Lay missioner from Urbana applauded by president, parish

By Tom Dermody
of The Catholic Post

URBANA — The letter of congratulations came from the President of the United States, but receiving it Sunday in front of supportive parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church here made the moment all the more special for Dr. Susan Nagele.

“I told them we did it all together, and that we should keep doing it,” said Dr. Nagele, a physician who last summer marked 25 years of service in Africa as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner.

Her dedication was acknowledged Sunday during the 7:30 and 9 a.m. Masses at St. Patrick’s with the presentation of the letter from President Barack Obama, who praised her “selflessness.”

Those like Dr. Nagele “who are moved by faith and a commitment to service remind us that we all have the power to create and maintain a better world for ourselves and our children if only we do God’s work here on earth,” wrote President Obama.

His letter was given to Dr. Nagele at the conclusion of each Mass by Sam Stanton, executive director of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. He called her “an inspiration.”

“HER SERVICE to others comes from a real sense of commitment to the Gospel,” said Stanton, who also thanked the people of St. Patrick’s Parish for their commitment to Dr. Nagele and the role they played in her formation.

The respect and affection parishioners have for Dr. Nagele, he said, was evidenced by the hundreds who stayed after the Masses to greet her at receptions. Throughout her time in Africa, the parish commitment has also been demonstrated by financial and prayer support. The parish council annually donates a sum — last year it was $5,000 — while individual parishioners also donate.

“And everyone prays for me,” added Dr. Nagele, who in turn sends reports of her activities twice a year for publication in the parish newsletter.

Dr. Nagele, 54, is the daughter of Dr. Thomas and Lenore Nagele, members of St. Patrick’s Parish. She completed her undergraduate study at the University of Illinois and received her medical degree from Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in 1981.

A FAMILY practice physician, her entire ministry with Maryknoll has been in Africa. She served for six years in Tanzania, providing primary health care and renovating a health center.

In 1991 she moved to southern Sudan, which was enduring a civil war. She established several dispensaries and health centers in various parishes, and also began a tuberculosis treatment program. At one point, she was the only doctor for more than 30,000 displaced persons in two camps.

Since December of 2003 she has worked at a 30-bed cottage hospital in Kiminini, a small town in Kenya in a district that has an absolute poverty level of 55 percent. She has also served as medical adviser to the health coordinator for the Diocese of Kitale.

LAST MAY Dr. Nagele became ill, and returned to her Urbana home in July. Her conditioned worsened and it was finally correctly diagnosed in October as an autoimmune disorder.

She told The Catholic Post this week that she hopes to return to Africa in the near future. A new job awaits her in Mombasa, Kenya. The Archdiocese of Mombasa has invited her to oversee its health programs, and she is especially interested in working with victims of sexual assault.

“That could be an area of interfaith cooperation,” she said, noting that the region is 90 percent Muslim, and 5 percent each Christian and Hindu.

She said that, because of the experiences of her own illness, “I will be a much different physician and person. I will be a lot more compassionate.”

For the record, Dr. Nagele’s 25 years as a lay missioner have been marked by extraordinary moments of compassion. Consider the following paragraphs about her from the Winter 2009 issue of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners publication “Voices of Compassion:”

“Her radical openness to God’s will has landed her in operating rooms with lights flickering and walls shaking as bombs exploded outside. It has landed her on dusty roads choked with refugees fleeing their burning villages. It has landed her by the agonized bedsides of children dying of AIDS.

“In Tanzania, Sudan and Kenya, Susan has treated and comforted women who have been battered and raped. She has delivered babies who would not have survived had she not been there to monitor their sick mothers. Last year, as post-election violence swept through Kenya, she worked tirelessly with other Maryknoll Lay Missioners to care for countless victims who had been shot, stabbed, beaten, and burned.”

AND DR. NAGELE — who in 2005 received the University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award and whose missionary work was featured on ABC’s “Nightline” in 1999 — wants to go back, though she admits “I’m 54 now and I have to remind myself I’m no longer 34.”

But she can now count the President of the United States among her boosters.

“By caring for the sick, comforting the afflicted, and supporting the poor, missioners have taken up the difficult work building a brighter future for people in need around the world,” Obama wrote in his congratulatory letter. “Through their selflessness, they have touched countless lives and inspired us all.”

Editor’s note — To learn more about or support Maryknoll Lay Missioners, visit mklm.org.

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