The Call - S. Martha Walsh
Interview by Josh Zeller, Communciations Intern
A certified nurse-midwife, S. Martha Walsh’s call led her to minister in Malawi, Africa.
I think I knew from a fairly young age, in grade school even, that I sort of felt like I had this calling to be a Sister. I was always attracted to the life that the Sisters led. … When I got out of high school, I was all signed up and accepted at another religious community that did home nursing, but I also felt called to be a nurse. But the day after I graduated from high school, I changed my mind, and decided to go to college to study nursing first.
I went to the College of Mount St. Joseph where I was able to get a scholarship, because I had the Sisters of Charity for 12 years, grade school and high school. After I graduated, I still [knew] that I was called to be a Sister, but I wasn’t sure which community. In those days, the College of Mount St. Joseph was on this campus [the Motherhouse]. … I was in the chapel one afternoon, praying about a week before I graduated. It was one of the few times in my life that I felt I got a direct message, and it was, “This is where you belong.” I was feeling the exact opposite of that—I was sure that I wasn’t supposed to be a Sister of Charity. But nothing was ever so clear to me.
Vatican II caused a great deal of, I would say, turmoil in the Community. There were many, many Sisters leaving the Community—all religious communities. I remember, I was away at college, getting my master’s in midwifery at the University of Utah after Vatican II, and all these people were leaving. I was kind of living away from the Congregation, being out in Utah and studying, but again, I was able to go back to that time in the chapel when I felt so sure that this is where I belong. And I thought, “I know that this is where I belong,” and therefore, it really wasn’t a question for me.
I stayed. And I felt that it was an excellent time, in a way, to make a recommitment to what I had started out. But only, that commitment was a different commitment. In the beginning, when I entered in 1957, it was very much, “Do as we say, and everything will be okay.” And now, it was figuring it out for ourselves; basically we had to be true to ourselves and our own calling. That was within the Congregation, and in keeping with the Congregation, but it was also having to make a decision ourselves about what was right for us. After that, I really had a sense of wanting to serve.
I had finished my master’s, and I was a certified nurse-midwife, and I really wanted to serve where there were less people serving. I had the opportunity to spend the summer of 1979—I was teaching at the College at the time, nursing program—in Africa [Malawi] and work where one of our Sisters was already working. [Trinity Hospital] wanted me at the end of the summer to come back there and teach in their nursing and midwifery program, and I was discerning that. …[W]hen I got off the plane, even though I’d been seven weeks in Africa, living in a very strange culture to me, I had no great feeling of “Oh, thank God I’m home.” And I knew right then I was going back.
I had to get permission, of course, but as I say, in those days, the Community was listening to the spirit as it was speaking to each of us, and when I asked, they said, “Yes,” and then I had to go through the process of getting a work permit and all of that. I had a contract to fulfill for the year at the College, and then the next fall, I went back to Africa. And I spent six years teaching there. I could say that they were the happiest years of my life. I came home for four years after that, and then I went back for three more. Really, I just enjoyed teaching there so much. When I came back here, it was very difficult to get back into midwifery in the United States where everything was so technically instrumented. I spent eight years on our Leadership Council, and now, I administer the Seton Enablement Fund for the Congregation.
I can honestly say that, if there have been any regrets, I can’t remember them. And that’s the nice thing about old age—about the only thing I’ve found so far!