"I was Fire and Flame..." Anna Dengel
The Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries, known as Medical Mission Sisters, was founded in 1925 in Washington DC, by a young Austrian doctor named Anna Dengel.
Anna was born in 1892, in the Austrian Tyrol. From an early age, she had cherished a desire to become a missionary. As a girl she had distributed mission leaflets and studied languages in preparation. A chance meeting one day with a Sister of Charity selling lace to raise money for the missions set Anna on the start of what proved to be an incredible journey through life... Anna bought some lace and found it wrapped in a pamphlet giving information about a missionary nursing school. Further enquiries led Anna to Dr Agnes McLaren.
Agnes McLaren was born in Edinburgh, in 1837, into a politically prominent family. As a result, she was exposed to a wide range of issues and personalities that were current in Victorian Society. Contrary to the norm, Agnes’ parents supported the idea of education for women. Agnes was encouraged to follow her own interests and in 1878 became only the tenth woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. Drawing on her enormous experience, network of contacts and family standing, Agnes devoted her entire life to the cause of social justice for women, including suffrage, admission to university and professional education, human trafficking and rights for prostitutes and prisoners.
Within MMS, Agnes is remembered for her efforts to improve the lives of women in Rawalpindi, northern India (now Pakistan). Custom and religious beliefs prevented women from being seen by men outside the immediate family and so medical treatment could not be accepted from male doctors. Female physicians were rare. Agnes visited India and witnessed suffering, sickness and death that could often have been prevented with good medical and nursing care.
In response to what she had seen, Agnes established a support group of women in London - The London Committee - that would publicise and raise funds for a hospital where women would be attended by women. In 1909, St Catherine's, a 16-bed hospital, was opened.
Agnes experienced many frustrations in her attempts to recruit suitable staff, but was supported by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who helped run the new hospital. In 1912 she was forwarded a letter from a young Austrian woman – Anna Dengel.
Anna and Dr McLaren never actually met, communicating only by letter. Anna was enthusiastic about Dr McLaren's ideas for India and it was agreed that Anna would study medicine at University College Cork. Sadly, Dr McLaren died a few months before Anna was due to commence her studies, in 1913. This was a great loss for Anna, a young woman about to embark on an exciting yet frightening challenge. Nevertheless, Anna continued with her medical studies, supported by the London Committee.
Anna graduated from Cork in 1919. She practiced in England for a year, before leaving in 1920 for Rawalpindi. As had been Dr McLaren's experience before her, Anna was deeply touched by the suffering she witnessed, and overwhelmed by the need. Finding lay women who would work in such difficult and remote circumstances was almost impossible: Anna saw that the only way forward would be the formation of a group of female health workers trained in all branches of health care who would dedicate their lives to the medical mission apostolate as religious sisters.
At that time, however, priests and sisters were forbidden by the Catholic Church to study and practice medicine and midwifery. In her 70's, Dr McLaren travelled to Rome five times to petition for a change in this law, unaltered since 1263! It took some 25 years more, in 1936, for the Church to approve and encourage such work.
Anna left Rawalpindi in 1924, returning to London. A few months later, accompanied by Miss Pauline Willis, an American residing in England and a member of the London Committee, Anna set off for America to raise funds and "make the cause known". Before leaving, Anna was given a piece of advice: "Take two bags with you, a very big one for all the disappointments and heartaches and a little one for the nice things!"
After much travelling, public speaking and many meetings with clergy, Anna was granted permission by the Catholic Church for the foundation of the Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries.
In Washington DC, at 1000 Newton Street, the "First Four" came together. Anna was joined by Dr Joanna Lyons, Miss Mary Evelyn Flieger and Miss Marie Ulbrich, and on 30th September 1925 the Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries was born.
Fire and Flame, The Legacy of Anna Dengel - by Medical Mission Sisters
History of the Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries, Pre-foundation to 1968 - by Medical Mission Sisters
She Stepped Out of her Class, The Life and Times of Agnes McLaren - by Janet Gottschalk MMS
Medical Mission Sisters Archives - London