Back in Urbana, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Dr. Susan Nagele shares gratitude, stories

Dr. Susan Nagele, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner from St. Patrick Parish in Urbana, is pictured in South Sudan last March with Regina Lotyam, a catechist. South Sudan is one of three nations in which Nagele served during 33 years of medical service in Africa. (Provided photo)

URBANA — Dr. Susan Nagele, who witnessed both miracles and misery during a remarkable 33-year career as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner serving in East Africa, is thankful.

“I am one of the most fortunate people in the world,” said Nagele, 63, in closing a recent talk to a women’s group at her home parish of St. Patrick in Urbana. “I have been able to do what I love and grow in my faith.”

During the 12 years Dr. Nagele spent in what is now called South Sudan, the nation was experiencing a civil war and “I often had to move.” Here she performs and examination in a camp for displaced persons. (Provided photo)

In a presentation titled “Maryknoll, Miracles and Medicine,” Nagele — a family physician whose selfless, faith-inspired humanitarian efforts in Tanzania, South Sudan, and Kenya have been featured on national television and lauded by a U.S. president — shared highlights of her mission journey.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Upon arriving in Tanzania in 1984 after finishing her family medicine residency, Nagele was confronted with a measles outbreak and “each day we had one or two children suffocating to death from measles.” The lay missioners started a vaccination program, and “within three years there were no more deaths and within six years there was no more measles.”
  • Moving on in 1991 to what is now called South Sudan, she met a woman named Natalia whose husband was looking for another wife because Natalia was unable to become pregnant. After treatment for an infection, Natalia did become pregnant, but had to flee the region because of war. Natalia and Nagele’s paths would not cross again until a chance meeting 16 years later, when Natalia was able to introduce her daughter, named Susan.
  • In the Archdiocese of Mombasa in Kenya, where Nagele served from 2010 until returning to Urbana on July 1, she treated a woman named Mary who for 22 years had suffered from huge ulcers encircling her leg. Nagele taught the staff at the local dispensary how to treat the wounds using a simple salt solution that Mary could apply at home. The woman’s wounds subsequently healed completely.


While Nagele’s presentation was filled with such stories, the lay missioner’s talk had goals beyond what she called her personal “swan song.”

First, she wanted to thank St. Patrick Parish and its members who have been generous in supporting her work through the decades.

Dr. Nagele addresses the Women of St. Patrick Parish group in Urbana on Nov. 8. She would welcome invitations to share her stories and the goals of Maryknoll Lay Missioners with parishes and schools around central Illinois. (Provided photo)

“I’ve always felt a part of the parish, even though I wasn’t physically present for 33 years,” explained Nagele in an interview with The Catholic Post following her talk. While away, she kept the parish informed of her experiences  through newsletters. Last weekend, she spoke at all Masses.

In addition, Nagele — who remains a lay missioner but is serving Maryknoll from Urbana as she resides with her 85-year-old mother, Lenore — hopes to educate on the continuing work of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. She encouraged membership as well as prayer and financial support.

“I will be forever grateful to Maryknoll Lay Missioners for supporting me in my vocation to practice medicine and marvel at the miracles,” she says.

Related story: Invite Dr. Nagele to speak to your parish or school group


Others, meanwhile, marvel at all that Nagele accomplished in her missionary medical career. She served the people in remote locations such as from a grass hut dispensary in South Sudan, as well as in densely populated cities. She worked to improve medical facilities and programs wherever she went, even as violence frequently threatened her patients.

For example, in the Diocese of Kitale in Kenya, she helped expand a small hospital. Upon completing the four-year project, massive post-election violence caused 9,000 people to be displaced to the small town.

“They filled up our hospital and overflowed into the corridors,” she recalled to her Urbana audience. “I do wonder if this wasn’t the main reason I was sent to this hospital. I had been through it all before and was quite able to help organize the staff to deal with the trauma and rape that ensued.”

In 2005, she received the University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award. Her work was featured on ABC’s television news program “Nightline.” And upon observing her 25th anniversary of service in Africa, Nagele received a letter from President Barack Obama praising her “selflessness.”

Dr. Nagele served in three nations in East Africa — Tanzania, South Sudan, and Kenya.

Those like Nagele “who are moved by faith and a commitment to service,” wrote Obama, “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.”


While the work of Maryknoll is outward action inspired by the mission of Jesus, those who live and work in poor communities also see their own faith bolstered. Nagele pointed to her years in South Sudan as a special time of spiritual growth.

“It was a place that brought you into the present moment,” she told The Catholic Post. “We all talk about it — live in the present moment, the past is gone, the future’s not here yet.  Here it’s mostly talk. There, it’s how you live your life because things were so unstable. You might be uprooted and have to move because of the war.

“That closeness to the moment brings people closer together,” she continued. “We took really good care of one another. We focused our energy and resources on the things that mattered.”

For much of her time in Africa, she lived with two other Maryknoll lay missioners. They studied the Sunday Gospel readings and would discuss how to incorporate the message into “how we lived our life that week and served others.”

Asked to compare life in eastern Africa to central Illinois, Nagele said there are many more youth in the church in Africa.

“Life here moves really fast, and people are doing many things at one time, which I don’t think is healthy,” she continued. “I think people have lost the realization that relationships are the most important.” She worries about how many, especially youth, are becoming addicted to their phones and computers.

But Nagele was quick to add that the people of central Illinois are as friendly and generous as she has always experienced.

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