Medical missionary, foundress, physician; b. Steeg, Austria, March 16, 1892; d. Rome, Italy, April 17, 1980. The oldest of nine children, she developed an early interest in the missions. After graduating from secondary school and briefly teaching in Lyons, France, she heard that Dr. Agnes McLaren, a Scotswoman, was recruiting women doctors for poor Muslim women in India. Their customs of "purdah" prevented medical attention by men, placing them outside available health care.
Dengel responded immediately and quickly began further studies: first, at Ursuline Colleges in Innsbruck, Austria, and Cork, Ireland, then at Cork's University College. In 1919 she graduated from medical school. After a nine-month residency in Claycross, England, she left for St. Catherine's Hospital in Rawalpindi, India.
For four years she served as the only doctor to 10,000 sick and dying women and children. She became convinced that numbers of professionally trained women were needed to effect real healing among the people. At the same time she felt called to a religious vocation. Entering an existing congregation, however, meant abandoning medicine, as canon law forbade sisters to practice medicine, surgery, or obstetrics.
An Austrian priest, Rochus Rimml, SJ, persuaded her to establish a new congregation to respond fully to medical mission needs. In 1924 Dengel traveled to the United States to make her cause known. Michael A. Mathis, CSC, helped her write a constitution, and Michael Curley, archbishop of Baltimore, gave permission to begin the new foundation.
Four women gathered in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 30, 1925 to begin the medical mission sisters. Originally classified a "pious society" because of the canon law restriction, the congregation was granted full canonical status on Feb. 11, 1936, when Pope Pius XI lifted the ban on sisters being doctors.
Superior general of the Medical Mission Sisters (1925–67), Dengel spearheaded their growth to over 700 members serving in 50 health facilities in 33 countries. Under her leadership thousands of indigenous people were trained in the health professions. Government officials were persuaded to make health a priority for their people.
Author of Mission For Samaritans and numerous articles on medical mission work, she received many
awards, including Austria's "Golden Cross of Merit"(1967), Tyrol's "Ehrenring" (1968), and the Church's "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" (1967).
Dengel is remembered for making medical mission work not only acceptable but essential to the mission of the Catholic Church. Her concern for the plight of women and for professionalism in religious health care remain examples for many.
Bibliography: m. m. mcginley, "Mother Anna Dengel, M.D.—A Pioneer Medical Missionary," Worldmission 31 (New York 1980) 26–31. Medical Mission Sisters, "In Memory of Mother Anna Dengel, M.D.," Medical Mission Sisters News 10 (Philadelphia 1980) 1–4.
[m. m. mcginley]