Sister Mary Liguori Cantlin, Doctor

Posted: June 02, 1990

She wore a white nun's habit and answered to the name "Doc."

Sister Mary Liguori Cantlin made history in 1950 when she became the first member of the Sisters of Mercy order in Merion to become a physician. Ten years later, she became the first Roman Catholic nun to be certified as a surgeon by the American Board of Surgery.

Sister Mary Liguori, who spent the last 30 years working as a missionary surgeon in India and Guyana, where she cared for the poor under the harshest of circumstances, died Monday at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Georgetown, Guyana. She was 73.

"She was an extraordinary woman," said Sister Barbara Kaufmann, a longtime friend. "She was extraordinary for her simplicity, her singleness of purpose, and her personal intergrity and compassion, all of which flowed from her deep faith and love for God."

Sister Mary Liguori worked under spartan conditions at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. The hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy, was chronically short of supplies. Things were so bad that Sister Mary Liguori had to treat burn patients by soaking them in a solution of warm water and liquid detergent. The mixture soothed patients' bodies and took away the stench of burned flesh.

At home in the convent, the nuns slept under mosquito nets. Food was another hardship. They couldn't get wheat to make bread, and cheese and dairy products also were scarce. So Sister Mary Liguori and her fellow missionaries subsisted on squash and beets.

At the hospital, Sister Mary Liguori treated a growing number of patients with AIDS.

"She had an exquisite sensitivity for the sufferings of people," Sister Barbara said. "She could handle the most awkward or embarrassing situations with perfect sensitivity. She put people at ease by her words, her smile or her touch."

Sister Mary Liguori, a shy woman with crystal blue eyes, was a woman of minimal needs. She didn't own extra clothing and she had few possessions. When she traveled to and from America, she traveled light - so light that when she read a paperback, she tore out the pages she had just read so the book wouldn't weigh down her luggage.

"While she was traveling, you never gave her a paperback you wanted back," Sister Barbara said.

Sister Mary Liguori loved to read the works of W. Somerset Maugham and the medieval mystery stories of Ellis Peters. She loved historical novels. She also made up her own fairy tales to amuse the nuns, like the tale about the goat who ate too much grass.

"I am so full, I cannot pull another blade of grass, ba ba," the story


Sister Mary Liguori also was a patriot.

"On the Fourth of July, no matter where she was, India or Guyana, she went out and saluted the flag and sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner' gustily," Sister Barbara said.

Sister Mary Liguori, who was raised in Upper Darby, graduated from West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Girls, Class of 1934. She entered the Sisters of Mercy on Sept. 8, 1935, and professed her vows on Aug. 16, 1938.

As a nun, she continued to study, in science and medicine. She received her bachelor of science degree from Villanova University in 1942 and a master's degree in chemistry and science from Villanova in 1944. She became a registered nurse, graduating from the nursing school of Misericordia Hospital in 1946. With the approval of Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, then the archbishop of Philadelphia, Sister Mary Liguori attended Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and received her M.D. in 1950.

She did postgraduate work at Jefferson University Medical College and the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine before becoming a missionary.

She spent 16 years in India, working from 1960 until 1976 at the Sir Ardeshir Dalal Memorial Hospital and Mercy Hospital, both in Jamshedpur, India. In India, she treated patients referred to her by Mother Teresa. She also drove around the countryside in a jeep, treating patients in leper colonies.

In India, her constant companion was Cedric, a Dalmatian who slept on a bed in her room and dozed on the floor outside the operating room, when Sister Mary Liguori was in surgery. She was heartbroken when she had to leave her dog behind in India because of stringent quarantine regulations.

At St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Georgetown, Guyana, where she worked from 1978 until this year, Sister Mary Liguori had gallbladder surgery last week. She recuperated for a week until her heart gave out, Sister Barbara said.

"Her heart and her soul were focused in heaven," said Sister Barbara. ''She is where she wants to be."

She is survived by several nieces and nephews.

A memorial Mass will be celebrated at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Sisters of Mercy Convent on 515 Montgomery Ave., Merion.

Contributions in her memory can be made to the Sisters of Mercy, 515 Montgomery Avenue, Merion, Pa. 19066.

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