Sister power: Women religious and health care in India and Iowa


By Timothy Walch

“How Six Nuns Transformed India.” That’s the headline on a full-page article published in the New York Times on April 3. It’s a story that captures the power of women religious to bring about change. It’s a story that resonates here in Iowa as much as it does in India.


In compelling prose, Jyoti Thottam writes about six Catholic nuns from rural Kentucky who built a hospital in the small town of Mokama in northern India. Her story is an excerpt from her new book, “Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India.”

And what a story it is. It is hard to comprehend the dire straits of health care in India in the years after World War II. “The starkest numbers were among children,” Thottam writes. “Children under ten accounted for nearly half of all the deaths in India.” After the war, India became a free nation and was desperate for health care professionals of any kind from any country.


The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth heard the call and sent a small contingent to staff a primitive hospital. They arrived at the end of 1947 with little more than an abiding faith that they could make a difference. In their work, the sisters were aided by a dynamic young Indian woman who served as the bridge to the community they served.

The health care challenge was daunting. The sisters needed a doctor and a continuing supply of medicine. They had been hardened by poverty and suffering in Appalachia, but their hearts were broken by the daily deaths of women and children who were beyond their care.

Through it all, Nazareth Hospital emerged in Mokama. By the summer of 1948, they had a doctor and the order found a way to keep the sisters supplied with the medicine they needed. They handled other challenges — clean water, for example — with practical Kentucky ingenuity.

However, healthcare is labor intensive and six nuns from Kentucky went only so far. The sisters realized quickly that they needed to educate future nurses to make any progress in improving healthcare. Not surprisingly, the sisters established a nursing school.

“The nursing school eventually attracted generations of Indian women as students,” added Thottam, “some of them just teenagers, many of them also motherless or fatherless.” These nurses helped to change healthcare across this vast and diverse country. Nuns and nurses together were a force multiplier.

It is important to stress that other religious women and nurses also contributed to the general improvement of healthcare in India. Yet there is something special about Nazareth Hospital. “Its presence as an institution founded and run by women,” concludes Thottam, “stands as a challenge to those in power, a lasting reminder of those early years and that crystalline moment of hope.”

So, what is the connection between healthcare in India and here in Iowa? Simply put, one vital element in the Iowa healthcare enterprise is the contribution of women religious. The Sisters of Mercy and other orders have devoted themselves to caring for the sick, the elderly, the indigent and the dying. Mercy hospitals have become so common across Iowa that we tend to take them for granted. We can only imagine what healthcare would have been like in Davenport and so many other Iowa communities without the care and compassion of women religious.

In this Easter season let’s do more for the nuns who have done so much to transform healthcare both here in Iowa and around the world. Thoughts and prayers are welcome, but so are gifts to the charitable foundations that support these women and their healthcare operations.

(Timothy Walch is a lay director at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the board of directors of The Catholic Messenger.)

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