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“Letting God change her”


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Monastic life in photos

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Spring 2012 issue (pdf)

Pediatrician leaves comfortable life behind for monastic service in Honduras

 

Sister Alegría, MD ’78, GME ’81, grows her own fruit in the hills of Honduras, where she has committed to caring for the rural poor.
Sister Alegría, MD ’78, GME ’81, grows her own fruit in the hills of Honduras, where she has committed to caring for the rural poor.

The sun rises on a Monday in early December, and Sister Alegría, MD ’78, GME ’81 (aka Beth Blodgett), has made her weekly pilgrimage to volunteer at the public health center in Limón, Colón, Honduras. By the time the sun sets, she will have given 45 consults to patients as young as 18 days old and suffering from pneumonia, to others in their 70s with uncontrolled diabetes.

She cares for patients with high-risk pregnancies and infertility. She cares for the intoxicated man with an infected injury and the elderly woman with nighttime cardiac symptoms and enlarged thyroid. She treats the omnipresent asthma, colds, parasites, infections and diarrhea.

It is an atypical day, she attests, but one which demonstrates the vast health care needs in this poverty-stricken Central American nation and the dearth of resources available to meet those needs. Even Sister Alegría, whose expertise is a blessing for the clinic, is a pediatrician by training, serving as a general practitioner by necessity.

“Right now, there is no government employee physician,” she said. “Limón is two hours by bus to the nearest government hospital. The bus fare for one person round trip is about one day’s wage for the average worker in our county. Health crisis almost always means financial crisis. There is huge pressure to take care of people locally as well as we can.”

Sister Confianza and Sister Alegría prepare for a trek into town from their monastery.
Sister Confianza and Sister Alegría prepare for a trek into town from their monastery.
 
The path to the humble Amigas del Señor Monastery is on a steep slope in the Honduran hills.
The path to the humble Amigas del Señor Monastery is on a steep slope in the Honduran hills.

Mid-life calling
The story of how rural Honduras became the local home of Sister Alegría is intertwined with the story of how Dr. Beth Blodgett became Sister Alegría. Hers was a calling that didn’t become clear to her until she was in her 50s. For 11 years, she practiced pediatrics with expertise in caring for children with disabilities in Wisconsin, Kentucky and Oregon. She had grown up Methodist, in which there is no monastic tradition, but in 1992, abruptly to many around her, she stopped working full time.

“I just quit,” Sister Alegría said. “It was hard for my colleagues at Emanuel Legacy Hospital in Portland, Ore., to accept that I just quit. There was no golden opportunity job waiting for me. As I gradually became aware, it was God who was waiting.”

Still, providence took years to unfold. She first came to Honduras on a medical mission trip in 1999, six months after Hurricane Mitch. During the next six years, she visited often and stayed long. She arrived at the conclusion that she could do more good by providing preventive and ongoing care through the public health center and began volunteering at Centro de Salud.

Pineapples are one of the few foods that grow readily in the sisters’ garden. Sister Alegría tends to the budding fruit.
Pineapples are one of the few foods that grow readily in the sisters’ garden. Sister Alegría tends to the budding fruit.

It was 2003 when Dr. Blodgett bought 6 acres on a steep hill of stone and clay – perfect for a monastery, she said. In 2006, Prairie Cutting, now Sister Confianza, joined her with a one-year commitment as a sojourner at the monastery, which by then had been built and named Amigas del Señor, or Friends of the Lord. They are sponsored by the United Methodist Church, but also employ Quaker governance. Dr. Blodgett became a professed Methodist sister in 2009, taking the name Sister Alegría, and is now a legal resident of Honduras.

A simple, but busy, life
As health care providers, the sisters make do with what little medications and equipment they can acquire. The government is supposed to supply the public health clinic, but with the economy under duress, it usually only provides about 30 percent of what is needed. The clinic currently has no ibuprofen for adults, no anti-allergy medicine for children, no skin fungal treatments, no hexachlorophene soap, cough suppressants or antacids. They have no X-ray, and their lab can only test for HIV (reliable) and malaria (unreliable). They have antibiotics, but far fewer than a stateside physician would find adequate.

Getting to and from the clinic is even a challenge, as it would require walking 9 miles round trip. Hitching a ride, however, is more common. And that is just one day of Sister Alegría’s week.
The humble monastery has no electricity, so she and Sister Confianza wash their laundry using a scrub board, tub and clothesline three days a week.

Sister Alegría cuts down a tree to give more sunlight to a coconut tree.
Sister Alegría cuts down a tree to give more sunlight to a coconut tree.



Sister Confianza (left) and Sister Alegría.

“We wash often because our voluntary poverty means four blouses and three habit dresses for each of us,” Sister Alegría said. “Dirty laundry cannot be allowed to build up.”

Considering the physical labor involved with living on a remote hillside, the laundry is no laughing matter, but unfortunately, the gardening can be, according to Sister Alegría. “God, apparently, doesn’t want us to grow much of our own food,” she said. Pineapples are basically the only food that grows well, though they have had some recent success with chatas, a variety of banana, and katuk, a perennial green.

The sisters also cut and haul their own firewood. They cook on a traditional, clay wood-burning stove, and their home is lit by kerosene lamp in the evening. Their daily prayers are Lauds at sunrise, afternoon prayers around 3 p.m. and Compline bedtime prayers.

Thursday is their day of fasting and spiritual practice, which includes unprogrammed worship. On Sunday, they rest.

Last year, Sister Alegría co-authored Amigas del Señor: Methodist Monastery, which was published by the Quaker Abbey Press. The book chronicles the first two years of the sisters’ contemplative Honduran monastery. It was an opportunity to reflect on the events that led Sister Alegría through this re-imagined life, but looking back, she says that nothing could have predicted her path.

“It is very good to know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing,” she said. “I never had that before in my life. I like it. A contemplative nun does not work at the important job of changing the world. A contemplative nun does the job of letting God change her.”

Correspondent sought

Sister Alegría is in search of a physician willing to provide consultation to her via Internet. With no CME available and her understanding of general medicine coming primarily from on-the-job training, she would like to connect with a primary care colleague who could answer questions and provide advice. If interested, contact Sister Alegría directly at bethblodgettnow@yahoo.com.
 

Monastic life in photos

Sister Alegría and Sister Confianza walk the trail to their nearest neighbors. Sister Alegría and Sister Confianza walk the trail to their nearest neighbors. Sister Alegría sorts corn with the help of German.
Sister Alegría sorts corn with the help of German.

Sister Alegría puts manure on the compost pile. Laundry drying in the breeze.
Sister Alegría puts manure on the compost pile.
Laundry drying in the breeze.
Laundry drying in the breeze.

The sisters cook corn tortillas
The sisters cook corn tortillas.
The monastery under construction in 2006.
The monastery under construction in 2006.

Dr. Beth Blodgett and Prairie Cutting in 2006 before leaving Portland for Honduras, and before they each became professed sisters.
Dr. Beth Blodgett and Prairie Cutting in 2006 before leaving Portland for Honduras, and before they each became professed sisters.
A view of La Fortuna, Limón, Colón, Honduras.
A view of La Fortuna, Limón, Colón, Honduras.
The Amigas del Señor Monastery includes a dry compost toilet, living quarters and water tank.
The Amigas del Señor Monastery includes a dry compost toilet, living quarters and water tank.
Sister Alegría and Sister Confianza in song.
Sister Alegría and Sister Confianza in song.

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Comments / Ratings

Title:
An inspiration
By:
Judy Billings
Date:
04-17-12  6:21 PM
Comment:

Sisters Alegria and Confianza are an inspiration. They are living a lifestyle that is clearly identified in the Bible. I have learned so much from Sisters Alegria and Confianza and stay close so I can learn more. I can not follow their footsteps, but I attempt to follow many of the principles that guide them on their journey. They and the monastery are worthy of our support; including prayers, alms and any method of loving care or assistance that God will provide through us. God Bless you, Sisters Alegria and Confianza

Title:
Good works
By:
David Nelson
Date:
04-16-12  7:07 PM
Comment:

This woman is a brilliant Saint with a great sense of humor. She was an inspiration to my granddaughter who went with her to Colon in the early days at age 18 or so, to learn to do injections. Beth inspired her to become an M.D. She is now in her last months of residency in California and looking forward to "doing good rather than doing well". Beth's influence will be felt for years and years and in many places around the world. You most certainly should be proud to have her as an alum. Cheers, David

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