For the month of April, Pope Francis’s Prayer Intentions are for The Role Of Women. We all should remember how important women are to our communities and to each of us personally. This inspired me to do some digging through the Archives in search of some particularly special women amongst the Maryknoll Sisters. My search lead me to Maryknoll’s Medical Missions, specifically the Sisters who were fully accredited Medical Doctors.

Doctors are a vital part of our society, keeping the general public healthy. Sister-Doctors are no different, though they tend to serve the communities that have the most needs and the least access. Our Sisters have served in all manner of places, from refugee camps in post-war Korea, the poor communities of Latin America, to the AIDS clinics of Tanzania and so much more. Join me as we celebrate the Role of Women through the lens of a few of the Maryknoll Sisters’ Doctors.

Maryknoll Sisters in a class about Surgery, Monrovia, CA

Sister Mary Mercy Hirschboeck

The first Sister I would like to highlight is Sr. Mary Mercy Hirschboeck, the first Medical Doctor to join the Maryknoll Sisters. Sr. Mercy was born on March 10, 1903 and was originally named Elizabeth. She was among the first women to graduate from the Marquette School of Medicine. She joined the Maryknoll Sisters shortly after completing her internship and took the name Sr. Mary Mercy.

Sr. Mercy started her mission career in Korea, working in Yeng You, Gishu and Shingishu. She was much beloved for her medical skills, receiving the appreciation of the people she served. In 1940, she returned the the United States to work in the Maryknoll Infirmary. She yearned to once again serve the Korean people, however World War II delayed her return. Instead, Sr. Mercy took up a brand new mission in Bolivia, pioneering the opening of a hospital in Riberalta. This Hospital would be a cornerstone of the Sisters’ mission in Bolivia and served the Riberalta community for many years.

With the Outbreak of the Korean War, Sr. Mercy got her wish to return to Korea. This time she went to Pusan, where the Maryknoll Sisters opened a new Hospital. In Pusan, Sr. Mercy did some of her finest work helping countless refugees from the war. Her time in Korea is recounted in greater detail in the book, Her Name is Mercy, written by fellow Maryknoll Sister, Sister Maria del Rey Danforth. When leaving Korea in 1955, the Mayor of Pusan cited her incredible service as a “… great example she has given of the practical workings of the faith she represents.”

Returning to the United States, Sr. Mercy became the administrator of the Queen of the World Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. The Queen of the World Hospital was one of the first non-segregated hospitals in the area. This was Sr. Mercy’s last medical mission, as she would become Vicaress General of the Maryknoll Sisters in 1958. She served in that role for 12 years until she retired into prayer ministry for the rest of her life.

Sr. Mercy Hirschboeck
Sr. Mercy Hirschboeck assisting a patient in the waiting room, Riberalta, Bolivia, 1948
Sr. Mercy Hirschboeck in Pusan, Korea
Sr. Mercy Hirschboeck and Sr. Lois doing a medical examination, Queen of the World Hospital, Kansas City, MO

Sister Lucia Yu

Our next Sister is Sr. Lucia (Woo Gum) Yu, a Korean born Doctor-turned-Sister with almost 50 years of medical mission. Sr. Lucia Yu was born as Woo Gum Yu on January 11, 1931 in Pusan, Korea. After graduating High School, she was recommended by one of her teachers to pursue a medical career. She earned her Medical Degree in 1955, and then studied Midwifery at the Australian Mission in Pusan under Doctor Helen MacKenzie. You can learn more about this part of Sr. Yu’s story at this presentation by Hea-Jin Park, PhD.

Woo Gum Yu then travelled to the United States and completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1961. Around this time, she learned about the work of Sr. Mercy and the Maryknoll Sisters in Pusan. She converted to the Catholic Faith and entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1965. Woo Gum took the name of Sr. Lucia and began a long career in medical missions.

Sr. Yu’s mission started in 1968 in her home country of Korea, working at the clinic on Kanghwa Island. After only a year, she was assigned to the Sisters’ mission in Kenya, specifically Kinango and Kisii. While in Kenya, Sr. Yu constantly dealt with a lack of financial and medical resources. Despite this, she always gave the best care she could to any patient that crossed her door. After 20 years in Kenya, Sr. Yu would return to medical mission in Korea serving the poor and homeless. She kept up this work all the way until 2008, when she finally retired.

Sr. Yu’s teacher was right to set her on the career path of a Doctor. Over the course of her life, she received many awards and recognitions for her medical work. Her heart was always looking towards the sick and needy. Sr. Lucia Yu reflected: “when we read the Bible, Jesus heals a blind man with mud, and a paralyzed person by saying, “’Pickup your mat and walk.’ It is so simple and incredible. But the difference is that Jesus healed the sick with LOVE, changed their consciousness and transformed wounded persons to whole persons. So, I only tried to follow His steps.

Sister Lucia Yu
Sr. Lucia Yu checking on a mother and child, Kisii, Kenya, 1980
Sr. Lucia Yu at her clinic in Kinango, Kenya, 1970

Sister Paula Therese Starke

When I was researching Sisters, one of the most inspiring stories for me was that of Sr. Paula Therese Starke. Sr. Starke was highly regarded in the field of Cardiology and an acclaimed Teacher of Medicine in the United States. Born January 2nd, 1918, Sr. Starke was always very science-minded. She graduated from Duke University in 1941 with an A.B. in Math and a Medical Doctorate, with a specialization in Internal Medicine. Around 1950, she became interested in the Catholic Faith and soon found a growing call to religious life, entering the Maryknoll Sisters in 1953.

Sr. Starke’s first mission assignment was to Queen of the World Hospital, serving among its many doctors from 1956 to 1964. During this time she was allowed to begin clinical training in Cardiology, beginning a life-long love for the discipline. When considering a new mission, Sr. Starke found she had no aptitude for other languages. After discussing the matter with Mother Mary Coleman, she was granted permission to go into academia. This was the beginning of a long career training new doctors.

In 1965, Sr. Starke became a Cardiovascular Fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center, serving as an instructor in 1968. She then moved to the University of Nebraska Medical School where she spent the next two decades training the next generation of Doctors. She was beloved by students and colleagues alike, receiving numerous awards for her teaching and medical skills. The one quality Sr. Starke always instilled in her students was respect and concern for the patient as a person.

At 70 years old, she retired from teaching and pursued a new mission in Houston, Texas. There she ran a clinic at Baylor University, serving the poor alongside other medical professionals. Sr. Starke returned to Maryknoll in 1994 at the age of 76, passing the following year. While she never went overseas, Sr. Starke affected the lives of many by teaching new doctors to empathize with their patients.

Sr. Paula Therese Starke
Sr. Paula Therese Starke studying an X-Ray, Queen of the World Hospital, Kansas City, MO
Sr. Paula Therese Starke walking out of Queen of the World Hospital, Kansas City, MO
Sr. Paula Therese Starke receiving a gift for her Silver Jubilee, 1988

Sister Gilmary Simmons

The final Sister I want to feature is Sr. Gilmary Simmons, a world traveler and influential medical professional. Sr. Gilmary was born as Eileen Catherine Simmons on September 26, 1922. She received her MD in 1948 from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eileen spent the next few years finishing her medical training, focusing on the field of Pediatrics. She entered Maryknoll in 1951 to pursue her dream of being a missioner, taking the name Sister Gilmary (Gaelic for “servant Mary”).

Sr. Gilmary’s first assignment was in 1954 to Korea, working with the overwhelming number of war refugees. She was placed in charge of Pediatrics Public Health, setting up at-home care programs, maternal and child clinics, and health education programs. In 1962, she became the Medical Director of the Maryknoll Hospital in Pusan. She transitioned the hospital into a Medical Training Center before handing administration over to the Koreans in 1968. Throughout all of this she still focused on Pediatrics, becoming a major leader of the field in Korea.

From 1968-1971, Sr. Gilmary worked to improve rural health care in Korea, specifically on Ko-je island. This work resulted in an invitation for her to be a medical consultant to the Christian Medical Commission of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. The goal of the Commission was to enable the delivery of better medical care in developing countries. Sr. Gilmary traveled the world, organizing workshops for Government and Church Health professionals. She travelled to countries in Africa, Asia, Middle and South America, the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific Islands.

Sr. Gilmary returned to Maryknoll in 1974 to serve as the Health Services Director and Center Coordinator. She occupied this role from 5 years, before going on family ministry to take care of her ailing father. In 1984, she started a new mission to serve the sick poor at St. Vincent’s Hospital, but a turn in health cut that ministry short. She returned to Maryknoll to serve in the Development Data Processing Office for 15 years and fully retired in 2003.

Sr. Gilmary Simmons
Srs. Gilmary Simmons, Mary Hock, and Marquette Bonnin with Senior Nursing Students, Pusan, Korea
Sister Gilmary Simmons taking care of a patient at Pusan Hospital, Korea, 1956
Sister Gilmary Simmons during home visits, Korea

Maryknoll’s Other Sister Doctors

These women are just four examples of the incredible medical professionals of the Maryknoll Sisters. Below is a list of the rest of Maryknoll’s Sister Doctors I could find, their years in medical ministry, mission locations, and the type of work they did. Unfortunately I do not have the space to list all of the Nurses of the Maryknoll Sisters, nor the many Fathers, Brothers, and Lay Missioners who have been medical professionals. If you want more information, you can check out my colleague’s post on the Origins of Maryknoll’s Medical Mission here. Thank you for joining me as we celebrate the incredible Doctors of the Maryknoll Sisters.

  • Sr. Dorothy Erickson: Served 40 years in Bolivia and Guatemala, mostly working in rural areas
  • Sr. Therese Howard: Served 26 years in Hong Kong, working in a variety of medical ministries
  • Sr. Maria Rieckelman: Served 57 years in Korea, Hong Kong, and the United States, starting with general medical work before branching out into Child Psychiatry for 46 years
  • Sr. Cecelia Wood: Served 33 years in the Philippines, working with the poor and disabled
  • Sr. Vivian Vortruba: Served 40 years in Bolivia, Nigeria, and Peru, working in medical ministry
  • Sr. Ramona Maria Tombo: Served over 10 years in the Philippines, working as a mobile dentist
  • Sr. Antonia Maria Guerrieri: Served 65 years in China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan, working in general medical ministry and pastoral care
  • Sr. Maria Corazon Jaramillo: Served 42 years in China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan, working in a variety of medical ministries
  • Sr. Mary Annel: Served 27 Years in Guatemala and El Salvador, working in Public Health and AIDS ministries
Maryknoll Sister doing Lab Work, Queen of the World Hospital, Kansas City, MO