Mary Felice had recently been accepted into medical school at SUNY Health Science Center at Syracuse when she went to a parish mission and heard an elderly priest talk about giving his life to God. It was an encounter that would change her forever.
“I felt like I got a glimpse of God through him,” she recalled. “I had never met anyone like him before.”
During Eucharistic adoration at the church in upstate New York, she asked God if she could have some of what she saw in Father Albert Shamon and she received an invitation from Christ, a very real call, to give her life to him in a religious vocation. At 24, she thought she had her life planned with a career in medicine, so she was surprised by Jesus’ invitation. She wasn’t entirely sure she welcomed it, but she couldn’t deny the deep peace it gave her.
“I could see that God had been inviting me for many years, but his call was drowned out by worldly distractions, the noise and the activities,” she recalled.
Today, Sister Mary Felice belongs to the Daughters of Charity and is the medical director at St. Vincent the Servant General Reference Hospital in Lukolela, a remote village of 22,000 people on the Congo River in one of the poorest areas of the world. Her community of sisters is responsible for the 120-bed hospital, which serves an area of 7000 square miles and a population of more than 168,500 people, most of whom live in houses without running water and electricity and are made of clay bricks with dirt floors and palm branches for roofs. The people subsist on less than one dollar a day.
While she was in medical school, Sister Mary began to explore different religious orders and learned about the Daughters of Charity while she was doing rotations at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton. She eventually began the process of joining the community while she was doing her residency in internal medicine through the University of Rochester.
After completing her novitiate, she moved to Bridgeport and worked for five years in the outreach department of St. Vincent’s Medical Center, founded by the Daughters of Charity.
“During those years, I also worked in youth ministry at St. Augustine’s Cathedral Parish and hoped to provide young people an avenue to give God his proper place in their lives, just as God had provided for me by some undeserved grace,” she said.
From the beginning, she felt God was calling her to do missionary work, and after ten years in the community, she was sent to the order’s Missionary Center at the motherhouse in France to study French and tropical medicine. She was eventually assigned to the Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she has been for 13 years. The Congo Province has 100 sisters, two-thirds of whom are native Congolese and reside in 16 houses. Worldwide, the order has 16,700 sisters in 95 countries.
Sister Mary lives with seven others from her community, who staff the hospital, parish, school and social services along with lay assistants. Because of the poor roads, patients often travel by boat to reach the hospital, which is 91 miles from the nearest city and 310 miles from the capital. If the conditions cooperate, the trip can take a day.
The hospital provides emergency services, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, pediatrics and intensive care. It is equipped to do basic operations, such as appendectomies, hernia surgery, cesarean sections, laparotomies and bowel repairs.
They do not have the equipment to take X-rays but offer ultra-sound scanning. A lab helps them diagnose tropical diseases. The most common diagnoses are malaria and anemia, along with hemolysis (rupture of red blood cells) caused by malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, HIV, amebiasis, malnutrition and obstetrics emergencies. In 2018 there were 6820 patient visits, 3876 hospitalizations, 616 major surgeries and 154 caesarean births.
Obstetrical emergencies are common and the women often travel long distances to reach the hospital. Sister recalls one emergency in which a woman was transported by boat at night for 10 miles. She was suffering from heavy bleeding during labor and was unconscious with no detectable blood pressure when she arrived. They brought her to the operating room and started a transfusion while Sister Mary sought blood donors.
“At one point when I left the operating room, her husband was waiting for me and asked if she was going to live, and I told him that is what we were praying to God for,” she recalled. “Many weeks later, as I was leaving the hospital, a man approached me and asked if I remembered him, but I didn’t. He was the one who asked me if his wife was going to live, and he was coming to bring her home. For those types of cases, we just thank God because she could easily have died.”
Many children with severe malaria arrive comatose or with severe anemia and need a blood transfusion, she said. They are hospitalized in the Intensive Care and Stabilization Department for a few days and then transferred to pediatrics. Because the building is small and very crowded, during the peak malaria seasons there are often two to three children per bed while others stay on a mattress on the floor.
A new Intensive Care and Stabilization building is under construction, which will help ameliorate the problem, she said. However, some of the hospital buildings are old and in poor condition and too small to accommodate the demand.
“We are looking ahead to our next project, which is to build a new Internal Medicine Department because our current buildings are old with leaky ceilings and crowded,” Sister said. “We don’t have enough isolation rooms for infectious diseases like tuberculosis, measles, monkeypox, diphtheria, tetanus and cholera. And there aren’t enough rooms for our psychiatric patients.”
The plans for the new facility call for 10 beds for women, 10 beds for men and four private rooms and a separate building that provides isolation rooms and rooms for psychiatric patients. The estimated cost for the project is $88,500, which the Sisters are trying to raise through donations. (For more information about St. Vincent the Servant General Reference Hospital or to make a donation toward the construction of the new Internal Medicine Department, visit congoriverjourney.org.)
“We try to provide the best treatment possible for the people at the lowest cost possible, but the reality is patients often struggle to pay their bills, and many leave without paying,” Sister said. “We have a special program to help those who are truly poor, and no one is turned away because of their inability to pay. If possible, family members participate by doing some needed work in the hospital in exchange for care.”
Every day she comes face to face with the extreme poverty of the Congo, especially when she walks through the village.
“In the beginning, I would find myself feeling sad, but I didn’t understand why,” she said. “When I reflected on it, I realized it was the pain caused by seeing the living conditions. I realized I will never be able to make sense of the poverty or solve it, but I can do the small part that God has given me, with courage, and I must put the things that are beyond me in his hands.”
Even though the region suffers from deprivation, the people find meaning in simple pleasures and joys. One day while Sister was cleaning out her office, she found several toothbrushes and decided to give them to the first person she met, who happened to be the night watchman.
“He came to me the next evening to thank me and say his children were so happy that they sang and danced when he gave them the toothbrushes,” Sister said.
Despite their poverty and lack of luxuries such as television and radio, the people are joyful because of “their closeness, trust and reliance on God.” They also have a great appreciation for things that others take for granted like simple clothing, an umbrella and soap.
On New Year’s Eve morning, the hospital held its annual party for the staff. “What I love is that it’s so simple and so joyful,” Sister said. “We thank God for the accomplishments during the year and ask his blessings on what we hope to accomplish in the new year. We play some games, sing, dance, and each employee receives a gift — a kilogram of rice, a kilogram of dried beans and a calendar. This year they also were given two bars of soap.”
When people ask Sister Mary if she is happy in her work, she tells them, “I am happy because I feel I’m doing God’s will for me. They also ask me what I’ve learned from living here. I have given up trying to make sense of the extreme poverty I see each day, but by being in situations that are beyond my understanding, I’ve learned the importance of relying on God’s grace moment to moment and to know and trust more in his deep love for each of us.”
The charism of the Daughters of Charity is “the service of Christ in the poor” and the order’s founder, St Vincent de Paul, believed you can see God’s presence in the poor.
“That is what keeps me here,” Sister Mary said. “The poor have an inherent humility, simplicity and faith in God. It is a privilege to live and work among them, and I feel that when I am close to them, I am close to God.”
By Joe Pisani