Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 22, 2006
Sister plants seeds of service
Medical mission Sr. Estelle Demers' pratical guidance spawned innovative services
By BILL GLEN
"Sister Estelle was an incredible leader, gifted at bringing people together."
- Bob McKeon
"The whole thing was a working miracle. We all worked hard to design the centre to look at the health of the neighbourhood and not to just do clinic work," Demers said. "I thought Edmonton was a city that hung together. We met a lot of people and admired their friendliness and openness to discuss what was needed."
McKeon says the time was a moment when communities came together for a common goal.
"The Mission Sisters were crucial lead agents in organizing the health centre. They were also active in a variety of other community initiatives," said McKeon, a professor of social teaching and systematic theology at both Newman Theological College and St. Joseph's College at the U of A.
"I learned so much working with her. In a way, she was my mentor."
McKeon lives a block from the centre. He worked alongside Demers for about four years when he became chair of the board. Demers was also key in establishing the goals and objectives of an inner city housing agency.
McKeon and Demers also served together on the Edmonton Archdiocese's social justice commission.
"Sister Estelle was an incredible leader, gifted at bringing people together. She is wonderfully skilled around process and is able to listen to people helping them articulate their vision. She is spiritual."
The Medical Mission Sisters are an international community of Catholic women based in Philadelphia, committed to being a healing presence in areas of need. Founded in 1925 by Austrian-born Dr. Anna Dengel, they were the first Roman Catholic order to combine the practice of medicine, surgery and obstetrics with religious life.
Their 650 members serve in 19 countries on five continents.
McKeon described the work MMS did for the Boyle-McCauley community as "incredible."
"What they started continues today. It is a very unique form of health care in the inner city. It has remained a community-based centre that is grounded in the values Sister Estelle helped us establish," he said.
"Her legacy is not a building with her name on it. It is living, community institutions that were so well grounded, they are still doing a good job 25 years later."
Demers said religious life is primarily following the example of the life of Jesus.
"Religious life lets you undertake the living of the Gospel within the context of a group of people who are wanting to do the same thing. Community is a powerful source of energy and creativity on applied Gospel living."
Born near Shaunavon, Sask., in 1932, Demers moved to Lethbridge as a young child. The family moved to Windsor for a few years before returning to Lethbridge. She grew up sensing she wanted to see if she could do something significant in the world.
While in high school, she saw a photo of the Medical Mission Sisters and they appealed to her. She filed it away in her mind until about a year after graduating when she read an article about Dr. Anna Dengel. The charism of the MMS appealed to her because of their practice of medical work.
"They were founded in 1925, but Anna Dengel worked to have canon law changed. Until 1942 they were a pious organization. Dengel was an impressive, dynamic woman. She convinced many people this work was worth doing."
"Everything that we need for life, we receive from the earth."
- Sr. Estelle Demers
Demers entered the MMS in 1954 near San Francisco. After six months of formation, she moved to Philadelphia where she made her first profession of vows. Following her final profession in 1961, Demers earned a master's degree in religious education and applied anthropology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
From 1962 to 1966, she was dean of St. Therese's Institute, a junior college in Philadelphia for the formation of MMS. She then worked as formation coordinator for the community in North America.
Upon leaving Edmonton, Demers got involved in "eco-spirituality," helping to establish Earthings, a major effort in Philadelphia to develop earth awareness and the importance of recycling.
"The earth is a foundational and primary revelation of God. It's a given that we are earth beings. That is not a side issue. As we deal with the earth is how we deal with ourselves. We are part of this creation and it shapes our soul."
Demers says we must shape our hearts and our minds to relate to the earth in different ways. This is done through ritual and liturgy.
"Liturgy is something that is with us as part of our traditions. We worked at developing liturgical expressions and incorporated earth concerns. Every single aspect of creation is a revelation of God. We should definitely be more respectful in taking better care of the earth."
From 1992 to 1998, Demers again served as sector coordinator for North America and was a member of her community's international assembly.
She continues to work as a liturgical and eco-spirituality resource.
Demers says holistic health care is an important aspect of MMS. "Everything that we need for life, we receive from the earth. Whether it's the air we breathe, the water we drink or the food we eat, the soil gives it to us," Demers said.
"In an attitude of respect and thanksgiving, we have to give back what is needed for the earth and not just litter it with junk that can't be used by any other form of life. We need to find ways that are compatible with earth's technology."
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