, the time we spent with Sisters Joan Grumbach, Sekunda Kimario, and Vincent Pallotti Sarwatt in Nangwa was so special. Meeting Apolai Saragu, another AMMM, in Nangwa was also a joy.'
Bringing joy to others ‘I brought two donated Doppler monitors, one for Makiungu and one for Nangwa. With these machines, pregnant mothers can listen to their baby's heart. Dopplers can detect a heartbeat as early as twelve weeks’ pregnancy. Until fairly recently, only a fetoscope was available to listen to the baby’s heart, which only the health worker can hear. The fetoscope can usually detect the heartbeat after about twenty-two weeks. Joan has since written to me about several women and husbands who have heard their baby’s heartbeats with the Doppler. One was sure there was no life but was later reassured.
‘Participating in their mobile clinic day was the highlight for me. It made me appreciate the hard work it takes to live the missionary life. Many of the Sisters are not young women anymore. A ten-hour work day tires any of us. I came to look at each of them as the hidden saints that Mother Mary called them to be.
‘Every step of the way, my husband grew more attached to the Sisters and his understanding of the role MMM has played in all these mission areas. He saw how much they are loved and respected in each region where they serve.’
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