Sister Agnes McKeon, First Postulant of MMM in USA
Sister Agnes McKeon spent most of her life as a missionary in Angola. She was there through the civil war that lasted for twenty-seven years. She told us the amazing story of how she came to know about the Medical Missionaries of Mary in London in 1948, and how she became the first postulant to enter the MMM Congregation in the United States in 1950.
You can watch a fourteen-minute video of Sister Agnes telling this story on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRkFcsvCg18
On 4 July 1950, the people of America celebrated Independence Day as they always do. That Tuesday in Ireland, a letter arrived on the desk of our foundress, Mother Mary Martin. It had been a hectic few weeks and this was one of her busiest days ever, the eve of her first voyage to America. The Mauritania would sail from Cobh the following day. Sister Stella Phelan, then a novice, was booked to accompany her.
When Mother Mary read the letter she turned to her secretary, Sister Catherine Ryan. “Reply immediately by airmail, and ask that young woman if she could meet me at the ship when it docks in New York,” she said.
Once the voyage began, Mother Mary never rested for a moment. She was single-minded about making known the work of the Congregation she had founded just thirteen years earlier. On 6 July, Mass was celebrated in the ship’s cinema. After Mass she lost no time about contacting the ship’s purser, Mr. Thomas. In her cabin luggage she had the large tins containing the reels holding the movie Visitation, filmed in Nigeria in 1946. The purser readily agreed to her suggestion that the film be shown for the passengers.
Sister Stella kept a diary, so we know how busy the next few days were. Mother Mary personally printed an Invitation to Captain Thompson and the ship’s officers, and sent the captain the book about Visitation, autographed by the famous London director of the film, Andrew Buchanan.
Invitations were also printed for the ship’s doctor, Dr. Winer; for the nurses, Sisters Burgess and Knowles; for the Chief Steward, Mr. Thom and his staff; for the Chief Engineer, Mr. Macgovern and his staff; and of course for the staff of the purser’s office.
The date set for the showing was the final day of the voyage, Monday, 10 July. Sister Stella noted in her diary: “Distributed literature to the people as they went in. Full house with only standing room. People seemed very interested and many suggested that we should have a collection.”
In between, they were packing their luggage to disembark the next day.
The young life of the first postulant in the USA
Agnes McKeon (above), the writer of the letter mentioned above, was the second youngest of nine children who grew up on an eighty-acre farm at Liscloonadea, near Mohill in Co. Leitrim. While she was still small, her oldest brother, Paddy, left for America. He wrote home frequently but never came back to visit. Her parents spoke of him often, and Agnes always knew that before she did anything else with her life, she would fulfill her childhood dream of going to America and meeting this brother.
In 1943 she, too, left home to train as a nurse in England. She first completed three years’ training in mental deficiency nursing at Dartford, and when she had staffed there for a year, she commenced training in general nursing at Ipswich.
One evening in 1948 while she was working as a staff nurse, another Irish nurse came back to their residence full of excitement about a film she had seen in London. It was called Visitation.
“She told me about Sisters called Medical Missionaries of Mary who worked in Africa with people who had leprosy. The climate was so hot that you could see the candles at Mass melting from the heat. I thought that would be a worthwhile thing to do with my life. But not yet. I was still saving up so that I could go to America and meet this brother of mine. Because I had two qualifications in nursing, I could earn a bit more than the average nursing salary.
“I sent Paddy a photo of myself and he sent me his. Eventually I went home to talk to my parents, and I bought a ticket from Shannon to New York. That was the autumn of 1949.
“When I landed at Idlewild Airport, as it was known then, I looked at all the people waiting. ‘That man over there,’ I thought, ‘looks a bit like Mammy.’ I went over to him and asked, ‘Are you waiting for someone?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I am looking for my sister, Agnes.’ ‘I’m Agnes McKeon’, I said, and it was great.
“Paddy took me to see his pub, The Shamrock House on Long Beach. Then we went to his home and I met his wife and little two-year-old daughter. My sister-in-law was expecting a new baby the following month and was worrying about who would mind the toddler. So I decided to stay with them for as long as I was needed. Then I got a nursing job with the Franciscan Sisters at Far Rockaway.”
Agnes usually worked the morning shift, 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Often she could do a second eight-hour shift of private nursing in the evenings, for which she would earn another ten dollars. She was saving up again. This time it was to buy a return flight to Ireland and fulfill her dream of joining the Medical Missionaries of Mary. When she had flown to New York, she brought with her the contact details her nurse friend had given her in London. When the time felt right, she wrote to Mother Mary Martin in Drogheda.
On the day the Mauritania was due to arrive in New York, Agnes arranged to have the day off duty and travelled to the docklands. She watched all the passengers disembark, but there was no sign of Mother Mary Martin. Getting worried, because she was due on duty at Far Rockaway at 7:00 the next morning, she stopped a priest passenger and asked him if he had seen two Sisters on board. He kindly retraced his steps and returned with a note from Mother Mary saying they could not disembark till the following day so would Miss McKeon please return next morning.
By now it was getting dark. Her brother had told Agnes that if ever she had to stay out in New York overnight, never to stay at a cheap hotel. She made enquiries about a good hotel, followed the directions and checked in. She was surprised when a knock came to her bedroom door and a bellboy handed her a bouquet of flowers. She was in the Waldorf Astoria!
She remembered it well. “Luckily I had put the money I had saved in my purse that day. Next morning I went to the shipside again and waited. Eventually Mother Mary and Sister Stella disembarked and I went with them to the residence where they were booked. Mother Mary told me a lot about the Congregation. She asked me to come back there in two weeks’ time and she would give me all the details about entering the Medical Missionaries of Mary. I did as she suggested. To my surprise when we met the second time I found that she had the date set for me to enter on September 14th, not in Drogheda as I had thought, but in Boston!
“The nuns at Far Rockaway were not very pleased to hear I was leaving. Mother Mary had told me to come just as I was, bringing whatever I had, but I thought I should do some shopping, and I remember buying sheets with satin tops and blankets. I cannot remember if I had a trunk or not, but I took the train from New York to Boston on September 14th and then a taxi to Number 36 Commonwealth Avenue.
“I got a glimpse of Mother Mary, looking out the window. As soon as the taxi pulled up she and Sister Stella came out to meet me. They had a lovely meal ready for me. There were just the three of us in that big house until more Sisters began to arrive from Ireland to form the first community of MMMs in America.
“I remained there for six months, and at the end of March 1951, I was told that I would do my novitiate in Ireland, so a passage was booked for me by boat. I was so disappointed. I loved America and I said, ‘If I ever leave MMM I will come straight back here.’ But I never wanted to leave or do anything else with my life because this way I could do what I wanted most, to help people who were sick in places where there was nobody else to do it.”
So began the story of MMM in America
We have been blessed with many American Sisters who brought new energies, great talent and dedication. They opened up the Congregation to a vision of cultural diversity that has enriched MMM in bountiful and lasting ways.
MMM quickly won loyal and loving supporters in the Boston area. Bazaars held each winter in the Hancock Building became legendary. We will never forget the people who helped us back in the early days or those who came later and remained with us through the decades.
As we developed our communities in Chicago and New York, new friends came on board, forming very energetic committees. Through the Office of the Propagation of the Faith the film Visitation was shown all over the country, and people all over the United States have been most generous in supporting MMM. To this day, each year our Sisters speak in parishes in many states. The work continues to be blessed.
First Days in Winchester
The Winchester Star of 16 May 1952, carried the following item.
“Former Downs Estate Sold: The sale of the former Downs Estate, built as a residence by the late Jere Downs at the corner of Cambridge and Arlington Streets, opposite the Winchester Country Club, was announced this week. The transfer was made by the Armstrong Knitting Mills, of Hyde Park, of which the late Robert W. Armstrong was head, to the Medical Missionaries of Mary, a Catholic medical organization, and will be used as a private residence for members of the mission while pursuing their advanced studies. Transfer of the property has been effected and the residence will be open for use this coming Monday. Murray and Gillett were the brokers.
“Description of the Estate: The estate overlooks distant views of Cambridge and Boston and is graced with spacious and rolling lawns, distinctively landscaped. The main house, designed by Chapman E. Fraser, has 14 large rooms. It is built in English Tudor style.”
What the Star omitted to say did not escape the record, thanks to Sister Julie Urban’s indelible memories of those days. “The Winchester property had been vacant for five years before we came, and so the grounds had been a safe haven for numerous birds and small animals. It was not unusual to go out on the grounds in the early morning, while waiting to go to Mass, and find squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and pheasants peacefully roaming nearby.
“The house itself needed plenty of cleaning, etc., and so the first few weeks were spent in scrubbing and re-scrubbing the floors and walls. Recreations were mostly spent in clearing the underbrush and the grounds of five years’ accumulation.
“Behind the original house there was a tea House, which came in very handy for classes in the warm weather.
“Some of the functions that helped us financially during those early years were whist drives, lawn parties and bazaars.
“On Saturday, May 24, our first Mass at One Arlington Street was celebrated by Father O’Riordan, pastor of Saint Mary’s Church, at 7 a.m. He brought along two altar boys for the occasion. After Mass he recited a beautiful Act of Consecration to Mary for the MMM.
“The following day, Archbishop Cushing gave Solemn Benediction to the girls of the Tekakwitha Club, when over one hundred people were present. On June 7, the house was once again crowded, when over one hundred members and Captains of the Guild were out for a farewell party for Mother Mary. On Sunday June 8, approximately five hundred people were here to wish Mother a Bon Voyage and to see around the house and grounds. Tea was served out of doors. At 5 p.m. there was Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
“On June 11, it was a family affair when, according to the diary, we had dinner all together at the long table in the sun-parlor, for the last time with Mother Mary. We had set up for tea in the community room (it was raining – no tea outdoors) for Mother, but she had company and could not attend. We were hoping she would tell us the story of the Congregation, and God answered our prayers. At 5 p.m. Mother appeared to tell us, in her unforgettable way, of her days previous to the conclusion of Visitation… We had supper again in the parlor, and Mother was telling us that a week from now, if everything goes off as planned she would be in Italy, after a stop-over in New York and London.”
The following day Mother Mary left Winchester, and on June 16 returned to Europe from New York.
Much had to be done to prepare for the official opening of the new novitiate, and time passed quickly. July 16 saw the Stations of the Cross being erected outside the grass plot from the terrace to the garage to the summer house.
On Sunday, 20 July, the day of the official opening, the first visitors began to arrive at 8.30 a.m. and from then on the people kept coming. By 2 p.m. about one thousand people had assembled. The opening had been announced at all the Masses in Winchester, Woburn, etc., and it was in all the Boston and local papers, and announced over the radio. The diary says, “They sent special police from Arlington and Cambridge as the streets were lined with cars for about two miles. The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) from Woburn put up a loudspeaker system for us and helped with the chairs, etc.
“The altar, vestments and altar linens were loaned from Saint Clement’s, Somerville. We had had a collection there, and a Mr. Hamilton, who had given the Sisters breakfast, later came to visit Winchester and offered to provide the portable altar for the day of the opening.
“Archbishop Cushing arrived at 3 p.m. and said he had never seen such a crowd for a like occasion. He told the people of his meeting with the foundress of MMM, Mother Mary, who had expressed a desire to have a foundation in the USA, and upon his invitation a group of Irish sisters had come to Boston a year later.
“The Archbishop also said that lay people, rather than priests and nuns, are responsible for the majority of vocations. It is the influence, zeal and enthusiasm of the lay people, which is responsible for the hundreds of young persons joining orders such as this, he said.
“At Benediction, the Archbishop was assisted by Rt. Rev. J.F. McGlinchy, pastor of Saint Mary’s, Lynn; Rev. J.P. O’Riordan, pastor of Saint Mary’s, Winchester; and Revs. Charles E. Anador, J. McCall, and J. Grant, all of Saint Mary’s, Winchester. After the ceremony, the Archbishop talked and walked in the grounds with the people who kept coming until 9 o’clock to see the house and grounds.”
Other events of the first months in Winchester included the final profession of Sister M. Consilio on September 8, when once again many friends were present. The next day the novitiate diary records: “We were told to get the table in the long parlor ready for supper in honor of Sister M. St. John: candy, nuts, candles, etc. We had a beautiful supper with pastries, ham salad, ice cream cones, and a cake with roses for decorations and the message ‘A Happy Voyage’… At 8.30 a.m. next day we were called out to the entrance to say good-bye, or rather au revoir, as Sister M. St. John said she would have the kettle boiling, ready to greet us in the not-so-far-away future… She was very happy and I’m sure we all thought of the day we would be leaving for the missions.”
Our First Friends in Boston: 1950-1952
Sister Margaret O’Conor, among the pioneer MMMs in Boston, recalled:
“About two weeks after we arrived, Sister St. John and myself began to visit the parishes with a view to having the movie shown and our work known. Sister St. John had been one of Mother’s early companions, and the first nurse to enter MMM. She had been in Nigeria for a number of years, and was living for the day she would go back. She begged with charming intensity for the leprosy patients and frequently sent off parcels for them to her beloved Nigeria. Besides being charming, she was witty and entertaining, and very knowledgeable about Nigeria and about the early days of the Congregation. She loved talking to people, but in ones or twos, so she insisted that I address groups. I found this very difficult in the beginning, as I had no firsthand knowledge of the missions. Gradually I found ways of doing it, though, and later was glad to have had the experience.”
She also remembered, “Although we got the Guild established and subsequently had many showings of the movie, we continued to be very, very short of cash for those early years. We never bought fresh meat, like hamburger or beef, etc. Sometimes an Irish girl working out in the Back Bay would bring in some very much-needed things, on a Saturday evening, when no one but the Lord would have known our need. Here she would come, perhaps someone we had never met before, laden with bacon, sausages, butter, cheese and maybe homemade bread.”
Notes from the Regional archives say, “The Guild was mostly composed of young Irish girls who had come out here years ago and had jobs cleaning, working or cooking in the homes of the rich. Most of them were unmarried. Possibly they had been sending money to their families in Ireland, also supporting the Church and other mission societies and they really built the churches around Boston. The ones who gave maybe a dollar a month, but it came each month. They also put on many card parties for us.”
Margaret still recalled the first Thanksgiving Day at Commonwealth Avenue. “On our first Thanksgiving Day, the pastor from Saint Cecilia’s in the Back Bay sent us a turkey, and later on he sometimes sent us gifts of meat. Again, he could not have known that we did not have these things. We were, of course, anxious to send help for the missions in Africa and the needs of the Motherhouse from the beginning.
“That first winter was a hard one, and we learned how to shovel snow off the sidewalks. We also learned, long before the oil crunch, how expensive it was to heat a house with very high ceilings and many windows not winterized. Our clothing was not meant for Boston’s harsh winters.
“But one morning we had a shock to find that a pipe had burst, and we had to find ways of getting funds to replace it quickly before further damage was done. Therese (who was local superior) was adamant that we would not ask the Archbishop for further help. He had already given us the house, after all. That very day, a priest came and wrote out a check sufficient to cover the cost of the repairs.
“Mother Mary appreciated the generosity of the many friends of the pioneering days in Boston. ‘Everyone,’ she said, ‘has been so kind. Why, the doorbell is apt to jingle at any hour of the day, and it will be someone with a gift for us.’
Margaret also stressed the support provided by other groups of Sisters. “The Ursulines, who lived on Arlington Street in Boston, overlooking the Boston Gardens, helped us with food and advice of all kinds. Now when I pass by, and see that the Ursulines are no longer there, I offer a silent prayer for Mother Elizabeth and those other Ursulines who made our days somewhat easier back then. They also shared their library and their days of prayer with us, as well as the chapel before our own was installed.
“The Poor Clares were also staunch supporters. As you know, Mother Mary was always devoted to groups of enclosed sisters, and so one of the first things she did in Boston was to visit the Poor Clare convent in Jamaica Plain. There, Mother Virgilius not only promised prayer for the success of our ventures in the US, but later arranged for us to share in the donations of food which were made to themselves. Between all this help we survived those first years, snows, floods, broken pipes and exile.”
Margaret also recalled that they had some very, very good days, and some fun, too. The Lord sent along people to help in this area. She remembered the friendship of the Marist priest who was attached to Our Lady of Victories Church, Isabella Street, and who acted as chaplain to MMM in those days. “Outstanding was our chaplain, Father Gerard Maynard. May the Lord rest his gentle and generous soul. I think he could gauge the temperature of the house at morning Mass, and if he found that the spirits were lagging, before the morning was over he had discovered some special feast day and had sent around flowers and ice cream. Sometimes he sent over a movie, which was very welcome. In those days, the only movie we saw was Visitation, which got to be a bit boring after the first few hundred showings! There was no TV either, although, again, after some months, someone gave us a six-inch TV, and we used to watch mainly religious programs.
“But I don’t think that any of the early MMMs in Boston can ever forget the goodness of Father Maynard…He thought we were very adventurous, not to say foolhardy, to venture out in a car for destinations far away to do church collections. Also to travel at night. These were part of our summers from the first summer on. Mother Mary had visited the Propagation of the Faith directors in several dioceses that first summer with Sister Stella, before we arrived, and they responded to our need by giving us churches. Often on Sundays there would be no one in the house except Therese, who could never bring herself to make a church appeal, being fundamentally too shy, I guess, but she more than made up for this with her organizing skills and with the skill of her hands. From the beginning we had small bazaars at Commonwealth Avenue, and Therese did a lot of clever handwork for these, and taught others to do it also. We also learned about Boston Irish bread, which is really Irish soda bread with raisins and sugar added. This was most popular and from the beginning has featured at our functions and become a sort of hallmark for us. (In later years in Winchester, Mary Reynolds made it up in dry packages and it was sold at bazaars and lawn parties)… We made everything from dolls to flowers. I don’t think there was anything that Therese could not copy.”
The Ninth Decade: 2017 –
In January 2017, we transferred our ministry in Rwanda to the Diocese of Gikongoro. We first went to Rwanda in 1994 as part of Trócaire’s response to the genocide. We later opened the Kirambi Community Health and Development Programme and handed it over as a centre of excellence to the Rwandan people.
That year we celebrated the 80th anniversary of our MMM foundation and marked this milestone with local events. The first of these in Ireland was on 11 February in Saint Patrick’s Church in Monkstown, County Dublin. This was the parish church of the young Marie Martin and the now Venerable Edel Quinn, To mark its 150th anniversary, the former mortuary chapel was re-dedicated as a prayer space to their legacy.
On 4 April, the actual anniversary, MMM Sisters, Associates, and members of the Martin family gathered for Mass and a meal at our Motherhouse. Andrea Martin presented Sr. Isabelle Smyth with copies of a recently-discovered set of letters written by Charlie Martin. The originals have gone to the National Library of Ireland for special conservation.
To encourage a greater understanding of our gift (charism) of healing, Sr. Ekaete Ekop, assistant congregational leader, facilitated sessions at our Motherhouse in May for the lay staff of our houses in Ireland.
We celebrated the first anniversary of our mission in Bomadi, Nigeria and decided to open a clinic there.
We decided to withdraw from our new mission in Cabaceiras, Brazil, because of personnel constraints. The Sisters later made one community with our MMMs in Salvador.
We held a landmark formation meeting in Ireland to review our formation processes and programmes. A new formation document was later finalized by our congregational leadership team (CLT).
We handed over our house in City Island, NY, USA. Established in 1974 as a Regional house and a base for mission awareness, it provided hospitality for many MMMs, relatives and friends. The farewell marked the end of our presence in the Archdiocese of New York. We also closed our house in Crumlin, Dublin.
Sr. Phyllis Heaney’s return to Ireland from São Paulo, Brazil, marked the end of our MMM presence in the city where we began our first foundation in the country.
Also in 2017, three groups of MMMs visited Drogheda and other sites in Ireland as part of the Heritage Experience.
In early 2018, we handed over our programme in Makondo, Uganda to the Daughters of Mary Congregation. They also took over our remaining programmes in Kitovu. The handover allowed us to begin in other areas of great need. By Christmas,
Sisters had moved to urban Munyonyo, Kampala and others were researching the needs in Kansiira, in the rural diocese of Kasana-Luweero..
A new healing centre was opened in Wau, South Sudan. It will bring basic health services to an area affected by years of unrest and conflict
We celebrated forty years of presence in Appalachia in the USA. Our mission is in an area that is home to many impoverished mountain people. Though life-supporting changes have been made during our time in Clinchco, Virginia, health care remains inaccessible for most families. The Health Wagon and RAM provide free medical care to many thousands each year.
Important work was done in updating our policies on child safeguarding.
Also in 2018, three more groups of Sisters attended the Heritage Experience.
The Eighth Decade: 2007 to 2016: Roots and Branches
In 2007, at the beginning of our eighth decade, three MMMs volunteered for a two-year ministry in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA. The Sisters were involved in parish visiting, hospital work and MMM leadership.
We held our Ninth Congregational Chapter in 2009 in All Hallows in Dublin, Ireland. Much of the Chapter agenda was based on a review of ministries in all the countries in which we work. On our first day we were privileged to be addressed by the President of Ireland, Mrs. Mary McAleese. In her remarks about the work of MMM she commented, ‘We remind ourselves that there are people like you who turn up to help, who do your best, wherever humankind or nature have done their worst. You turn up and you stay. While there is work to be done and no one else to do it, you stay.’
Also in 2009, we handed over our mission in Mitcha, Lubango in Angola with a view to opening to opening a new house in Viana, Luanda. This is a rapidly developing urban area badly in need of health services. We continued a process of consolidation in Ethiopia with the handover of our mission in Dadim, among the Borana people. At the same time, preparations were being made for our eventual withdrawal from the country.
In Kenya we completed our handover of our missions in Turkana and Kitale and the Riara Health Project in Nairobi.
In mid-2010, we handed over our two HIV-related projects in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and said farewell to our many friends in the country after fifty years of service. Our MMMs also finished their ministry in New Hampshire, USA, which freed them for work in places as diverse as Angola and Boston, MA.
In 2011, MMMs in Bahia, Brazil participated in a cultural immersion programme: PATH (Pursuing Awareness – Transcending Horizons). It provided an opportunity for us to share our healing gift (charism) and allow others to experience and reflect on how it is being lived in the Brazilian context.
This was also the year in which MMMs in Tijuana, Mexico and San Ysidro, California transferred to other houses in the USA.
We celebrated our 75th Jubilee in 2012 with a variety of events around the world. At our Motherhouse in Ireland a permanent exhibit about the life of Mother Mary, the Marie Martin Room, was opened. Nurses who graduated from the International Missionary Training Hospital held a special reunion. In June in Nigeria, the year was marked by the perpetual profession of five Sisters.
Also in 2012, representatives of our MMM Associates participated fully in the Congregational Finance and Fundraising meeting, held in Ireland.
In 2013 we began a new mission in the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Three MMMs moved into temporary accommodation in Wau, an area with a huge population of people displaced by war and conflict. They began consultations with the government and representatives of local groups to decide what health services were most needed.
We opened a house of studies in Nairobi, Kenya for our Sisters pursuing various courses in the city. It is based at the premises of the previous international novitiate.
We carried out an assessment of our health ministries in 2014. The results of this assessment, along with reports on our work from our MMM Resource Team and from Misean Cara on our projects in Brazil, helped in preparations for our forthcoming general chapter.
Using recommendations from our 2014 Extended Leadership Meeting and the results of needs assessments, our Congregational Leadership Team approved new undertakings in two areas where we already had programmes. In Lilongwe, Malawi we decided to work with the local parish and the ministry of health in beginning primary health care. This was to be integrated with palliative care, home-based care and services for women. In Ngaramtoni, Tanzania, working with the local parish, we began a dispensary and outreach services for surrounding villages. We decided to investigate opening a new mission in Abajah, Nigeria.
We held our Tenth Congregational Chapter in 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya. Using the theme ‘Remember the source from which your healing charism flows: Christ’s love in which you are rooted and founded’, delegates made a renewed commitment to be in solidarity with and empower the poor, the powerless and the marginalised.
Also in 2015 we opened three new missions in Nigeria: in Orlu, Abajah; in Bomadi, in the creeks of the Niger Delta; and in Shogunle, Lagos. These are all areas with few health services.
In the early days the Sisters got to know the people and needs assessments were done to help decide the areas in which we should work.
In 2016 in Ireland, work was completed on a project between MMM and Trinity College Dublin on the digitisation of the diary written by Mother Mary’s mother for her son, Charlie, while he was missing in action during World War I (WWI). The diary contains much information about the daily life of the Martin family.
The National Library of Ireland launched it for public viewing and the family was included in an exhibition on the history of four families during the war. It is available at http://dh.tcd.ie/martindiary/ Family letters were also digitised.
In addition in 2016, there were many events to mark the centenary of the Irish Rising. Organizers often marked these together with remembrances of those who died in WWI and their families. Stories about the Martin family, including the young Marie Martin, were broadcast on radio and television.
During that year we handed over our programmes in Capim Grosso, Brazil, and moved to a new mission closer to our Sisters in Salvador, five hours away by bus. After much discernment, the parish of São João Batista was chosen. A poor area of small subsistence farming, it is located in Cabaceiras do Paraguaçu, in the Archdiocese of São Salvador. Two Sisters moved into their new home in February.
In Nigeria we made plans to establish an MMM Heritage Centre. It will be in the compound of our VVF (fistula) hospital in Itam, which is close to Anua, Nsukara, Calabar, Ifuho and Port Harcourt, sites very much part of our MMM roots.
Our Sisters in Abuja, Nigeria were given permission to begin maternity services in their clinic. Part of the preparation was a formal needs assessment that provided baseline statistics, which will help in monitoring the impact of these services.
In November 2016, four Sisters arrived in Ireland to begin the Heritage Experience. These special days were initiated in response to the reality that most of our MMMs from Europe now live in our Motherhouse in Drogheda. These older Sisters hold many precious memories of our history. Our Mission Rooms and Archives in Drogheda are also devoted to telling our MMM story.
In recent years, most of our newer members have completed their religious and professional training in Africa or Latin America instead of in Ireland or the UK. They have not had the opportunity to visit the many sites associated with our foundress and her first companions in Ireland, to meet our more senior members, and understand the growth of MMM in this part of the world.
The CLT realized that there was a limited window of opportunity for our newer MMMs to experience this part of our heritage. They suggested that small groups of these Sisters be brought to Ireland for a short heritage tour. The MMMs in the first group returned to their various missions with renewed enthusiasm and a greater appreciation of events and places that had shaped our history. Aware that they are responsible for living and handing on our healing charism, they were eager to share the experience with other MMMs, their colleagues and staff.
The Seventh Decade: 1997 – 2006: ‘Be ready to walk in paths that are new.’
In 1997 MMM inaugurated our Seventh General Chapter. We were facing unprecedented challenges. We could see clearly that there is no health without justice; there is no health without peace. Our MMM journey continued in a Church and in a society that denies the giftedness and the gentle power of women. We yearned to bring to birth the fullness of our feminine potential.
We embraced a new, more organic model of leadership, where each member has a place at the tables of discernment, dialogue and decision-making. As racism, ethnic conflicts and dominance in our world called out for healing, we affirmed that multicultural living is an essential element in the expression of our MMM charism.
The MMM Associate Movement was born at this Chapter. The delegates responded to a request from both Sisters and lay people to embrace this opportunity for collaboration in living our charism.
Also in 1997, we decided to hand over our services at Sacred Heart Hospital in Obudu, Nigeria.
In 1998 Hurricane Mitch blew up from the South Atlantic, devastating the many countries in its path, especially those of Central America. This prompted MMMs, who had been contemplating expansion of our work in Mexico, to look to the desperate plight of the people of Honduras. The work in Marcala in the State of La Paz, among the indigenous Lenca people, began the next year.
Meanwhile, MMMs in several countries were helping local communities to survive another natural phenomenon, El Niño, which wrought particular havoc in East Africa.
From the early 1990s onwards, the growth of the Internet was opening up great new possibilities for rapid communication between our houses. This most welcome development also put new demands on us: to acquire computer literacy and put equipment in place even while the Internet was still in its infancy. Living with one foot in the world of high technology and the other in the world of severe under-development requires a balance that is not understood in most computer training institutes!
While in 1999, we handed over Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Afikpo, Nigeria, as the new Millennium approached, we were ready to embark upon another new venture. This time an all-African team of MMMs pioneered a mission in the Republic of Benin, where we had been invited to inaugurate a health service among the people of Zaffé, in the Diocese of Dassa-Zoumé. On 6 January 2000, Sisters Maria Obotomah and Ekaete Ekop from Nigeria, and Radegunda Shayo from Tanzania, set out from Lagos on a day-long journey to their new French-speaking home. The people there were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to improve their health status and had worked hard to make everything ready for the newcomers.
MMMs marked other significant events as the millennium dawned.
In early 2000, Sisters Joan Cosgrove, from Ireland, and Felicitas Egeolu, from Nigeria, moved into our new mission in Abuja, Nigeria. Located in a housing estate in New Lugbe on the outskirts of the new capital city, there were plans to build a health centre for this rapidly-growing population.
In 2000, we also began health services in Huambo, Angola’s second largest city. It had been devastated by bombing during the war. The pioneering MMMs were Sister Opportuna Cypriani Sanka, an experienced missionary from Tanzania, and Sister Laurinda Bundo from Angola. They said, “We have been waiting to go to Huambo for years. Now the war has quietened down a bit. We hope and pray we will be able to stay there. We have been asked to take over a clinic in the parish run by the Redemptorists.”
There are times for beginnings and there are times for moving on. That year we handed over Saint John’s Hospital in Mzuzu, Malawi and in 2001, we handed over Kitovu Hospital, in Masaka, Uganda. In both cases some Sisters remained on locally to provide support during the transition time. In 2002, MMM handed over the hospital in Chiulo, Angola, where we had worked for fifty years.
We marked another milestone in 2003 as MMMs gathered for our Eighth Congregational Chapter at Tallaght, in South Dublin, Ireland. Among the topics we addressed at this meeting was that of developing programmes for our Associate Movement was slowly taking root in the Congregation. Our documents from that Chapter said, “Living our life to the full requires that we share our charism, our mission, and our life in multi-cultural communion with others, among them our Associates. We affirmed the efforts made throughout the Congregation to bring to birth and nurture the MMM Associate Movement and to actively involve the laity in this process.” We called ourselves to encourage leadership to emerge from among the MMM Associates.
In 2003, in order to better co-ordinate our mission awareness work in England, we opened a new house in Solihull, Birmingham. We also handed over our work to others in Ogoja, Nigeria and Loolera, Tanzania.
In 2004 MMM celebrated 50 years in Makiungu Hospital in Tanzania. That year we began a second mission in Choloma, Honduras. The Bishop asked us to share our healing charism in the north of the country, living and working in poor communities, deeply affected by violence.
In 2006, we had the first international meeting of MMM Associates. This three-day gathering was held at our Motherhouse in Drogheda, Ireland, and included delegates from Tanzania, Ireland, the USA and Scotland. While their main task was to update the guidelines for Associates, they discussed how to maintain a balance between their primary vocation and their calling as MMM Associates and how the relationship between Associate MMMs in a particular country could be strengthened. Toni Cameron, the delegate for Ireland said, “The one central and burning question was how best to live our lives in partnership with MMM, spreading the healing charism of Christ.”
1987-1996 – The Sixth Decade – “Are all your gifts being used?”
In 1987, we celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the founding of the Medical Missionaries of Mary. In our missions around the world, we invited our staff, friends and supporters to join with us in marking this milestone in our history. Two of our founding members, Sisters Magdalen O’Rourke and Patrick Leydon, were able to travel to Nigeria for the joyous events.
At that time, MMMs in Brazil were looking to new horizons. After handing over the hospital in Parana to local staff and moving on from some of our commitments in São Paulo, the Sisters headed northwards to the State of Bahia. They settled first in a small town called Capim Grosso, then at Paraiso, and later began work in the city of Salvador.
Having begun new projects in Nangwa and Ngaramtoni, our Sisters in Tanzania also moved on as in 1987 we handed over the hospital in nDareda, where we had provided general health services for forty years.
There were other beginnings as some MMMs in Ethiopia moved to Addis Ababa, living first in rented rooms and then purchasing a house. New missions were also established in Mitcha, Angola and Lilongwe and Chipini in Malawi.
In Ireland, MMM responded to a request for Sisters to come to a residential facility at Rosedale, Kilmacow to care for vulnerable, needy, and elderly people. They looked after all aspects of the running of the home: buying provisions, getting medicines, and bringing residents to doctors and to hospital. Caring for the residents was their primary focus for over twenty-five years.
In 1989 we opened an international novitiate in Nairobi, Kenya. Women from around the world continued their initial years in MMM and experienced life with people from many cultures, very much a part of our life.
Also that year, three MMMs went to Khartoum, Sudan with plans to begin health services. They studied Arabic, became acquainted with their neighbours, and began the process to establish a project. Sadly, after two years it was apparent that there were too many obstacles in the way and we made a decision to withdraw in 1991.
In 1990, in Nairobi, we opened the Riara Project, which provided community-based health care in a huge slum area of the city.
The Sixth General Chapter in 1991 re-examined carefully what the term ‘mission’ means for us today. It is rooted in the heart of our lived experience, in solidarity with the sick, the poor, the marginalized, and those caught in famine and wars. Reflecting on these experiences, our charism came alive within us. It was clear that an inseparable element of MMM Mission is being sent to other cultures and countries, to places where Christ is not yet known and the local Church is not yet viable. We are called to the frontiers of mission and not to the maintenance of any local Church.
In a congregation like MMM, where healing is our goal, it took a lot of re-focusing to cope with the HIV pandemic, for which no cure was in sight. In Ireland and in East and West Africa, special workshops were arranged to share experiences and provide space for reflection and support for those who were dealing with so much death, not only among patients, but also among staff members and their families. Pioneering programmes to deal with prevention, treatment and the effects of the epidemic were established in several countries, especially at our missions in Kitovu, Uganda and in Ethiopia. In 1992, a facility dedicated to providing HIV services, the MMM Counseling and Social Services Center, was opened in Addis Ababa.
There were other new horizons for MMM when two Sisters travelled across the USA in 1993 to begin a new mission in San Ysidro, near San Diego in southern California. This led to the initiation of basic health projects across the border in nearby Tijuana, Mexico in 1996.
The years that followed were marked by upheaval in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. By 1993, the refugees pouring across the border from Burundi into Tanzania were but the first signs of greater trouble to come. When this erupted into full-scale genocide in Rwanda in 1994, MMMs were asked to form part of the response by Trocaire, the development agency of the Bishops’ Conference of Ireland. In June 1994 the first MMM team arrived in Rwanda. We first became engaged in relief work at Gikongoro. We later decided to establish a more permanent presence in the country and opened a health centre at Kirambi in 1996. MMMs also worked in the university city of Butare.
There were upheavals in other countries and the First Civil War in Liberia necessitated an emergency withdrawal of our Sisters there in 1994.
We realized that we needed to look after the needs of our MMMs who were aging and in need of long-term medical care in Ireland. A purpose-built facility, Aras Mhuire, was opened next to the Motherhouse in 1994, on the site of the original maternity hospital in Beechgrove.
1977-1986 – The Fifth Decade – “Teach my people compassion.”
In 1977 in Nigeria, a new initiative at Ukana was started to respond to the large number of handicapped teenagers in the area.
For some time, calls had been coming from the United States to look at the needs of many people in that country for whom health care is a luxury they cannot afford. We were asked to provide some service that would acknowledge these needs, as well as the generosity with which the American people had supported MMM since our first foundation there in 1950. This led to the establishment, in 1978, of an MMM house in Clinchco, Virginia, a town in the coal-mining region of Appalachia.Meanwhile in Kenya, in April 1978, three more Sisters were pioneering a venture among the Tugan people at Kipsaraman, in the hills high above the shore of Lake Baringo.
On 12 September 1979, Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, visited our Motherhouse and the International Missionary Training Hospital in Drogheda. “We really want committed people,” he said. “I hope that our lay people can learn from your dedication. If we can get just a little bit of that, then I am sure we will develop our country.”
As we completed ten years of work in the city of São Paulo in Brazil, we decided to take on new work in the town of Colorado in the State of Parana. This decision had lasting implications since it was there that we met the young women who became our first two Brazilian MMMs, Sister Maria José and Sister Cleide.
A year later, in 1980, the work expanded with the opening of a third house on the periphery of São Paulo. Also in 1980, a novitiate was opened in Arusha, Tanzania for young women in East Africa who wanted to follow the MMM way of life. Plans were beginning to develop a residential training centre a few miles north of Arusha at Ngaramtoni.Nothing in all our experience to date could have prepared us for the new demand that the 1980s would bring. It first came to our notice at Masaka, Uganda, where many people were coming to the hospital with an illness the local people called ‘Slim’. Before long, the world was talking of this developing pandemic, caused by a virus – HIV – leading to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Even as this new health threat was spreading, affecting rich countries as well as poor, we were still dealing with some of the old health threats like Hansen’s disease (leprosy). In 1980, MMM responded to a request to become involved in Liberia, on the west coast of Africa.We had lived through wartime in Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia and Angola, and dictatorship in Brazil, but in 1986, as MMM prepared to celebrate its fiftieth birthday, the issue on our doorstep everywhere was how to come to terms with HIV/AIDS – a battle closely linked to the war against endemic poverty.
The Fourth Decade – 1967-1976
As the Fourth Decade of MMM’s history began, the civil war in Nigeria was causing great concern. Hostilities had begun following a coup in July 1966. The attempted secession of Eastern Nigeria as Biafra deeply affected the many health care facilities MMM had established in that part of the country as fighting drew closer to one location after another. This displaced the local people and created an influx of refugees who often sought shelter or food around the mission settlements.
On top of these anxieties, 1967 brought a serious decline in the health of our Foundress, Mother Mary Martin. By December, she was confined to bed. This marked the beginning of seven years of illness, with periods of lucidity and confusion, which marked the last years of her life. From the end of 1967, the direction of the Congregation was placed in the hands of her assistant, Sister Anne Moran, and the other members of the General Council. In accordance with the requirements of the Second Vatican Council, a Special General Chapter was convened, which would open in the autumn of 1969.
In 1963, following the death of Pope John XXIII, the newly-elected Pope Paul VI had asked for missionaries to turn their attention to the great needs of the Church in Latin America. In 1968, two MMMs were sent to Brazil to investigate a possible future for MMM there. In August 1969, two pioneers, Sister Brigid McDonagh and Sister Sheila Lenehan, set off to make our first foundation in Latin America. For each of them, this was the beginning of a life of service among the people of Brazil that would last over forty-five years.
In September 1969, the second General Chapter opened. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council this inaugurated a period of experimentation. It would subject every aspect of our way of life to evaluation, open ongoing reflection and discussion, involving every member of MMM. A lasting outcome of this evaluation was the attention turned to the question of holistic health care, the community dimension of health, and our relationship to our environment.
Among the criteria set by the Third General Chapter of MMM in 1974 was the policy that our service thrust for the future should be “towards community health, social and preventive medicine, rather than institutional medicine.” At the time this was quite a controversial option. It put many demands on our Sisters as we began the difficult task of balancing our commitment to hospital-based curative medicine with community-based preventive healthcare. The latter included a strong educational dimension, training of local health workers, and the involvement of local community leadership in planning health care strategies.
The option made by MMM in 1974 would be strengthened by the Alma Ata Declaration of 1978. The World Health Organization and UNICEF called on all health workers and the world community to support national and international commitment to primary health care (PHC) and to channel increased technical and financial support to PHC, particularly in developing countries.
MMM had barely begun to grapple with the plans drawn up by the 1974 General Chapter, when another event underlined that a new era was breaking upon our history. Around 3:00 a.m. on 27 January 1975, our Foundress, Mother Mary Mary, slipped quietly from this earth to her heavenly home. Sheila Conachy, a student nurse at the International Missionary Training Hospital wrote:
“Her passing from us is like the passing of a great light of which we have seen but a shadow. Her seed planted and nourished shall bear great fruit.”
There followed memorable days of mourning when throngs of sympathizers crowded our Motherhouse and messages of condolence poured in from all corners of the world. After the impressive funeral that she was granted by the Corporation of Drogheda as a person who had received the Freedom of the Borough, we turned once more to the mandate of the General Chapter.
The Chapter had spelled out consolidation and future directions that led us to gradually withdraw from our commitments in Taiwan, Naples, and Spain.
During this period, MMM had to say “sorry” to fifty-two appeals from bishops in twenty-two different countries to send Sisters. It was difficult to refuse but we had to stay focused on what we had already undertaken. In Nigeria, we had expanded our work much further north in the Diocese of Minna, with a rural health centre established in 1971 at Zungeru, on the road that wends northwards towards Kano. We also began hospital work in Ondo in western Nigeria in 1971 and took over a rural health centre at Irele in 1975.
In 1972, a novitiate was opened in Nigeria at Ibadan, and the first novices were professed in July 1974. Soon preparations were being made for a house in the city of Benin, from where all our work in Nigeria could be co-ordinated.
In Tanzania, a house was purchased in the rapidly-growing city of Arusha, from where our work in that region could be co-ordinated. New work was undertaken at Nangwa in an exciting programme of collaboration between MMM and the local government health authorities.There was also an extension of our work in Kenya.
On 3 December 1976, feast day of Saint Francis Xavier, the great Patron of the missions, Sister Marie Conlon and Sister Rita Kelly left Kitale by landrover for a new mission at Aror in the Kerio Valley. They were last seen by some goats disappearing in a cloud of dust as they shot from Eldoret towards Iten.
As our Fourth Decade drew to a close, it was once again time to be thinking about preparations for another General Chapter, at which the experiments inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council would be further evaluated.
The Third Decade – 1957-1966: Jubilee Days and New Horizons
In 1958, MMM celebrated its 21st birthday. The ‘coming of age’ of MMM signalled that it was time to begin making plans for the first General Chapter. In religious communities this is the major congregational meeting, held at regular intervals. Delegates elect the Congregational Leadership Team and formulate general policy.
In 1959 a new mission was opened at Ikot Ene in southeastern Nigeria. This was a remote spot, cut off from the other missions by the Cross River, one of Nigeria’s most important waterways.
As the 1960s dawned, Mother Mary decided to make her Silver Jubilee project the completion of the International Missionary Training Hospital. The first wing, fully operational since 1957, was but half of her dream. Meanwhile, generous support from Cardinal Cushing of Boston enabled her to extend the Motherhouse, incorporating a library, with two further floors for accommodation in a wing that was named after St. Patrick.
The year 1961 was a very significant one. Ireland was marking the 1500th anniversary of the death of Saint Patrick, with many international visitors arriving to take part in the events of this special Patrician Year.
On June 27, two very enthusiastic pioneers, Sister Edel Weir and Sister Marie Goretti O’Conor, left Drogheda on the first stage of a journey that would take them to Nyasaland, known today as Malawi.
In March 1961, Sister Maria Glancy, already a seasoned missionary after years in Nigeria, and Sister M. Kieran Saunders, who had been a founder of the mission at Tlawi in Tanganyika back in 1947, were surprised by a new assignment. By November they had everything in order and set out to make MMM’s first foundation in Asia, on the island then known as Formosa, soon to become known as Taiwan. Before anything else could be done, they had to begin their study of Mandarin.
In June that year, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco were on a State visit to Ireland. They came to see the new hospital in Drogheda on June 13, where the Prince presented a cheque to help the ongoing building fund.
Five days later, Cardinal Agagianian, who was in Ireland as a Papal Legate for the Patrician Year celebrations in Dublin, also visited Drogheda. The gift he bore was of enormous significance to MMM. It was a Papal document known as the Decretum Laudis, stating that henceforth the Medical Missionaries of Mary was ‘a Congregation of Pontifical right’. It was unusual for a Congregation only twenty-four years in existence to receive such a distinction. This would require a complete revision of the Constitutions, which would have to be completed and approved in Rome before the General Chapter, which had been convoked to commence on 10 July 1962.
In August 1961, another visitor of note arrived in Drogheda, Cardinal Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI.
MMM’s first house in Kenya was opened at Kitale, then in the Diocese of Eldoret, in February 1962. For some months previously, news of a devastating famine throughout the entire Turkana Desert had been reaching Drogheda, with appeals to make MMMs available. The region, populated by the nomadic Turkana tribe, had lost 80% of its livestock in a severe drought now entering its third year. Large numbers of starving people were gathering at a relief camp at Lodwar. Four pioneer missionaries – two MMMs and one each from Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society and the Ursuline Sisters – crammed into a Volkswagen Beetle that was filled to the roof with supplies. They set out from Eldoret, up the long road that entered Uganda and then wended back into Kenya, till they reached the small tin house, with no toilet, which would be their base until they could develop something better.
The Silver Jubilee was, of course, celebrated, in Nigeria, where two more foundations were made in 1962. One was Saint Vincent’s Hospital at Ndubia, thirty-six miles from Abakaliki, where we had been since 1946. The other was at Nkalagu in Ogoja Diocese. This eighty-bed hospital had been built by Nigercem, which had connections with the Drogheda Cement Company. The Ngalagu hospital was set up jointly by the company and the diocese, so that company employees and local people could avail of hospital services.
At the same time in Tanzania (the name adopted by the former British Colony Tanganyika when it formed a United Republic with the offshore island of Zanzibar), two new missions were opened in the Diocese of Sumbawanga. One was at Mpanda. This was made possible when the mission at Chala, founded in 1956, was handed over to a local group of sisters: the Congregation of Holy Mary Queen of Africa. The other was further south at Namanyere.
The start of the first clinical work of MMM in Ethiopia was also in 1962. This was at Metcha, where we took over the running of a rural health centre formerly staffed by the Daughters of Charity, two hour’s west of Addis Ababa by road.
Thirty-one delegates participated in the General Chapter, which ran from 10 July to 2 August 1962. One delegate was prevented from attending because she was unable to get an exit visa from Angola, then in the early stages of its struggle for independence from Portugal. The Chapter elected Mother Mary Martin, who had led the Congregation since its foundation in 1937, to continue in the office of Mother General. The new era would see many changes in the Church, and in religious and missionary life, following the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII on 1 October 1962.
The year 1963 marked the tenth anniversary of MMM’s arrival in Angola. From the mission hospital at Tchiulo in southern Angola, a new foundation was made at Cuamato, where a few Sisters would reside and run a health centre and small maternity unit.
In 1963, another new challenge was presented, in the form of an invitation to staff the Clinica Moscati in Rome. Like the Clinica Mediterranea in Naples, this was to be a privately-run clinic. Mother Mary understood that it would be a training hospital to provide doctors and nurses for developing countries, such as she was in the process of establishing at Drogheda. She agreed to send some Sisters in late 1964 or 1965, and those assigned began to study Italian. In December 1964, sixteen MMMs arrived in Rome to staff the newly-opened Clinica Moscati, but the original plans for the clinic had changed, and our involvement there lasted little more than a year.
On 25 June 1963, the chairperson of the Irish Red Cross, Leslie, Bean de Barra, visited Drogheda. She came to present Mother Mary Martin with the Florence Nightingale Medal, which had been awarded to her by the International Red Cross in Geneva. It is conferred on nurses and voluntary helpers who have distinguished themselves by great devotion to sick and wounded persons in times of war or peace.
Another development in Nigeria in 1964 heralded a great future commitment for MMM. Saint Mary’s Hospital at Eleta opened on the outskirts of the city of Ibadan in western Nigeria.
In Ethiopia in 1965, we undertook the running of a hospital specializing in the treatment of people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) at Gambo, about five hours south of Addis Ababa.
On 26 February 1966, Mother Mary’s work was once again publicly recognized when the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland conferred her with an Honorary Fellowship.
On 6 June 1966, Mother Mary became the first woman to receive the Freedom of the Borough of Drogheda.
At the Motherhouse in Drogheda, several selected MMMs were busy studying Spanish in every spare moment. Archbishop Riberi, a lifelong friend of MMM, was now Apostolic Nuncio in Madrid. He was very anxious to have Sisters to staff a diocesan hospital in the city of Leon in northwest Spain, which was opened early in 1967, as the Third Decade of MMM’s history was drawing to a close.