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‘Our mission is not to lands but to people’ (FMDM constitution 69) -the work of the FMDM throughout the world

Sr Jane Bertelson FMDM

‘Without one another in fraternity [sisterhood] naming together the experience of God, the external evangelical mission would be silenced.’ (Walter Vivani)

The sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood around the world are always challenged by the question asked by virtually anyone we meet, ‘What do you do?’  On one level this is a simple answer as any FMDM sister will be involved with some form of ministry but on another level people never seem quite satisfied with the answer : ‘… to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’. (TOR Rule 1)

Therefore before I write about ‘what we do’ I need to confirm what lies at the heart of our Franciscan Evangelical Vocation and, consequently, what lies at the heart of all we ‘do’.  We would see our primary and fundamental ministry as that of being ‘sister’ to one another in community, to the sisters and brothers in our global family and to the whole of creation.  In recent years this has become central to our understanding of ourselves as missionaries and how we minister in the many and varied places we find ourselves in.

We feel very blessed that we were not founded to do anything in particular.  Francis’ call to live the gospel leaves us free to respond to the signs of the times and the particular situations we find ourselves in.  That is not to say that in the past we, like most congregations, did not have a particular focus.  For us this was certainly in the medical world – the vast majority of our sisters would have been involved in hospitals or clinics.  The Divine Motherhood aspect of our title was expressed through many of our sisters being involved in maternity work, children in care or with unmarried mothers and babies.  Although such a specific focus would not be evident today, care for women, children and families are very central in many of our ministries.  So how do we express this call of Francis and Clare to live as sister?

Today we are 260 sisters present in ten countries – Australia, England, Italy, Ireland, Malaysia, Nigeria, Scotland, Singapore, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  We have professed sisters from all these countries as well from places where we have ministered in the past e.g. USA, Philippines and New Zealand.  This means most of our communities have a real international flavour to them which, in itself, gives witness in a world which often struggles to live with difference.

I will try and give a snapshot of the kind of ministries we are involved in across these ten countries and I will start in Asia Pacific – Australia, Singapore, Malaysia.  It is in Singapore and Malaysia that we still have health care institutions.  We are responsible for Mount Miriam Cancer Hospital in Penang, Malaysia and Assisi Hospice and Mount Alvernia Hospital in Singapore.  The sisters no longer hold the senior administrative posts but would make significant contributions within Pastoral Care, Mission Effectiveness, Boards of Management, Fund-Raising and in offering their prayerful presence in many areas of hospital life.  For those of you who like to surf the net, all these hospitals have their own websites and you can see the sisters in action!  Of course, not all sisters are directly involved in these ministries; sisters work with migrants and refugees from Myanmar; in various parish activities, especially with the youth, and in spiritual direction.  In Australia, sisters are involved with asylum seekers and Sudanese migrant women, in prison and other chaplaincies, and in parish ministries.

If we cross the seas to Africa we find FMDM sisters in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.  We have been in these countries for many years and we are blessed now to have fine young African women ministering to their own people.  Many of the early missionary sisters have now returned home to England or Ireland but some are still fully involved in their local community and ministries.  We find a very different pattern of ministry in Africa.  We do not have ‘our own’ ministries as in Singapore and Malaysia; the sisters tend to be part of other projects with the diocese or other Congregations.  Ever since the HIV epidemic hit Africa we have had many sisters involved in HIV/AIDS ministry – this includes testing and support for those testing positive to the disease, home -based care of the sick, education, feeding and support for the many, many children orphaned as a result of HIV, and preventative health education.  Today with the drugs that are available many people can live for much longer, but they need good nutrition to avoid such illnesses as malaria.  You will find FMDM in all sorts of places where others tend not to go; for example, we have a sister who is a wonderful physiotherapist and who works in a large home for handicapped children where the need is so huge but every little bit of progress in a child’s mobility is celebrated.  We have sisters who are teachers, nurses, – some in ordinary schools but others in remand homes, prisons or remote rural clinics.  Needless to say our images of a remand home or prison, however grim, are not a patch on the conditions and experiences of the young people or adults in such a place in Africa.  To bring a Franciscan spirit of joy and hope is the most valuable gift and witness to the Gospel.

And so to Europe.  If you read our history books we had many ‘institutions’ all with a health care/social work focus – hospitals, mother and baby homes, homes for children with severe disabilities, children’s homes.  Those days are gone and once again, you will find FMDM with the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the imprisoned as well as always trying to be ‘good neighbours and active parishioners’ wherever they live.  We are able to share our beautiful Motherhouse with hundreds of people each year who come to Ladywell Retreat and Spirituality Centre.  The Retreat Centre facilities are within the main community house and those staying often comment on the richness of being ‘amongst’ a praying, peaceful community.

We are a small Congregation but we are blessed with a beautiful charism of conceiving, birthing and nurturing the life of Christ with true Franciscan joy and simplicity wherever we are missioned throughout our beautiful but often broken world.  f

 Sr Jane Bertelsen FMDM is currently serving on the Congregational Leadership Team, based in Godalming, UK.