WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Medical Mission Sisters Teresa Arac, left, and Estelle Demers return to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, a venture they started.
EDMONTON – When two Medical Mission Sisters arrived here from Philadelphia in October 1978 and saw what they called Third World conditions in the inner city Edmonton, they were determined to be a healing presence.
Sisters Estelle Demers and Teresa Arac were largely responsible for the formation of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre that opened in 1980.
Their order had a history of helping those in need in developing nations, and they brought their expertise to Edmonton where they saw hungry children, squatter camps, people without homes.
"Medical Mission Sisters were primarily founded in 1925 to do professional medical care for Muslim women. As far as I know, Medical Mission Sisters were the first religious group to train women as doctors, pharmacists and the whole range of medical care professionals with the view of running hospitals in what is now Pakistan," said Demers.
The 1960s saw major changes as the understanding of health care was undergoing transition. Although Medical Mission Sisters were operating 27 hospitals around the world, they found that worldwide changes - politically, economically and other - meant that health care needed to change too.
"We found that opening hospitals did not significantly help people who were out of reach of hospitals," said Demers.
"In a place like India where 75 per cent of the people are rural, a hospital was strange to them and they never came. You couldn't run a hospital if the people there couldn't afford medical care."
For the sisters, it meant they had to take a different approach or, what they called, "looking with new eyes." They decided to diminish their hospital involvement and hand over the reins of those institutions to local groups. Instead, the sisters focused on rural areas and inner cities.
In the late 1970s, Edmonton's inner city residents faced some of the same health care challenges as Third World countries. Often without homes, transportation and money, people there could not easily access hospitals, medical clinics and pharmacies. The Medical Mission Sisters took up the challenge.
"The project was not necessarily Church-sponsored but, rather, the inspiration of Gospel went into it because of the presence of the Christians," said Demers.
Various community groups came together for a common goal.
"The ones in the end had to be involved in a method that allowed change, that allowed risk, and that allowed something new and different to be started," said Arac.
Their vision for health care and skills in community building and leadership development paid off. The result was the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, which provided a range of primary health services to those with limited access. It is the city's only non-profit community-owned health centre.
Bob McKeon, social justice director for the Edmonton Archdiocese, was part of the health centre's initial organizing committee and member of its first board of directors. McKeon called the committee a forward-thinking group, starting something new in an urban environment, and starting trends that are accepted wisdom today.
An innovation included doctors being hired under contract, not on a fee-per-service basis. Another innovation was hiring area residents to interview other residents about their health needs.
"The evolution of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre has been one of the best experiences in my life in terms of being part of a group that really went for it," said Demers.
"The effect of having so many people, the meeting of minds and hearts, and having a shared purpose and working together, that was phenomenal. There was a sense of shared accomplishment."
An anniversary party was held Oct. 3 to celebrate the 30 years of inner city healing through health care and those who made it possible.