Religious sisters: Healthcare agents at the service of Nigerian families

by Caroline Mbonu

NCR Contributor

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"I feel quite certain Rev. Mother General would heartily come to the assistance of thousands of African children, girls and women sorely in need of assistance which Sisters alone can give."

- from a letter of Irish Missionary Bishop Joseph Shanahan to the Superior of the Irish Sisters of Charity, July 18, 1914 .

Bishop Joseph Shanahan identified very early on in the Eastern Nigerian missionary project the particular role of women religious as pastoral agents. His 1914 letter to the leadership of the Irish Sisters of Charity underscores the significance of religious sisters in the community called church. The continued commitment of the sisters to life-affirming ministries validates the hopes of the pioneer missionaries.

A life-affirming instrument, the vows of religion, enlivens in an extraordinary manner the mothering instinct in the sisters. Sisters’ maternal role is not confined to the walls of the classrooms; their roles as mothers are profoundly felt in the healthcare ministry. Sisters provide healthcare to families from conception to natural death. Drawing inspiration from our Blessed Mother Mary, who was both a mother and an evangelizer, the sister health worker carries out both roles.

Religious health workers brought new energy to the missionary project in Eastern Nigeria (Igboland). The Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary founded of Holy Rosary Hospital Emekuku in 1935. With its network of maternity clinics and dispensaries, it did more to bring people to the faith in the early days than any preaching from the pulpit. And in fact, the trend continues to this day.

Women who access the mission healthcare facilities invariably attach themselves to the religious faith of the missionaries. These women in turn bring their children to church, and sometimes, the husbands come along. Some scholars identify this ministry to the sick (as well as education) as contributing to the large number of Igbo who converted to Christianity. Sisters in Igboland have continued to follow the footsteps of their religious foremothers in the healthcare ministry with a renewed zeal in this new era of evangelization.

One may ask, “What motivates the sisters in this ministry?” I would say it is faith in God, a faith that translates into a strong commitment to bring Christ to people. Mindful of their call to do that “which sisters alone can give,” they consciously establish maternity clinics in areas where there is little or no government presence.

Often, sisters go on healthcare outreach activities in remote villages. Most of the villages have no paved roads, running water or electricity. The sisters are not deterred. Their maternal instinct takes them to wherever they find God’s daughters and sons, particularly those in need of help.

Because of the sisters’ dedication to the sick, and especially their care for expectant mothers, many of the rural population believe every woman religious to be a healthcare practitioner; to them, every religious sister is a nurse, a midwife or both. I have often been asked a number of times to offer some health advice or even dispense some medication when on mission in a village.

And so a sister embarking on a home-to-home visitation in a village must be prepared to respond to requests for remedies for illness such as arthritis, stomach upset or even malaria! In the consciousness of these folks, a religious sister becomes synonymous with effective healthcare delivery. I must also note that sister health workers do not only work in mission establishments. Some work in government health institutions. A sister who works in government institutions strives to distinguish herself, bearing in mind that she is there to give that which sisters alone can give.

Who supports the sisters’ health care initiatives? Like most journeys of faith, absolute trust in Divine Providence is the key to arriving at one’s destination. In addition, prayer and sacrifice have also unlocked many financially closed doors. Through the generosity of the people of God, some sisters have continued to keep open clinics in rural areas.

Furthermore, organized fundraising, as well as meager internally generated revenue, continue to assist the sisters to soldier on, to offer to the Nigerian family that which sisters alone can give. I must also note that some religious communities own and manage a number of reputable hospitals in Igboland. Revenues from larger hospitals go to support the work of the sisters at the grassroots – to the rural maternity clinics.

The professional education of the sisters in the healthcare ministry is of paramount importance in restoring health to the sick. For us to give that which sisters alone can do, we need to acquire skills suited for the ministry. Thanks to the foresight of the missionaries as well as to foreign aid, a small number of religious sisters have qualified as medical personnel; they are doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, and medical and laboratory technicians.

Yet, so much remain to be done. The whole area of physiotherapy, for example, is not well established here. Consequently, persons recovering from stroke never get the chance of full rehabilitation.

The not-so-new area of natural medicine, which fits well into the African traditional medicine, is still another area where sisters can render service. In the tradition, woman’s role as herbalist lends support to religious sisters’ scientific exploration of natural cures. Sisters’ commitment to exploring natural medicine has potential for evangelization. Many persons, both inside or outside the formal church, can identify with local remedies. Common knowledge confirms that African mothers’ home remedies – combinations of roots, spices, oils, leaves and tree barks – have served the health needs of African families for millennia.   

In totality, the number of religious in the professional medical fields appears insignificant to Nigeria’s population of more than 120 million people. Yet the quality of service the sisters render, particularly in the rural areas, remains unquantifiable. Shanahan’s wisdom echoes through their unalloyed commitment to the African family in offering that which sisters alone can give.    

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]