Current Ministry Location-Guatemala
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Sister Mary Lou entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1978 after receiving her M.D. from Wayne State University School of Medicine and doing her residency in the University of Miami Hospitals. Working with Hispanics in Miami influenced her consideration of mission in Latin America later.
After her first profession in June, 1980, she asked to be assigned to Guatemala because the country was at war. “I felt my skills as a physician could be best used there.” Her mission-sending was scheduled for December 3, 1980. However, word came that Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan’s tortured bodies were found that morning and the mission sending ceremony was cancelled. Sister Mary Lou knew all four of the women and her trip was postponed. “I think their deaths deepened my commitment to go and to be in mission in a situation of tremendous institutional violence.”
Arriving in Guatemala in 1981, she began her work as a surgeon in a hospital started by the Maryknoll Sisters in Jacaltenango, Huehuetenango. However, the need for preventive medicine in the Peten, the northern jungle area of Guatemala, was so great she joined another Maryknoll Sister doctor, Jane Buellesbach, in a primary health program training health promoters and doing some clinical medicine in the most isolated area of Guatemala. The Peten was a zone of conflict, 1981 and 1982 being the worst of the thirty-six year long civil war in the country. She learned from the poor who amazed her in the midst of the worst of the violence by being filled with hope that there would be a better day, that life would be better for their children. She personally knew people who had really suffered, who had lost their husbands, wives, children, people who had had to flee their homes. They confirmed her call to mission. As the violence increased, the bishop eventually asked the Sisters to leave for safety reasons.
The Sisters settled in the diocese of San Marcos, a largely indigenous area, and began living in Catarina , a small town near the Pacific coast. For the first year they traveled from village to village, learning about local health needs and problems, and proposing a community based primary health program similar to the one in the Peten. They didn’t know if anyone would come. Some thirty-five men and women came from two towns and became the program’s best advertisement. “It just caught fire.” People saw improvements in their neighbors’ health. This has grown into a group of hundreds of volunteer health promoters. Hundreds of patients are also seen by the Sister doctors in their base clinic and four rural satellite clinics, treating common illnesses, supporting the promoters’ teaching of nutrition, and assuring pregnant women of good prenatal care. AIDS is a huge problem on the coast and the Sisters work on a very strong program of diagnosis, education and treatment.
In 1997 when Sister Mary Lou was elected to the Maryknoll Sisters Leadership Team for six years, she left this health ministry. Returning in 2003, she easily got back into the rhythm of a ministry that has built a lot of hope and initiative in the communities of San Marcos. She continues to learn from the poor.