February 24, 1939 – April 14, 2023
“Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.” ~ Catherine of Siena
Irene Lucille was the eleventh of twelve children of William and Helen (Wenzlick) Birchmeier, born February 24, 1939, in Owosso, Michigan. She attended grade and high school at St. Michael’s, Maple Grove staffed by Grand Rapids Dominicans. “Something about them and their lives inspired me to enter religious life,” she wrote. This she did arriving at Marywood on September 8, 1957. At reception, she took and kept Sister Margaret Mary as her name.
After profession Sister Margaret Mary enrolled in Mercy Central School of Nursing, Grand Rapids, earning an R.N. in 1962. After two years as a staff nurse at Guadalupe Hospital in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, she prepared for a new apostolate in the recently established mission serving the poor in Chimbote, Peru. The Sisters already in Chimbote were doing catechetical work but the priests had appealed for help in addressing an appalling number of infant and maternal deaths. Mothers were bringing their infants for Baptism. They were already dead. The priests knew something needed to be done. “Couldn’t you do something?” asked one of them of Mother Victor Flannery. She would and she did, promising to send “our very best.” One of those “very best” was Sr. Margaret Mary who was certified as a nurse-midwife. She began to study the Spanish language and in 1965 was ready to go to Chimbote with Sister Innocence Andres.
Within months of their arrival, the Sisters had organized a maternity program with the goal of instilling a deep understanding of health needs and respect for all life. The program eventually included maternal/infant care, health education, personnel training among the local population, especially the women, and a well-baby program to track the child’s development for the first year. Eventually over 100 women and men from the area were trained as nurses, midwives, social workers, and lab technicians.
Before the maternity hospital was built, the Sisters delivered babies in their homes which were often shacks with no running water or electricity. Payment may have been a live chicken or guinea pig, gratefully accepted, thus maintaining the dignity of the family. When the maternity hospital was completed, the Sisters needed first to gain the trust of people who held the belief that a hospital was where you go to die. Soon it was seen as a place to safely deliver a baby, then rest and recuperate on clean sheets in a dormitory with the comfortable companionship of other mothers and welcome visits from family.
In 1970, an earthquake destroyed most of the city of Chimbote and seriously damaged the buildings in the compound. Two Sisters living at the Centre were killed, Sister Gabriel Joseph Gussin, CSJ and Sr. Edith Mary Selik, OSF. Sr. John Cassian, SSJ, who established the laboratory, was seriously injured. The people feared the Sisters would leave and were consoled when they found the Sisters were staying. One of the local women said, “Su presencia nos da esperanza.” (Your lives give hope to us.)
And hope was in short supply. A military takeover, terrorists, floods, droughts, unbearable heat were endured. Horrific epidemics, e.g., tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis, meningitis, cholera – all diseases that are nearly eradicated in other parts of the world – took a terrible toll on the people, especially mothers and infants. The people in Chimbote and Las Madres (the Mothers, as the Sisters are known) persisted in building health care and hope for the people and their children.
With the leadership of Sisters Margaret Mary and Lillian Bockheim, who had replaced Sr. Innocence Andres, the priests, people, Pittsburgh Diocese, Dominican Sisters and friends, the Centro de Obras Sociales now includes a 35-bed hospital, an outpatient clinic, a clinical laboratory, prenatal training for both new mothers and fathers, and a Well Baby Program to track newborns for the first year of life. A physical therapy program and speech program for children and adults were added to the services. To combat malnutrition, the staff work with mothers on nutrition and hygiene and make home visits. An orphanage is yet another addition to the services, bringing joy and laughter to the compound with the sounds of children playing and thriving until they could be reunited with their families or adopted by other families.
The compound continues to be an oasis of hope for the people of Chimbote. Much of the cost of rebuilding and maintaining the mission is underwritten by the people of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, a relationship that spans decades and was always nourished by Sister Margaret Mary’s annual visits.
This relationship has expanded the horizons of benefactors in Pittsburgh, Grand Rapids, other interested persons, and communities. People who are abundantly rich in faith, courage, and love, yet desperately poor, are connected with generous-hearted people willing to share their material wealth. It is a reciprocal relationship expanding the well-being of both and making the world a better place. “The opportunity to be with and serve the people of Chimbote has been, for me, such an enriching experience that it is difficult to express in words, I enjoy life!” wrote Sister Margaret Mary Birchmeier.
Sister Margaret Mary had a deep love for liturgy which sustained her and those around her. She was constant in prayer and, through her witness, drew others to prayer. She brought a global perspective, a deep faith, and generous heart wherever she lived and served. We are grateful and blessed for having known her. Surely angels greeted her as she stepped over the threshold into Paradise.
Sr. Margaret Mary is survived by her sister Marge (Bernie) Korson, Rockford, MI, sister-in-law Judy Birchmeier, New Lothrop, MI; nieces, nephews, many friends and members of her Dominican Community.
Entered eternal life on April 14, 2023 at the age of 84 after 65 years of religious life.
We commend Sister Margaret Mary to your prayers.
Pray for vocations
Sr. Margaret Mary helps Diego with his homework while ministering in Peru
Sister Margaret Mary caring for a premature baby in the Chimbote, Peru maternity clinic in 1977
Working in the Chimbote maternity clinic in 1981
When the maternity hospital was completed, the Sisters needed first to gain the trust of people who held the belief that a hospital was where you go to die. Soon it was seen as a place to safely deliver a baby, then rest and recuperate on clean sheets in a dormitory with the comfortable companionship of other mothers and welcome visits from family.
Sisters Lillian Bockheim and Margaret Mary Birchmeier