Tuesday, April 25, 2000

For local nun, charity begins abroad

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sister Montiel Rosenthal spent the past year and a half in Armenia doctoring the poor.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        DELHI TOWNSHIP — She will get to have two springs this year — the bloom of pear and dogwood she saw when she returned to this country in late March, and the spring she will return to in Armenia in a couple of weeks.

        Armenia is where Sister Montiel Rosenthal works, a country where winter persists for six months and more than 70 percent of the population lives in poverty.

        She lives at a convent, among a community of Ar menian religious sisters. But Sister Montiel is also Dr. Rosenthal. She is a physician at a maternity hospital and small pediatrics hospital, where she works with Armenian doctors and nurses.

        “I was there in 1995 for a month,” said Sister Montiel. “I saw people in their homes, at clinics and hospitals. We worked dawn to dusk. I worked my buns off over there. I asked to go back in '96.”

        Sister Montiel grew up in Sayler Park, graduated from Seton High School, earned a degree in biology from Thomas More College and a medical degree in 1986 from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. While in medical school, she also began her formation as a Sister of Charity, taking her final vows in 1994. The Sisters of Charity Motherhouse is in Delhi.

        Sister Montiel is one of about 120 Catholic sisters, priests and brothers in the United States who are practicing physicians, and one of about 40 who are working overseas as medical doctors.

        While she has worked in family practice at University Hospital and St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Covington, she also has spent considerable time practicing medicine among the working poor of Elliott County in eastern Kentucky.

        She keeps returning to Armenia. She didn't plan initially on spending that much time, but each of her five trips has lasted longer. She prayed and gave it much thought. Her most recent visit lasted close to a year. The need is great, but what compelled her was a calling.

        “There's a sense of mystery in all that,” said Sister Montiel. “Maybe it's part of a personal journey as well as a sense of phenomenal need. But there's plenty of needs around — right in your back yard and neighborhood. But a calling. If I'm true to myself, I can't say no to it.”

        Sister Montiel lives and works in the city of Gyumri, in the northwestern part of the country, the first republic to break away from the Soviet Union when it dissolved in 1991. An earthquake in the country killed 25,000 in 1988. Most of the city has not been rebuilt, factories are still closed, unemployment is above 50 percent, while functional unemployment is much higher. Someone selling cups of sunflower seeds, said Sister Montiel, might be considered employed.

        People collect paper in the summer to burn in the winter for warmth. Children are malnourished, and education goes wanting. Doctors and nurses don't have access to either the drugs or technology of the West. Corruption and graft are a fact of life. Some are fiercely nationalistic and value their independence, while others yearn for the controlling days of the Soviet Union.

        From Sister Montiel's window she can see people living in metal shipping containers, with holes cut out for windows and doors.

        “They're my neighbors,” said Sister Montiel, 40.

        Sister Montiel sees patients, even tutors children at the convent, as well as “taking care of their lumps and bumps.” But her primary charge is working with Armenian doctors and nurses, exposing them to Western approaches to medicine, including the importance of primary care, and a more compassionate approach to patients.

        “I saw not only her thorough and competent medical care, but also her compassionate medical care,” said Sister Martha Walsh, a councilor at Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati who visited Sister Montiel in Armenia in October. “I think that's a very important dimension that she adds.”

        Sister Montiel's ministry in Armenia not only benefits the people of Armenia, but her congregation here as well, said Sister Martha.

        “Whenever and wherever we have sisters working outside the United States, this enriches us as a congregation,” said Sister Martha. “It gives us first-hand information about people that we would otherwise know very little about.”

        That is true with Sister Montiel, as well as three other Sisters of Charity who do ministries in Guatemala, Ecuador and Poland. Sister Sarah Mulligan has worked in Guatemala as a nurse practitioner for seven years. Sister Barbara Padilla has worked for 20 years in Ecuador in both nursing and religious education. Sister Juanita Gonzales has taught English in a girl's school in Poland for five years.

        “We have a challenge to become more sensitive to other cultures and people,” said Sister Martha. “This is really a way of carrying that out and enriching all of us back here.”

        In the month Sister Montiel has been back in the area, she has attended medical conferences, caught up with friends and family, apologizing for not being here — an aunt asked her why they couldn't find a job for her in the United States — and reconnecting with friends from Elliott County, Ky.

        She returns to Armenia in the first week of May and expects to commit to three more years there. After that, she isn't sure.

        “I haven't put a dot on the map and said this is where I'm going,” said Sister Montiel. “I hope I can instill some hope among the Armenians so that they can build a better future.”


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