Catholic Support of a Medical Mission in 1912
CMMB (Catholic Medical Mission Board) has followed the example of Jesus through faith-based medical mission service to the poor since its inception in 1912. Its founder, Dr. Paluel Joseph Flagg, was a former president of the New York Society of Anesthesiologists, and an anesthesiologist on staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. He received his medical degree from Fordham University, a Jesuit university founded by the Catholic Diocese of New York. Dr. Flagg turned his personal calling in helping mothers and children survive into a Catholic charity that is today one of the largest non-profits in the United States.
CMMB’s legacy of more than 100 years of faith-based service to the poor was a result of Dr. Flagg’s personal loss. In the early 1912, an infant daughter died from neonatal asphyxia. The doctor recounted, “My baby’s heart beat strongly, but I could not make her breathe. I baptized her as I had baptized many other babies under emergency conditions and saw my daughter die.”
Dr. Flagg’s wife, Stella, died in December of that same year.
In his grief, Dr. Flagg found solace through his faith in God, the Catholic Church, and service to others. He was deeply committed to his Catholic faith. The history of the Catholic Church’s social teaching, along with examples from scripture, make clear the fundamental right of all people to life and human dignity. The story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) instructs people of faith to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. As a committed Catholic, Dr. Flagg was compelled by his duties to his faith, his family, and society. His calling to start a Catholic charity was certainly inspired by the Church’s long history of missionary work with the poor.
One of Dr. Flagg’s first faith-based mission trips was to Haiti, where he brought compassionate care to those suffering from leprosy. In 1912, there was no cure for this chronic, progressive bacterial infection. When Dr. Flagg realized the immense need for medical missionaries in Haiti, he felt called to expand the reach of his mission and do more. The doctor recruited other medical professionals to join his medical mission. Many Catholic organizations supported Dr. Flagg’s early work and supported the creation of the Catholic charity, which would later become known as CMMB.
With encouragement and in partnership with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Society of the Atonement, and the Catholic Students Mission Crusade in Cincinnati, Dr. Flagg was able to engage the superiors of mission congregations, and recruit enough doctors and nurses to support faith-based medical missions to India, China and other countries in Asia.
The very first medical missionary to answer Dr. Flagg’s call to follow the example of Jesus and serve the poor was Dr. Margaret Lamont, from Hat Creek, Ashcroft, British Columbia. In 1914, the Franciscan Friars of Atonement— Graymoor arranged for Dr. Lamont, her husband and three children to travel to China. Dr. Lamont’s trip to China marked the beginning of CMMB’s medical volunteer program.
Father Charles B. Moulinier, the founder and first president of the Catholic Hospital Association (now known as the Catholic Health Association of the United States) was impressed by Dr. Flagg’s faith and his dedication to heal the sick and serve the poor. Father Moulinier encouraged Dr. Flagg to establish the Medical Mission Committee of the Catholic Hospital Association (CHA).
By February of 1928, the Catholic Medical Mission Committee had grown so large that it was independently incorporated as the Catholic Medical Mission Board in New York City. Today, CMMB is still headquartered in New York City, and has become one of the largest, best performing, non-profit organizations in the United States, and a model of international Catholic charity work recognized by the Vatican.
Family Values of Faith, Compassion, and Love
Dr. Flagg and his wife, Stella, made their strong Catholic faith a foundation for family life. Their daughter, Virginia (photo, left), was born in Yonkers, New York, on October 8, 1912.
Virginia was one of 12 Flagg siblings who would be raised with deep Catholic faith, a love of God and neighbor, and a deep connection to the bible, the gospel, and prayer. When Virginia was born, her father was already a highly respected doctor in New York City. He was also one of the earliest collaborators with the Maryknoll Sisters, founded the same year that Virginia was born.
Very close to the Maryknoll founders and their communities, Dr. Flagg taught some of Maryknoll’s first seminarians basic medical skills to prepare them for mission work. He often welcomed James Anthony Walsh, Mother Mary Joseph, Francis X. Ford, Bernard Meyer, James Edward Walsh, James Keller, and Patrick Byrne to his family home.
Raised in such a home steeped in the values of Catholic charity, it is not surprising that Virginia was called by God to join the Maryknoll Sisters. After graduating from Mount Saint Vincent College in Riverdale, New York, Virginia entered Maryknoll on August 4, 1930.
Virginia was given the name of Sister Stella Marie. Her father later wrote to her superior, “I am especially grateful for your permission that [Virginia] be allowed to bear her [late] mother’s name, Stella.” Virginia made her First Profession of Vows on January 6, 1933 at Maryknoll Sisters Motherhouse in New York, and her Final Profession of Vows in 1936.
Some might say that Sister Virginia was raised to be a missionary. Over her many years as a Maryknoll Sister, Virginia would be assigned to work in Manchuria, Shanghai, Hawaii, Kowloon, Hong Kong, and Chinatown in New York City. Sister Virginia was remembered by her Maryknoll sisters for her leadership qualities, energy, and enthusiasm.
Dr. Flagg described his daughter’s personality to Mother Mary Joseph in 1943: “I have been happy to contact once more the gay spirit which masks so effectively a depth of soul well known to you.”
Through Dr. Flagg’s dedication to the central tenets of Catholic charity through the Catholic Medical Mission Board, Virginia grew up with firsthand knowledge of Catholic faith, missionary work, and a duty to love and serve the poor. Her own legacy as a Maryknoll Sister is a testament to her father’s love and influence, which certainly helped shape Sister Virginia’s gentle spirituality.
Sister Virginia Flagg died on January 26, 2011. She was 98 years old and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 80 years.
An Institution of Catholic Charity through Global Healthcare
CMMB expanded quickly, and in 1928, Jesuit Father Edward F. Garesche was appointed executive director. Father Gareshe welcomed volunteers to CMMB’s headquarters to make supplies for medical missions, including bandages, gauze, compresses, and hospital gowns from old clothes and muslin. They also collected donated medicines and medical supplies.
Throughout the United States, CMMB volunteer clubs gathered to support the work of medical missionaries abroad. Father Gareshe said, “We have the happiness of being pioneers in the vast fields of medical mission activities, and we trust our work will grow and spread in proportion to the vastness of the medical needs of the missions.”
With Father Garesche’s vision and guidance, CMMB continued to grow, sending medicine and medical missionaries around the world. In 1931, CMMB reported that medicines and equipment valued at $50,000 had been sent to overseas missions. The ability to effectively deliver medical commodities to support missions and the poor became a mainstay of CMMB’s work, providing a foundation for CMMB’s Medical Donations Program.
Father Gareshe served as CMMB’s executive director until his death in 1960. In the meantime, Dr. Flagg was focused on becoming an expert in the field of neonatal asphyxia and was the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Asphyxial Death and the National Resuscitation Society. This area of intervention became a cornerstone program for CMMB, and representative of CMMB’s longtime focus on women and children.
Throughout its history, CMMB has benefited from the encouragement of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The Society for the Propagation of the Faith is an international association, coordinating assistance for Catholic missionary priests, brothers, and nuns in mission areas. The society is the oldest of four Pontifical Mission Societies of the Catholic Church. The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, the Society’s national director, was a vocal advocate for CMMB’s work. He worked closely with Father Gareshe and served on CMMB’s Board of Directors from 1946 to 1976.
Venerable Sheen was very successful in his efforts to secure gift-in-kind donations of medicines and supplies from pharmaceutical companies. His involvement propelled the growth of the Medical Donations Program and by 1951, CMMB reported that 33 tons of medicines and medical supplies had been donated for deployment to mission clinics and hospitals in the developing world.
The Medical Donations Program would continue its exponential growth for years to come. In 1965, CMMB purchased a building in Long Island City where this activity could be managed. In 1978, it was reported that 8,000 missions in 85 countries had requested medical aid from CMMB. Today, the CMMB distribution center, in that same building, is a state-of-the-art climate controlled facility, featuring a robust inventory management system and capable of distribution hundreds of millions of dollars worth of medicine and medical supplies every year.
The values of Catholic charity and the legacies of Father Gareshe and Venerable Sheen formed the cornerstones for the tremendous reach, success, and partnerships that support the Medical Donations Program globally.
It has been noted that CMMB’s earliest work distributing medicine to support mission work in the developing world predates the founding of Catholic Relief Services, founded by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
While not governed by the Catholic Bishops Conference in the United States, CMMB today enjoys close relationships with a number of Catholic international relief organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, as well as other Catholic charity groups including Cross International, Sisters of Charity, Franciscan Mission Outreach, Daughters of Charity, and The Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities.
Through a network of country offices, CMMB works in close collaboration with local Catholic dioceses in Haiti, Kenya, Peru, South Sudan, and Zambia, as well as other countries where medical donations are shipped.
CMMB remains a member of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. These relationships are critical to support the Catholic charity’s trusted global network. Over the past 10 years alone, CMMB’s Medical Donations Program has deployed more than $4 billion worth of medicines, health commodities, and medical supplies to trusted local healthcare partners in 120 countries.
Support for Mother Teresa’s Mission in Calcutta
Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun and the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, devoted her life to serving the poor and destitute around the world through Catholic charity work.
She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu into humble circumstances in Macedonia in 1910. As a very young girl, she felt a calling from God to become a missionary and spread the love of Jesus. She spent many years in Calcutta, India where she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order devoted to helping those in great need.
In 1978, CMMB’s Medical Donations Program began providing $5,000 worth of medicine to Mother Teresa’s mission work every month to aid the patients suffering from leprosy that she and her Sisters cared for in the city of Calcutta. A staff member wrote that when she visited the CMMB distribution center, she “…always had time to visit all of the staff and express her thanks for their share in her shipments.”
Mother Teresa saw beauty in every human being and chose to “serve the poorest of the poor and to live among them.” Her example through her Catholic charity has inspired not only the staff and leadership of CMMB over the years, but millions more worldwide.
Mother Teresa’s mission was to love, and CMMB continues to share her mission through our work with the most vulnerable women and children. Staff were so inspired by her words and deeds that CMMB created a booklet of quotes from Mother Teresa to to share with the CMMB community, to guide daily reflection. CMMB’s Mother Teresa booklet can be downloaded by clicking here.
In a rare video, Mother Teresa answers the question,”Where does love begin?” As one of CMMB’s core values, it inspires us to show compassion towards others, especially the most marginalized.
Her words from so many years ago still resonate today. CMMB depends on prayers, support, and love to make healthier lives possible for marginalized women, children, and families who are too often forgotten. As a Catholic charity, CMMB is blessed and humbled by a direct connection to Mother Teresa, her community, and her work in Calcutta. She is a constant reminder of CMMB’s mission to serve the poor with love and respect, and to follow the example of Jesus.
Leading a Catholic Charity into the 21st Century
The year 2000 was a turning point for CMMB. A feasibility study would compel CMMB to become a program-driven organization, while still representing the core teachings of Catholic charity. John F. Galbraith was chosen to lead CMMB into the new century.
Galbraith launched an initiative called Choose to Care, which was developed into a five-year, $5 million commitment to fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. Over the course of five years, Choose to Care helped build the capacity of more than 140 community-based organizations focused on palliative care, orphan care and placement, and HIV/AIDS education. In total, more than 144,000 patients and orphans would be reached with medical, psychosocial, and education support.
In 2008, Choose to Care was named a best practice by UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.
In 2002, based on the success of Choose to Care, CMMB established a second HIV/AIDS program, called Born to Live. This program would focus on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS (PMTCT). CMMB’s outstanding work in PMTCT through Born to Live was recognized by funding via the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). CMMB was part of the first faith-based consortium to receive funding from PEPFAR.
In 2010, CMMB’s network of resources was called to action to provide emergency response to a tremendous natural disaster: the massive Haiti earthquake.
Having first begun work in Haiti nearly 100 years prior, Haiti is now CMMB’s largest country office by funding. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, CMMB Haiti Country Director, Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois led the CMMB team to quickly to mobilize aid within hours of the deadly disaster. CMMB was able to place donations of $50 million in cash and in-kind products to aid those affected by the Haiti earthquake and founded the Haiti Amputee Coalition.
Haiti is one of five country offices in operations currently by CMMB. The international Catholic charity also has country offices in Kenya, Peru, South Sudan and Zambia as well as close partnerships and operations in dozens of other countries.
While all of CMMB’s country offices are committed to increasing access to care to support maternal and child health, especially in the most marginalized and remote communities, each country faces distinct challenges to heal the sick and serve the poor. All five country offices enjoy solid partnerships with government health agencies at national and local levels. And in each country, CMMB’s faith-based approach resonates with many healthcare professionals.
Many of CMMB’s partner health facilities are operated by faith-based organizations. Across all offices, health services programs and initiatives for women and children include:
- Disability rehabilitation
- Domestic and international volunteers placement
- HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment, including prevention of mother-to-child transmission
- Maternal, neonatal, and child health
- Medical supply chain and healthcare system strengthening
- Prevention and control of malaria
- Support for orphans and vulnerable children
Through community-based programs and solutions, CMMB continues to transform the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable women and children by tackling the deep-rooted causes of illness and death. Through country offices, and hundred of partners in the public and private sectors, CMMB continues to build on its legacy as a trusted Catholic charity, dedicated to saving lives and transforming communities.
Of special significance, in 2012, CMMB celebrated its 100 year anniversary. In addition to a gala event, CMMB was invited to a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI as a friend of the Church and long-time Catholic charity.
Healthier Lives Worldwide
CMMB’s impressive history, record of service over 100 years, and legacy of Catholic charity could never have been achieved without the efforts of dedicated, faith-filled staff, and partners who never lost sight of their faith, values, and a mission-focused perspective.
In 2015, the organization launched a new visual identity and brand to support a renewed focus to improve the lives of women, children, and their communities. The new visual identity and brand, along with a refined vision and mission, would maintain CMMB’s excellent reputation in providing health services to the poor and marginalized over the last 100 years, and prepare to share this work with an even wider audience over the next 100.
CMMB (Catholic Medical Mission Board) has retained its historic name, both legally and spiritually. However, the organization’s brand name was shortened to “CMMB,” an acronym that has long been in use around the world.
CMMB’s new logo was designed to evoke the sacred Madonna and child – the heart of CMMB’s Catholic faith – with a new, rounded shape. The stylized ampersand (&) is also central to CMMB’s commitment to actively collaborate with other non-profits, governments, and community organizations all over the world.
The new visual identity and brand were launched to more accurately reflect the work that CMMB is doing today. Former CMMB President and CEO Bruce Wilkinson explained, “CMMB’s new logo and brand emphasizes our accomplishments, and we believe, will inspire a growing global community to join us in achieving our future vision of ‘Healthier Lives Worldwide.’”
Click here to watch a video and learn more about the story behind CMMB’s new logo.
Firmly grounded in the basic tenets of Catholic charity, CMMB has long believed that access to quality healthcare is a basic human right. Today, women and children continue to be among the most vulnerable populations in the world, still suffering the most from illness, poverty and disparity. Despite serving critical roles within their communities, many women and children lack access to basic healthcare, compounding many other threats to their ongoing health and well-being.
Healthy, educated and empowered women are better able to raise healthy, educated children. By empowering women to overcome the effects of poverty and poor health, CMMB believes they can and will live full and productive lives, and so will their children, families, and communities.
To address and overcome the obstacles to leading healthier lives, CMMB current primary program areas include: maternal health, child health, access to water and sanitation, nutrition, economic empowerment, emergency response, women’s health, advocacy, health systems strengthening, and HIV care and treatment.
CMMB programs also include numerous opportunities for qualified, international volunteers. Over the past 100 years, CMMB has sent dedicated volunteers to support mission in 39 countries. A network of more than 80 hospitals abroad rely on CMMB volunteers to fill the gap for needed care, services, and knowledge.
CMMB international volunteers advocate for women and children affected by poverty and illness in some of the poorest and most remote communities in the world. CMMB’s programs to volunteer abroad believes in the power of giving and fellowship to overcome obstacles, and a shared commitment to achieve more.
Over the last five years, CMMB’s international volunteers have served more than two million people globally. Qualified, skilled professional are always needed in the following areas:
- Public health
- International development
- Medicine and nursing
- Health administration and health sciences
- Physical, speech, occupational therapy
- Marketing and communications
- Finance, business, and accounting
- Human resources
- Interpretation and translation services (Spanish, French, Creole)
Interested adults willing to commit to at least a six month placement, who are ready to meet a minimal fundraising requirement can apply to volunteer abroad with CMMB by clicking here.
Building a Mission Hospital in Haiti
The social teachings of Catholic charity places an emphasis on caring for the sick. Through the Gospel, we know that Jesus placed a particular emphasis on care for the sick and outcasts. The Catholic Church itself has a long history of caring for the needs of the poor.
As the Catholic faith developed into a global religion, many Catholic religious orders established mission hospitals and healthcare centers around the world. Women religious including the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of St Francis opened and operated some of the first mission hospitals. CMMB partners with many of them.
In Haiti, Sister Monica, Sister Dulcimar and Sister Maria know firsthand about the poor. They are three Daughters of Charity who work with CMMB in Cîté Soleil, where 400,000 people struggle to survive extreme poverty. This huge slum in Port-au-Prince is one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere. For 40 years, the Sisters have worked tirelessly to offer healthcare, medicine, and education with dignity and respect.
In Kenya, one of CMMB’s partners is Mutomo Mission Hospital. It was founded by nursing sisters belonging to the Irish Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in 1962. Sister Mary is the Hospital administrator. She explained, “Mission hospitals are associated with the Church so people know that Sisters will be merciful. Sisters will have a heart. Sisters will be able to give you medicine when you don’t have money – you can bring it later. Sisters will be able to feed you. So the mission hospital has won the hearts of many with our mission to serve.”
In Peru, CMMB partners with the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours. The Sisters established a new mission of Catholic charity in Latin America in 1966. They alleviate human suffering and bring a message of hope to the poor in the District of La Esperanza, Province of Trujillo Department of La Libertad. They have dedicated themselves to the care of mothers and children, health care, social work, religious instruction, and all forms of support to the poorest of the poor, especially the sick and dying.
In South Sudan, the first missionary station was opened by the Comboni Missionaries in 1901. CMMB supports the work of Nzara Missionary Hospital (also known as St. Teresa Hospital) located within the Tombura-Yambio Diocese. The hospital is overseen by the Comboni Missionary Sisters who are supported by a dedicated team of local doctors and nurses, including CMMB medical volunteers.
In Zambia, Mwandi Mission Hospital began operating in 1885, with a focus on delivering health and spiritual care to the Western Province of Zambia with the establishment of a church and hospital along the plains of the Zambezi River. Today, CMMB partners with the United Church of Zambia, among others, to support the Mwandi Mission Hospital, serving more than 25,000 people in this remote, poor region. Click here to see pictures from a recent medical mission trip to Mwandi Mission Hospital.
Mission hospitals share CMMB’s commitment to faith, Catholic charity, love, and respect for the poor. However, not all of the extremely marginalized communities that CMMB serves have access to mission hospitals or quality care.
The remote and rural community of Côtes-de-Fer in Haiti was in dire need, with the nearest hospital several hours away by car. The dream for a new hospital was strongly supported by CMMB board member Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan. “Bishop Joe” was already nationally recognized within the U.S. for his work on behalf of the poor and downtrodden through Catholic charities in Brooklyn and Queens when he joined CMMB’s board in 2004. By working with CMMB, Bishop Joe would expand his commitment and passion for social justice to the global health arena.
With a shared mission of serving the poor and marginalized through Catholic charity, Mercy Health and CMMB entered into a partnership in 2013 to strengthen the local health system in Côtes-de-Fer to improve the health of women and children. The first priority was the construction of Côtes-de-Fer’s first hospital, which broke ground in 2014. Mercy Health provided lead funding to complete Phase I of the hospital and has been instrumental in equipping the facility and providing expert guidance along the way.
In March 2017, the Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan Center for Health was officially inaugurated and opened to the community to deliver critical clinical services, and to serve as a hub for improving health for all.
Bishop Joe passed away in 2013 at the age of 83 and did not see the dream of a new hospital become a reality. In Côtes-de-Fer, the Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan Center for Health was given his name to honor Bishop Joe’s life long dedication to those in need. He is remembered as a man who “epitomized the best of our church’s teaching and the fundamental option for the poor,” said Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio, of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
The hospital is a beacon of hope to the community of Côtes-de-Fer and honors Bishop Joe’s 10 years of service on CMMB’s board, as well as his friendship, spiritual direction, moral compass, and skills in ministering to the poor.
A Top Ranked Charity
Guided by faith, long-standing Catholic commitments to social justice, and service to the poor and most vulnerable, CMMB is committed to building healthier lives worldwide. To ensure both vision and mission, CMMB takes the support of partners and donors very seriously. The faith-based, Catholic charity is very proud to efficiently use resources to support women, children, and their communities worldwide. In fiscal year 2018, CMMB received $740 million in revenue and expended $636 million.
CMMB has earned a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for eight consecutive years. Charity Navigator’s four-star rating recognizes CMMB’s outstanding financial accountability and transparency.
CMMB was recognized by CNBC in 2015 and 2016 as one of the Top 10 Charities Changing the World. The 10 charities on CNBC’s annual list “do exceptional work both home and abroad, all while maintaining top-notch financial management and transparency standards.”
CMMB is a member of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. CMMB meets the Better Business Bureau’s 20 standards for charity accountability, which ensures that CMMB has strong governance, is financially accountable, shows truthfulness in representations, and is willing and able to share information.
GuideStar is the world’s largest source of information on non-profit organizations, and CMMB is a platinum-level GuideStar participant, demonstrating its commitment to transparency.