Patients who are treated at a busy London Accident and Emergency department would be surprised to learn that the emergency doctor in front of them is also a Religious Sister. But Sr Simone Herrmann MMS combines the two roles after feeling called to join the Medical Mission Sisters while studying medicine in Germany fifteen years ago.
During her novitiate she trained in general surgery and worked in Ethiopia. Her plan was to return to Africa after final vows in 2012, but was instead sent to London to found an international community of younger Sisters.
Sr Simone dedicates her time working to improve the care of the homeless; the two London boroughs adjacent to her hospital host half of the city’s rough sleepers: “The A&E department is already under pressure which often makes it even more difficult for these vulnerable patients to access appropriate care. They may be struggling with acute problems such as addictions, mental health and other problems arising from living on the streets. I try to build up a network with surrounding day centres so these patients can access support.”
So what prompted a young German woman, a medicine undergraduate from the Black Forest, to consider religious life? “As I was studying medicine, I got this ‘strange’ idea about becoming a Sister. My studies were obviously very scientific and we learned how to fix broken bones, but not about how to make things heal. I found myself reflecting on the healing process at a deeper level than just the physical and this led me to the Medical Mission Sisters.”
Sr Simone has worked in a couple of London hospitals: “I’ve always told my bosses I’m a Religious. I talk to my colleagues in quiet moments. In the first hospital I worked in here, before my arrival, an announcement was made: “There’s a nun coming, who doesn’t wear a habit!” Three months later colleagues said I puzzled them ‘because you’re young, you don’t wear a habit and seem to be quite nice’!” But, says Sr Simone, holding down a job in a secular workplace has been a very positive experience and colleagues do recognise her as doing the same work, but with an added dimension. This often translates into being the person called upon to offer extra pastoral help. She recalls one doctor saying: “This next patient is difficult - that’s one for you!”
But Sr Simone is guarded about patients knowing her status: “Because in an emergency, it’s about the person in front of me. The priority is to deal with the physical or mental health emergency. If they knew I was a Religious they’d be distracted by that.” But, she adds, the idea of being anonymous in this way goes back to the founding of her Order in northwest India, in a predominantly Muslim area: “Our Sisters were not allowed to talk about God. Our Foundress simply said: let your light shine.”
Sr Simone works the full range of day and night shifts as well as weekends and concedes it has a knock on effect on community life – the Sisters have to get their diaries out to arrange to be at home together at any given time. They attend Mass weekly in the local parish or else go to a young adult Mass at a central London church.
The international flavour of the community feeds directly into the pastoral work that the Sisters are involved with. Sr Jyoti Kujur, from India, is an outreach worker for street homeless in Southall, supporting them with solicitor or GP appointments. She holds a BA in classical Indian music and plays Tabhla; as a native Hindi/Punjabi speaker and with her musical skills she bridges the cultural gap for the many uprooted Indian homeless in Southall and helps them to build up confidence and regain their cultural identity.
Detention outreach worker with the JRS, Sr Linda Maog is from the Philippines and offers practical help for refugees, forced migrants and asylum seekers finding themselves destitute or detained under immigration law. She advocates for their rights and raises awareness of policy issues that shape refugees’ lives.
Sr Jayshree, from India, volunteers with the homeless charity St Mungo’s - going out for early morning or night shifts into the parks and derelict houses to look for rough sleepers and helping with Hindi/Punjabi translation. She also works with trafficked women.
Sr Simone says that people assume all Sisters are in a convent praying all day, but the reality is that she and her fellow Sisters are fully immersed in daily work. They try to come together in the evening for prayer and reflection. Combining a career in medicine with community life as a Sister “feels like living in two different worlds” she says. However, in dealing with emergency situations, the question of life and death is obviously ever present. “If a patient comes out with a question about faith then yes I will talk with them in this language. ‘Spiritual’ care is quite important for people; certain existential questions arise around bereavement, the loss of a loved one. I view it as important for patients to see there is a spiritual power. It’s about taking the time to listen to the questions a patient has, or a relative caring for a sick patient.”
A poem written by Fr Thomas Merton “At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness…” is what I regard as a foundation - and not only for my work. Listening and being with my patients in A&E is important. But it is only the surface and opens the space for this deeper dimension, the existence of this inner core that can be found in each of us - name it God’s presence or sparkle or life giving power or simply human dignity. And especially with my favourite patients, the homeless, who find it so hard to believe this for themselves, it is my job as a Religious to believe it for them.”
An added dimension is the multicultural aspect of London life which she says can lead to interesting discussions about faith and values: “In a Catholic setting, almost everyone will know what a Religious is. But when people are from a different background, or indifferent, they know how to ask questions that touch on the fundamentals, such as questions about community life or obedience. These conversations affect my understanding of how I want to live; I am asked questions and I have to find a language that makes it understandable.
In essence, it’s a missionary’s life. It’s the way I want to live out religious life……..