Sr Mary in Mukuru

Sr Mary in Mukuru

Mater Hospital, Nairobi, foundation by Sr Dolorosa

Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Nairobi 1962

While setting up the other foundations, both near and far, Dolorosa was also engaged in other rather frustrating business. She had to wait six years before she could see the fulfilment of the original purpose of her coming to Kenya, namely, to set up a Catholic hospital in Nairobi City. In the beginning, Dolorosa and the Sisters were under the impression that the hospital would be built for them. They soon realized that they were to build it. It was widely assumed in those days that Carysfort had a few hidden crocks of gold! In fact at that time Carysfort was £120, 000 in debt; the 1950s were a time of ministry expansion, especially in education, in Ireland. “Everyone of our houses carries a huge debt”, Mother Imelda wrote in 1955. There was no way Carysfort could finance the proposed hospital whose early estimated cost was £275, 000, a colossal amount of money in the 1950s. However, Dolorosa was undaunted.

Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Nairobi, was one of the tasks for which Dolorosa, herself, took full responsibility. It proved no easy task. She had many obstacles, frustrations, delays, disappointments to cope with along the way, but she was a woman of great courage, vision and faith: she forged ahead.

Within two months of her arrival in Kenya, she attended a meeting with government officials regarding the hospital, where it was proposed that she apply to the then colonial government for a grant on £ 3: £1 basis. The European hospital, present day The Nairobi Hospital, had received such a grant. Pressures mounted immediately. She had to have her application for a grant in to the Ministry by 14 June 1956 in order to be considered for any grant up to 1960. Plans and estimates for the hospital had to be got ready in less than three weeks! But she got them done in time.

She was also torn between conflicting reports regarding the architectural firm, which got the job. Archbishop McCarthy gave her a beautifully situated 25-acre plot in Westlands, area, Nairobi, near where present-day Strathmore Secondary School is. When she applied for planning permission to build a multi-racial hospital in that European area, she was refused. It was since c. 1860, and still is, the policy of the Sisters of Mercy ‘not to discriminate on the grounds of race, creed or colour.”

There was a site for a proposed sub-hospital in the African Town Centre, present-day, Makadara, Eastlands, Nairobi, but it had not then got the vital infrastructure of water or sewerage. With determination and persistence, she applied to the government for an alternative site. Eventually she was given a most uninviting 2.69 acres in a swampy black cotton soil area, near the Ngong River in Nairobi South.

Then unexpectedly, on 3 July 1959, confirmation was received that the government was giving a grant of £30, 000 on £1: £1 basis towards ‘the Catholic Mission Nursing Home’, £15,000 in each of the financial years 1959/60 and 1960/61. She made another effort to get a more suitable site. The Commissioner of Lands curtly wrote in March 1960: “the conclusion reached that the approved site is satisfactory. I should be grateful, therefore, if you would proceed with the development as agreed”.

Also, at this stage, time was running out for her. She had only until 30 June 1960 to spend the first half of the government grant. If she still wanted to press for a better site, she would run the risk of losing the government grant, for which if lost, she could never apply again, and she very badly needed the grant. She had not much of a choice but to proceed with her unsuitable site. It was also discovered that there were sewer lines running through the site. Plans had to be reduced and resisted to avoid crossing the main sewer lines.

At this stage, Dolorosa had a promise of £15,000 from the government; Archbishop McCarthy had collected £12,500 on a trip to the U.S.A. That was not enough to build and equip a hospital. However, she took the plunge. The lowest construction tender for a reduced 60-bed hospital was £49,000. Dolorosa had the consolation of having Ideal Builders take possession of the site on 1 May 1960 though she was not physically present for the occasion. In April 1960, she had left Nairobi for Dublin to attend General Chapter 1960, at which Sister Gabriel O’Leary was elected Superior General in place of Mother Imelda.

Dolorosa did not forget Kenya while in Ireland, but she now had to deal with a new Superior General. She persuaded the new Superior General, Mother Gabriel, to authorise her to look for a loan of £20,000 from the Hibernian Bank, O’Connell St., Dublin, which later amalgamated to form present day Bank of Ireland. With special permission from Rome, the amount was increased to £30,000. The Bank Manager later remarked: What an amazing woman ! She walked in here completely unknown with a plea for a loan of £30,000 and we granted it to her without much research as to her credentials, so persuasive was her argument! She, however, now had money, but it had to be repaid over ten years with an interest of £2,000.

The government duly paid its two instalments of its grant. Construction work progressed satisfactorily.

There were unexpected frustrations on the way. The foundation was almost complete, when a letter arrived from Carysfort to say the building was to stop! Dolorosa at first could not believe that this was an order from Carysfort. With recourse to prayer to accept this Cross, Dolorosa felt consultation was necessary. The choice of consultant was between Archbishop McCarthy of Nairobi, or Archbishop Del Mestri, the Pro Nuncio to Kenya. There was a possibility of Archbishop McCarthy saying: Mother, you must do as the Mother General says! She opted to take the letter to the Pro Nuncio. He immediately took his pen, wrote to the Superior General stating that the hospital must go on, and this was from Rome! It was later explained that Carysfort had been misinformed by someone outside the congregation, who thought that there were enough hospitals in Nairobi without another multi-racial one. At that time there were three distinct racial hospitals in Nairobi – European, Asian and African, but no multi-racial one to cross the barriers. When the truth became known, Mother Gabriel gave her blessing for the building to continue.

When the second storey was almost up to roofing level, it was realized that there was no convent included in the plans. Work had to stop while plans were drawn up and approved for a third storey. There were no funds for a separate building; also the site was too small. Since the foundation was only for a two-storey building, special light materials had to be imported from Italy for the third storey. Construction cost increased to £74,000. The architect seemed to have the idea that Catholic Sisters should not be disturbed by the distractions of the outside world. He made the windows in the convent so high; it was impossible to look out! They are still the same to this day, but the Sisters have moved out to a separate building on the hospital compound.

Back to Dolorosa’s financial worries - how to repay her bank loan. Divine Providence and the Infant of Prague came to her aid. One day when wrapping her 6-yard black pleated habit in an old copy of the Universe newspaper, her eye caught an article about the German Bishops’ Campaign Against Hunger and Disease in the World, Misereor. She, also, was trying also to ease hunger and disease! She wrote to Misereor, explained her situation and appealed for help. At least, she did not receive a polite regret; there was no assurance of help: it would depend on their 1962 Lenten Campaign, yet to be held. A very detailed complicated 11-page questionnaire had to be completed – the first one sent never reached Dolorosa. These were pre-DHL, pre-email days! She requested Misereor to repay the loan for her so as to get that burden off her shoulders. Misereor advised her to seek funds elsewhere, which she did. She got a loan of USD 5, 000 from The Bentz Foundation, New York., as well as some smaller donations.

A lot of correspondence went back and forth between Dolorosa and Misereor. However, by August 1962, Misereor had promised to give her a loan of DM 500,000, interest free, to repay some of the Irish bank loan. “I cannot tell you how very thankful I am for the good news”, she wrote to Misereor on 22 August 1962. But a few more hurdles had to be crossed! Misereor required security for their loan since the Registered Trustees of the Sisters of Mercy (Kenya), were not a European entity. Del Mestri again came to the rescue and got the security issue sorted out for her. The Hibernian Bank in Dublin was, by this time, pressing for payment of at least the overdue interest on their loan, which she did not have. She pleaded again with Misereor to advance some payment of their loan. The hospital was almost ready for occupation “even to the making of beds’, but she could not open it without at least £30,000 in the bank to meet running expenses. She had no other money. She had already put about £20,000 into the building, which she got, from friends and savings from Sisters’ allowances. She had requested exemption from payment of duty on necessary imported items of equipment not then available in Kenya, but she was refused since they were not strictly for surgical or medical purposes.

However, Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Nairobi, a 60-bed equipped hospital, was blessed and opened by Archbishop McCarthy on 5 May 1962.

Some more trials were awaiting Dolorosa. The day the Mater was opened, the full centre page of the then only English daily newspaper, The East African Standard, carried two pages of reasons why the Mater was doomed to failure! At first most of the European doctors shunned or ‘boycotted’ the hospital because it was multi-racial and also because they were trying to build up the European hospital and they did not want the Mater to take business away from them. Also the Mater was situated in a less prestigious area on the fringe of Industrial Area. However, surgeon Mr. Pat O’Donoghue, a New Zealander by birth and a staunch Catholic, stood by the Mater from the beginning. Two other Goan doctors, Dr. C. Paes and Dr. Maisie Fernandes, supported the hospital from the start. But a turning point came when the European hospital needed some specialised equipment which the Mater had; they sent a vehicle down to the Mater to get a loan of the equipment; Dolorosa’s reply was, to the effect : send down the patient to us and we will treat him. Opposition was broken. The Mater flourished, admitting African, Asian and European patients. Dolorosa’s multi-racial hospital had become a reality. The garage at the end of the building was turned into an outpatient department. Very soon the 60-bed capacity was unable to cope with demand. But Dolorosa still had the £30,000 loan around her neck. She again pleaded with Misereor; Misereor heard her cry this time and eventually agreed to pay off approximately half of the Irish loan together with the interest on the full loan. Payments were to be done directly by Misereor to the Hibernian Bank in Dublin. This necessitated a lot of correspondence and clarifications.

In the meantime, the Mater grew in popularity especially the maternity area. A maternity unit was not included in the original plan: surgical beds had to be shared with maternity cases, which was far from ideal. Trusting again in Divine Providence, Dolorosa had the courage, in 1963, to approach Misereor again about extending the hospital to include a maternity wing, x-ray department and a school of midwifery. Fortunately, Misereor showed interest in her extensions but could not guarantee anything until budgetary year 1966. Dolorosa did not remain idle in the intervening years. Her original 2.69 acre site was too small to allow extension of the hospital. She applied for an adjoining piece of land, which she duly received as a leasehold grant, free of charge except for an annual rent of a ‘peppercorn’, as also happened in the case of the first 2.69 acres. Such grants do not happen overnight. As Eileen Byrne very aptly remarks : everything was going to happen ‘tomorrow’, but mostly many ‘tomorrows’ passed before they did! More plans, revisions and other formalities had to take place again.

By April 1963, a year after opening, Dolorosa could write to the Hibernian Bank, Dublin: “the hospital is showing a steady profit margin”. She regretted that she could not ‘slip in’ more poor patients but “the financial state of the hospital forbids it”. There were always beds available for sick missionaries. For the first few years, the nursing staff consisted of Sisters of Mercy doing both day and night duty. Dolorosa herself tripled up as Superior, Administrator and Matron. If Carysfort was unable to give finances, it was most generous in giving personnel. In 1962 there were thirteen Sisters of Mercy ministering in the hospital, which, of course, indirectly helped the hospital financially. The Sisters were not paid salaries; they were maintained by the hospital; every possible cent was ploughed back into the hospital. Cora Ferriter, a teaching Sister in Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Nairobi South, very near to the Mater, remembers bringing down to the Mater whatever savings could be spared from Makadara clinic.

Dolorosa was also at this time trying to pay off her portion of the Hibernian Bank debt. One day she was summoned to the Treasury regarding her payments out of the country. While she was in the Treasury office, a European Treasury official came in, greeted her by name and jokingly asked what she had done to be taken to task. He had been a patient earlier in the Mater. But by May 1966, Dolorosa could write, “I have paid off the remainder of the debt”. She had cleared her debt four years ahead of time! No wonder the Bank Manager paid a courtesy call to Carysfort to express his thanks, and probably relief, and commented that he wished “the Irish convents could pay off their debts so promptly.”

Despite her financial constraints, Dolorosa opened in 1966 a free 14-bed orthopaedic ward for poor physically disabled children. This was a service dear to her heart. She arranged with surgeons to give free services to these children. She also built ancillary staff quarters and two resident doctors’ houses, where the current Sisters’ convent is today. Individual Sisters and houses in Ireland were very generous in supporting the Kenya mission even in those pre-Vatican II days.

Negotiations were still going on with Misereor regarding the hospital extensions. In September 1965, Dolorosa herself went to Germany to visit Misereor. Her trip was not in vain. By August 1967, Misereor had negotiated a grant of DM 950,000 from the German Government on her behalf. She received news of the grant in the official German language; she did not have to wait for the English translation to come to know what it was about! The German grant through Misereor, comprised approximately 73% of the cost of the extensions, Dolorosa herself had to find the remaining 27%. November 1967 found Dolorosa in the U.S. soliciting for funds. She made history as the first woman to address Church congregations from the pulpit in the U.S. She must have been successful. The contract for the extensions was signed in December 1967.

Divine Providence and the Infant of Prague were particularly active in those latter years. One day, when the maternity wing was nearing completion, Mr. Abrahamson, the Danish Ambassador, was visiting a patient at the Mater. He asked about the new building. When it was explained to him that equipment was needed for it, he asked which was preferred, equipment or money? Dolorosa opted for the equipment. Later, when she received confirmation of the equipment donation to the value of DM 475,000, she wrote: “Your letter of 12 June 1968 has been one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever had . . . . I can assure you a great financial burden has been lifted by your extraordinary generous offer”. All that was required were lists of the equipment and furniture needed. Everything listed from baby cots, beds, mattresses, monitors, to tables and chairs, the lot, duly arrived by ship, with all charges paid. Both Misereor and the Danish Government were most generous friends to Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Nairobi. Later, but not in Dolorosa’s lifetime, Misereor wrote off repayment of their original loan.

God had other plans for Dolorosa. She was appointed the first Regional Superior in Kenya in July 1968. She handed over the administration of the hospital and the completion of the extensions to her successor, Sister Aquin Joseph O’Connell, but she still had the overall responsibility for it. The new maternity wing and the other extensions were blessed and opened by Archbishop McCarthy on 2 February 1971. Dolorosa was not physically but spiritually present. She got very seriously ill from cancer in June 1970 and had to return to her alma mater, Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Dublin, for treatment, where she passed to her eternal reward on 14 August 1970. Her health had not been that robust. She got a severe bout of malaria in early 1960; she had major surgery in December 1961.
One day, Archbishop McCarthy remarked to Fr. Gerry Ellis CSSp.: “one of the best things I did in the twenty-five years of my office here, was to get the Mercies; that’s the best hospital in the country!”. The Mater School of Midwifery, Nairobi, admitted its first set of students in June 1972. The current Principal in the school is a Kenyan Sister of Mercy, Sister Maria Ngui. Over 1300 Kenya Registered Midwives have graduated from the school over the years. The Mater Hospital, Nairobi, has been the first hospital in East Africa to receive ISO (International Standardisation Organisation) certification. It will always be a monument to Dolorosa’s hard work, endless patience, great determination, and like Catherine McAuley, unfailing trust in Divine Providence.

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