Vatican Call to Work in Latin America Missions

In 1959, the Papal representative spoke to leaders of American Religious Congregations. He asked them to send 10% of their members to work in the missions, especially in Latin America. The Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province, which included the Chicago area, were working in the area of Santarém, Brazil. After consultation, the Wheaton Franciscans decided to explore the possibility of joining the work in this area.   

Mother Fidelis Gossens and Sister Virgilia Beikler visited Santarém in December 1960. The need of the people for basic health care and health education was apparent. When they returned to Wheaton, planning began for mission service in this area. They were advised by the Friars and others with missionary experience to send people who were younger (between 25 and 35), in good health, could tolerate the heat and humidity, and who had the capacity to learn another language. 

Three Sisters volunteered– Gemma Backer, Martha Friedman, and Adrienne Shannon– and began training programs including care for patients with tuberculosis and leprosy. Srs. Martha and Adrienne also attended an 8-month program on midwifery. The training and preparation lasted through most of 1962. 

Arrival In Brazil

In December 1963, the three Sisters left New York by ship and arrived in Brazil close to Christmas. They spent the first four months with the Precious Blood Sisters in Manaus Amazonia. In May 1964, the Sisters began their work. They prepared their new living quarters and clinic, cleaning and repairing the building as necessary. The people whom they served would arrive as early as 3:00 a.m. to wait in line for help. They lacked the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, and clean water. 

Back in Wheaton, the Sisters focused on collecting goods to support the mission in Brazil. Twice a year, shipments of 55-gallon metal drums were filled with supplies and sent to Santarem.  

Life in Brazil

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Healthcare Development in Santarém, Brazil 

In 1968, a twenty-bed maternity hospital was opened. In the mid-1970’s the hospital was expanded. In addition to the hospital and clinic, Sister Martha Friedman established a training program for midwives. The health care provided, as well as the health practices taught to the midwives and new mothers, led to improved health practices in the villages. 

By the late 1970s it became apparent that keeping the hospital and the donation program was no longer possible for the Wheaton Franciscans. There were no more Sisters able to help with administration and funding was insufficient to continue the work.  

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By the late 1970s it became apparent that keeping the hospital and the donation program was no longer possible for the Wheaton Franciscans. There were no more Sisters able to help with administration and funding was insufficient to continue the work.   

The Wheaton Franciscans entered into dialogue with the Order of Camillian Fathers from south Brazil. The hospital and social services were transferred in late 1985. The Wheaton Franciscans continued to directly serve in Brazil until 2013 when Sister Martha Friedman returned to the Wheaton. 

If you would like to read more about the Wheaton Franciscan presence in Brazil, as well as more anecdotes and stories from Sister Martha Friedman’s 50 years of service at the mission, we recommend reading her book God is Good: The First 25 Years Of Our Mission in Brazil.

Read "God Is Good" by Sr. Martha Friedman

Stories about Brazil in the words of Sister Martha Friedman

One day our Franciscan Brothers, Harry and Bill, brought their big German Shepherd dog for a consultation. He was so far gone that he couldn’t stand up anymore. They carried him onto our back porch. So, we decided to give it a try. Sr. Alice held the big dog and I put a stomach tube down him and gave him some liquid food by tube. On the third day he could walk again and ate food normally. That made our day! 

One mother took a pen with her to the delivery room. I asked her why she had a pen with her in the delivery room. She said that her husband told her to take a pen with her so that she could mark the baby so it wouldn’t get mixed up with the others. She was going to write on its hand. I told her I marked it with a bracelet and she was happy about that. 

On rare occasions our long-term baby patients got special privileges that helped in their recovery. This baby joined us in one of our recreations. Brothers Harry and Bill played guitars and we all sang along. The crying baby stopped and appeared to enjoy the love and attention. 

One day a little boy came to our door and sold us some lemons. Later we found out that he had climbed over our wall and stole the lemons from OUR lemon tree in our backyard and then went around to the front of the hospital and sold them to us. We had to laugh when we found out we bought our own lemons!