“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Sr. Margaret Anne Meyer, MMM, a missionary in Uganda.
Finding a Call
Sr. Margaret Anne felt called to be a sister early in life, in the fourth grade. But by the time she reached high school, she had different plans for herself: she wanted to become a nurse and to have a family. However, in her junior year of high school, a group of Sisters from the Medical Missionaries of Mary visited her religion class. The Sisters showed a video called, “The Visitation,” explaining their particular charism of caring for African women in childbirth and how they saw the charism as closely linked with the experience of Mary caring for an expectant Elizabeth in the Gospels. Impressed by their simplicity and their joy, which seemed to radiate from them like an inner glow, Margaret Anne felt moved but not yet ready.
The Sisters had left her with a folder and a packet of information. On the front of the folder was a beautiful image of a Sister caring for a leprosy patient with the words: “Heal the sick and tell them the Kingdom of God has come unto you.” To this day she vividly remembers keeping the folder for a year, poring over the materials many times while struggling with her decision. With the quiet support of her mother, a year later, Margaret Anne decided that she would join the Medical Missionaries of Mary.
The Medical Missionaries of Mary
The Medical Missionaries of Mary were founded in 1937 under remarkable circumstances. An Irishwoman named Marie Martin, after experiences helping the sick in Malta and in Nigeria, decided that she wanted to found a medical congregation of Sisters to help women in childbirth. At that time, it was against canon law for women in religious life to practice obstetrics and surgery. She began to let others know of her wish to change this rule, and along the way met another woman, Anna Dengel, who also wanted to found a medical congregation of Sisters. Marie Martin and Anna Dengel worked through various bishops from around the world to petition Rome to change canon law and to allow the women to train Sisters to be medical missionaries.
Marie Martin waited fourteen years, patiently trusting in Divine Providence, in spite of some detractors who referred to her as “Mad Marie Martin.” Her dream came to fruition on February 11, 1936, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when Pope Pius XI changed the rule. One year later, in 1937, the congregation was officially recognized by the Church. The missionaries began to work in Africa, with a special mission to help poor women through their pregnancies.
Friendship in Mission
“Uganda was my first mission,” says Sr. Margaret Anne fondly, “I think people usually love their first mission.” It was there that she had an encounter with a woman who has been part of her life ever since. When she was still a young Sister, she met a middle class woman, who had three sons who had fallen ill and were near death. Sr. Margaret Anne arrived on the scene just in time, and referred them to a specialist that no one else had thought of. Because of her quick thinking and correct diagnosis, they all recovered their health. The mother, whose name was Flavia, responded to this by inviting Sr. Margaret Anne to her house for a lovely dinner where they truly became friends. Astonishingly, Flavia told all her friends she was glad her children had become sick because if they had not fallen ill, she never would have met Sr. Margaret Anne. Still evidently moved by the sincerity and depth of feeling in this statement, Sr. Margaret Anne remembers, “I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe she could say that and I really felt she was sincere.”
Unfortunately, her time in Uganda was abruptly ended when the United States ended the coffee trade. Political unrest made the situation volatile for missionaries, and the bishop and the United States government asked her to leave. Sr. Margaret Anne went to Tanzania for the next eleven years. Because of the political situation, she was forced to leave quickly without saying goodbye, which made the hasty farewell quite painful for Sr. Margaret Anne.
Eleven years later, when Sr. Margaret Anne finally was able to return to Uganda, one of Flavia’s sons had died of HIV/AIDS. Sr. Margaret Anne accompanied Flavia in her pain, which was more excruciating due to the shame associated with AIDS at that time. “She couldn’t accept that he had died of AIDS. She said that it was an unknown illness.” Still, in her suffering, Sr. Margaret Anne says, “I felt very close to that woman.”
In Ugandan funerals, a particular kind of tree bark is used to bury the body. Through a very extensive and physically demanding process, they transform the tree bark into a burial cloth. Flavia once gave Sr. Margaret Anne a wallet made out of this tree bark. “I want to be buried with the wallet that she gave me,” says Sr. Margaret Anne. “Flavia will come with me to the grave.”
Love is Purified by Loving
Sr. Margaret Anne acknowledges that it could be very easy for missionary Sisters to become discouraged. Mission is difficult, demographics show that fewer women are choosing this way of life, and her congregation does not shy away from some of the most challenging situations. In fact, the Medical Missionaries of Mary were among the first missionaries to go into Rwanda and offer medical assistance after the 1994 Genocide.
But the work that they do is urgent and saves lives. Furthermore, it is clear that for Sr. Margaret Anne, the way that she and the missionaries carry out this medical work is vital and unique. The internationality of her community, with 120 African Sisters, is something that they try to live authentically, helping each other to be their truest and best selves before God and each other. In the face of challenges, Sr. Margaret Anne says, “I think you just try to be faithful.” She remembers the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Love is purified by loving.”
Waiting with Gratitude
These days, Sr. Margaret Anne is living this faithfulness through mission education at various Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Due to macular degeneration, she has to re-evaluate on a yearly basis whether or not she can drive to and from the mission education programs. She resides in the Bronx where she is “available for obedience,” though she clarifies that these days, obedience in consecrated life means that she also discerns with the community where she ought to go, rather than simply following orders. In the meantime, she waits with joy and enjoys the opportunity to instill a love for mission in Catholic schools. “I am convinced that God wants you to be happy, that he leads you to happiness,” she says. “And I am very happy. I am grateful for everything.”