First sisters in the Micronesia region

Although their tenure was but a brief one, the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart have the distinction of being the first community of Catholic religious women sent to Guam as well as being the first Catholic sisters in the Marianas and Micronesia.

The community was founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1890 to do pastoral work among the poor black American residents of that city. While many other women religious were engaged in teaching and nursing work, the Mission Helpers’ unique mission was to immerse themselves in the neighborhoods of the black urban poor who had little or no recourse to the normal educational, spiritual and health services enjoyed by others. Their emphasis was on catechetical and social work within these poor communities. In time, their work went beyond the black community and they are now a small but active community present in several countries. Mary Frances Cunningham (Mother Demetrias) was their founder.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Catholic Church in Guam was experiencing new and unfamiliar challenges. The new political system under the US Navy allowed freedom of religion and did not maintain the privileged status of the Catholic Church. Protestant missionaries were teaching English, among other things, to a small group of Chamorros. The Spanish priests could not compete with the Protestant missionaries in this regard. Padre Jose Palomo, the moral and spiritual head of the local church at the time, eagerly sought the arrival of American sisters to open a Catholic school to meet that need. He sent letters to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore begging for such sisters.

The Cardinal was successful in obtaining a favorable answer from the Mission Helpers, based in his city. The first two members, Sister Benedict Glancy (acting as superior) and Sister Columba Gavigan, arrived in Guam on 28 November 1905. Their arrival was celebrated not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Naval Government, which was enthusiastic about the presence of American sisters who could teach English and assist in the public health efforts of the government. With the priests in attendance, the head of the Naval hospital met the sisters at the port, and they were transported to Hagåtña in the governor’s own carriage, to the peal of the bells of the Hagåtña Church. Later that evening the Naval governor sponsored a banquet in their honor.

The sisters took up residence at Padre Jose Palomo’s boyhood home, the old convento of San Rafael district in Hagåtña. The original two sisters were later joined that December by three others – Sisters Clare O’Shea, Agnes Hurley and Mary Paul Egan. The sisters conducted catechism classes in the convento and then taught in a school organized earlier by Padre Palomo. On Sundays, the sisters gathered the children and prepared them for Mass, leading them in procession to the church.

The Naval Government asked the sisters to staff the Naval hospital, but the sisters declined, stating that they had no qualifications to do such work. Eventually, however, the sisters agreed to teach the Chamorro helpers at the hospital in basic nursing skills.

The sisters continued this arduous work for a little over two years. But much of the work was not the proper ministry for which their community was founded. Some of the sisters also needed medical attention, perhaps due in part to the unfamiliar tropical environment. By 1908, the sisters were recalled by their superior to Baltimore. The last of the sisters to leave Guam did so in March of that year.

By Eric Forbes, OFM Cap.

For further reading

Knight, Kevin. “Institute of Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.” in New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia.

Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart. “History.” Last modified 18 January 2019.

Sinajaña, Eric de, OFM Cap. Historia de la Misión de Guam de los Capuchinos Españoles. Pamplona: Curia Provincial de los Capuchinos, 2001.

Sullivan, Julius, OFM Cap. The Phoenix Rises: A Mission History of Guam. New York: Seraphic Mass Association, 1957.