Priest, Doctor and Social Advocate is Committed to Third World Ministry
If home is where the heart is, then home to Father John (Jack) MacCarthy, M.D., is Iquitos, Peru. He serves there as medical missionary to the indigenous Quechua people in Santa Clotilde, a remote parish in the Amazon basin. Father Jack's medical practice gives new meaning to "country doctor." Santa Clotilde is a day's journey by motor boat to the nearest airfield and more than 180 miles from a road. The village is small, a ten-minute walk from end to end. The area served by Father Jack and another priest/physician, however, is much larger - forty clinics sprinkled through 100 or more Indian villages spread out over 20,000 square miles along four hundred miles of the Napo River and its tributaries. Besides meeting day-to-day medical needs, Father Jack is also a social justice advocate working to make life better and easier for the village and its people.
Father Jack knew from the time he was a Premontre High School student in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the early 1960s that he wanted to pursue life as a priest and doctor. The Norbertines were his heroes, men he looked up to as good teachers and role models. So was Dr. Tom Dooley whose life and story inspired Father Jack. He resolved to make a difference as a medical missionary "and help bring developing nations into the modern world."
He joined the Norbertines after graduating from Premontre, attended St. Norbert College where he studied philosophy and pre-med, and graduated cum laude in 1967. He was ordained two years later. From 1969-74, with a year off for a master's degree in religious education at Fordham University, New York, Father Jack taught chemistry and religion at Premontre. In and around the course material, he shared with his students a vision of a more just society - and he coached hockey, a favorite sport of the future doctor.
In pursuit of his goals, Father Jack enrolled at Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago in 1974. Living in a decrepit house in a working class neighborhood, he walked to classes carrying a single sandwich for lunch and came home at night to a bowl of soup. During his second year of studies, he was an in-house medical assistant at the Children's Infectious Disease Hospital of Cook County where he cared for immigrant children with diphtheria and other life-threatening infectious diseases.
After receiving his M.D. from Loyola (1977), he completed a three-year residency at Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, and received certification in internal medicine. Encouraged by meds and confreres to pursue medical mission work, Father Jack underwent three months of intensive training in Spanish in Mexico. Thereafter, he packed his stethoscope and set off for South America.
First he joined the Norbertine mission at Tingo Maria in the high jungle of central Peru (1980-82), administering to the medical needs of the indigenous people there. He also spoke out against the international cocaine syndicate in the area and against corrupt government health officials, actions which resulted in threats to his life. Realizing he could not practice medicine in that political climate, Father Jack left Tingo Maria. He became medical director at St. Jude Hospital, a facility operated by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother on St. Lucia Island in the West Indies. Here he helped establish a joint venture with his alma mater, Loyola's Stritch School of Medicine; the school provided medical personnel to work at St. Jude's in exchange for the chance to learn about tropical medicine. Father Jack left St. Lucia in 1985 for Santa Clotilde, but the collaboration he helped establish between St. Jude's and Stritch continues today.
The people of Santa Clotilde Father Jack serves, poor as they are, neither resent nor envy the privileges of the wealthy. Their needs and wants are fundamental: a tin roof for the school; books for the children; health care when they need it, and a market for their produce.
Government foreign aid rarely filters down through a complex and corrupt system to reach those who need it. Father Jack puts his faith instead in help received from small church organizations, parishes, and towns. And he does what he can to help his people help themselves. He trains the native people to work at the medical mission as nurses, orderlies, and maintenance people; he is as proud of their achievements as they are.
In his daily rounds, Father Jack heals the sick, nurtures their souls, and shares their sorrows. He works in conditions beyond the comprehension of most people living in affluent western civilizations. As Father Jack approaches a village by water, the sound of the boat's motor brings the people running through the jungle to greet the priest-doctor. By necessity a medical "jack-of-all-trades," Father Jack deals with needs ranging from pregnancy, childbirth, and pediatrics to snake bite, malaria, cholera, malnutrition, and a multitude of tropical diseases unknown in this country. His own bouts with serious illness – malaria, cancer, cataract surgery – have fortified his resolve to do as much as he can for as long as he can to help the people of Peru.
If asked whether he functions primarily as priest or as doctor, he is likely to reply, "What's the difference? Both are healing ministries."
In the Norbertine tradition of community, Father Jack and other religious who live at the mission houses in Peru gather at the end of each day for "holy hour," sharing a cold drink and a bowl of soup in a fortifying, commitment-enhancing domestic liturgy. It is the time of day when fatigue and the images of need are beyond the missionaries' abilities to help or cope, leaving each one to pray, Lord, let this cup pass from me. Only in unity do they find strength to add, But Your will be done.
Fr. Jack MacCarthy, O. Praem., Fr. Rod Fenzl, O. Praem., Dr. John Gray
|In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the disenfranchised poor, St. Norbert College honored Father Jack by awarding him an Honorary Doctor of Science degree during commencement ceremonies in 2001. Previously, he received the college's Distinguished Achievement Award in natural science (1986) and, in 1989, he was awarded the Stritch Medal from Loyola University recognizing the accomplishments of an outstanding alumnus of the medical school. Loyola's citation described Father Jack as "sensitive to the needs of the poor, a prototype of giving and caring, a gifted diagnostician, impatient with injustice, dedicated, passionate." The first priest physician so honored, Father Jack accepted the honor "on behalf of those many low profile physicians who work ... with limited resources and receive below minimum compensation ... in the small clinics and hospitals of the rural and less developed Southern hemisphere.”
When Father Jack received the St. Norbert College President's Medal for Service (1994), the citation recognized that more meaningful recognition likely "is the loving respect he receives from the people he serves." Comparing him to Albert Schweitzer and Dr. Tom Dooley, "who dedicated their lives to serving the medical needs of people in the Third World," the citation noted "Father MacCarthy is doing just that while also serving the people's spiritual needs in the tradition of the Norbertine community."