Sr. Martha Simon, SCMM aka Martha Mary Mehrl

Posted: January 8, 2012 in family
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I said to my husband, after hearing someone on PBS radio this morning, “It’s just ridiculous! Sad! The religious upbringing of people in this country is inhibiting their appreciation and enjoyment of poetry. The only exposure they have to poetry is what they hear or conceive of in the form of prayer or the generic crap that is found in greeting cards.” If it is not connected in some form to an institution, then it is not normal. Minds shut down in the face of tremendous possibilities available in not only poetry, but in contemporary art, music, theatre, etc.

Our parents were devout Catholics-I’m the second oldest in family of ten children who all were baptized, went to Catholic schools, had First Holy Communion and Confirmation Rites. My mother died in 2005 but my father still attends daily mass at the age of 89. My father, all of my brothers make no attempt to appreciate contemporary poetry. There is one sister, born on the same day I was born, only four years later, who was able to approach a visual poem that Leslie Scott Holmes and I did together at his studio in Minneapolis-in between my “Dad care” stints in NE Iowa-so it was right that I gifted it to her for Christmas. The main subject, for me anyway, was our elderly father with dementia and my relationship with him… a subject that could easily result in sappy poetry. I was able to express it via the less subjective collage flash card approach that Scott had set up for us.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day 2012, I returned to my small home town in NE Iowa with my visual poetry books, thinking that I could exchange them as gifts. I was able to give two away to my cousins in Dubuque, the larger city 45 minutes away from my small home town of Cascade. My father was raised as the eldest in Dubuque, with one sister and three brothers. All my cousins were raised as Catholics. We have a famous aunt in common, on my father’s side. Martha Mehrl joined the convent in 1951 and became Sr. Martha Simon SCMM. In 1958, Sr. Simon was one of two of the first women to graduate with a doctorate in dentistry- cum laude-from Georgetown University in Washington. I have the speech she gave as valedictorian. She was an early feminist role model for us, and possibly could not have managed that route (educational expenses and world travel) had she not joined the convent. She went on to command a mobile dentist office in Africa (Uganda and later in Kenya), where she practiced her dentistry on the impoverished population, supported as a missionary by the Catholic Church and in many ways by her family and home parish-Sacred Heart Parish-in Dubuque, IA. My uncle passed on three boxes of old family photos, including Martha’s letters and photos, to me and my cousins. I’ve cleaned up the mildew, replaced a couple of the delapidated photo albums, and am still scanning photos, documents, and letters from my aunt in Africa and Pakistan before passing the boxes on to other cousins. The photo of Martha playing the cowhide drum is a favorite. She acquired the drum in Kenya from a patient who had traveled by foot for three days after being referred by the local medicine man, who could not take care of the abcessed tooth without antibiotics. He was an important man (headman of his village we think). The hair has come off much of the surface since this photo. Expect a few blogs about Sr. Martha Simon, accompanied by photos, in the future!

So, you see, I’ve come full circle- beginning with anti-institutional sentiments and ending with a story about my aunt, who, like her brothers who joined the army-navy or navy-airforce, was able to make her way professionally and travel the world with the aid of institutions.  Life is full of contradictions.

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