Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) is attempting to patch the world up both physically and spiritually, and Sr Carol Breslin is one of those who applies the bandages.
Celebrating her Jubilee year with the congregation, Sr Carol’s interest in healthcare was first piqued by her mother’s example as she volunteered for various groups that helped children with disabilities and people suffering with cancer. Her schoolteachers inculcated an interest in other countries and cultures, and so the stage was set for her entry into ministry. She just needed an opportunity.
“The way I encountered the Medical Missionaries was that my mother went to a meeting when I was quite small, but she went to a meeting and two medical missionaries were at the meeting and they showed a film about the work, and she started getting the magazine – the MMM magazine. It was always in the house, and that sparked my interest. I was very intrigued by these women who had a very contemporary approach to religious life,” she tells The Irish Catholic.
They presented an alluring face to the world, one which Sr Carol would be drawn in by. “Young women were joining and being trained and being sent overseas. I suppose there was a sense of adventure, too. That was attractive.”
Joining at 18 to undergo postulancy and novitiate, Sr Carol made her first profession before entering work for a time at the MMM’s Boston house. Coming to Ireland in 1973 to study medicine at UCD, she worked in Drogheda for two years before also studying tropical medicine in Liverpool, “just to have an introduction to tropical medicine,” she shares.
From there, it was straight out into the field. She was sent to Nigeria, where she would spend the next 12 years.
“Challenging, yes,” she laughs, “a lot of it wasn’t in the books.”
“In Nigeria it was mainly hospital and clinic work. A lot of general medicine and, especially in the place where I spent most of my time, we had people with Hansen’s disease (Leprosy). A lot of maternity work, and I did a lot of work with children which I enjoyed,” she says.
The MMM approach is built upon both work and prayer, with the “work coming out of the Faith, and the work informing the Faith.”
“We lived in community, and prayer was built into our day. There were certain times for prayer and Mass, but the patient always had priority. We could be called away. If someone was in need, then we responded to that need,” she says. “I think the strong prayer life is very important – to remember why we’re doing it. To have a strong relationship with God, I feel that’s important.”
Taking a brief break after her assignment to Nigeria drew to a close, Sr Carol was assigned to Ethiopia in 1996 – this one lasting 14 years.
“The basic reason for going there is that – we were already in Ethiopia for a number of years, but we had started, in the capital, Addis Ababa, a project for people affected by HIV. When I first went, I also did some clinic work with the Little Sisters of Jesus. It was a clinic for the very poor of the city. I did that part-time for about four years, but in the meantime I took over as administrator of our MMM counselling centre for people with HIV,” she says.
However, Sr Carol is quick to point out that the work wasn’t the sole province of the missionaries. “We don’t do it on our own. We work with people,” she explains.
“We were working with staff who had good ideas and I felt that one of my main roles – I continued practicing medicine as kind of a side-line – but I felt my main role was to encourage the staff who had good ideas. They were the local people, they knew the people. If they had a good idea about something, we had to encourage that. Many of them were continuing their education, and we tried to facilitate their development.”
This collaboration brought about real change, with Sr Carol working alongside others to develop the first books in Ethiopia in braille about HIV.
Such work can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing, but Sr Carol saw signs of hope among many of the world’s destitute. “When I first went to Ethiopia, there was no treatment,” she says, with many dying of treatable illness.
“While I was there, I saw the development of treatment. It came in gradually…this treatment came in for HIV, for AIDS, it was literally like the Resurrection. People who had been dying now were gradually – the treatment was working. They were able to get back to work, they were able to take care of their families, children were going back to school. I was there for a whole development, between a time of what seems like hopelessness, I mean, we could give them spiritual consolation and we were helping people to die, but that’s very, very draining for staff. But then we saw the treatment coming in and it took on a whole new perspective,” she remembers.
“That’s what gives me hope and that’s…to me, God is working through that. That’s very much a faith-based approach. God gives us our talents to use, to affect healing.”
Now working in communications for the MMM, Sr Carol delights in their freedom to interact with communities. Many of the institutions she worked in have since been handed over to the governments of various countries, leaving MMM “free to do our work,” in Sr Carol’s words. Just the work the world needs in the time of the coronavirus.