Sisters can’t be doctors. Sounds like a schoolyard taunt. But it was part of what Anna Dengel faced as she attempted to bring together two aspects of her life: serving the poor as a doctor and committing her life totally to God in religious life.
While in her twenties, Anna learned of the plight of Muslim women in India, and corresponded with Agnes McLaren, who pioneered medical care for women who, because of cultural and religious restrictions, could not be treated by male physicians. She completed medical school at University College in Cork, Ireland. Then in 1920, it was off to the subcontinent.
Four years of service followed, convincing Dr Dengel that more support for women was needed. She came to the United States and lobbied prelates, clergy, and benefactors to support the goal of training women as nurses and doctors and sending them to Third World countries to serve.
Her role model, Agnes McLaren, had hoped to form a community of women religious. But church law forbade such women from serving as medical professionals. Dr McLaren was unsuccessful in her attempts, but having recruited Dr Dengel to the cause, placed the idea with a catalyst who was eventually able to break through the bureaucracy.
In 1925, the Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries was formed and approved. Canonical vows were still impossible. But Dr Dengel and her first three companions (including an Iowa nurse, Marie Ulbrich) lived the life of community commitment and service they hoped to have officially recognized.
Another decade passed, and with more and more women drawn to the Society’s charism, finally the Sisters of the Catholic Medical Missions were approved as a religious congregation in 1936.
Check their website here. Six hundred women serve in seventeen countries today. Another eighty lay persons support the apostolate as associates. “A healing presence at the heart of a wounded world” — who couldn’t pray, support, and live that?