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Profiles of Mennonite Faith

No. 7, Spring 1999

Katharina Schellenberg: Continuously on Call

Dr. Katharina Schellenberg looked about helplessly. Where could they find room for yet another patient? But the Muslim who hadbrought his critically wife to the Mennonite Brethren hospital in Shamshabad was persistent. “If she doesn’t recover under your care, then let her die under your care.” She stayed.

The trust in the doctor was no surprise: the small foreigner had already spent twenty years in India taking in the ill of all castes and working medical wonders. The ill woman probably noticed that the first person up in the morning to check her was the doctor, and she was the last to make the rounds at night. The patient probably didn’t realize how unusual it was for a woman doctor to have been sent abroad by a small denomination as early as 1907.

Katharina Schellenberg was born in the small village of Tiegerweide in South Russia. As a young child she was uprooted as her family moved to North America. Katharina was only fourteen when her mother died and she had to assume care for three brothers and three sisters. Her father, Elder Abraham Schellenberg, more than any other single figure, shaped the Mennonite Brethren church during its first decades in North America. The Elder’s world was large. He resided in Kansas, kept in contact with Mennonites in Russia and nourished a new generation that would take up mission posts around the world.

At the age of nineteen Katharina made her first commitment to Christ and joined the Buhler (Kan.) Mennonite Brethren Church. As a young adult she worked in an orphanage and then in two hospitals. When she volunteered for missions she was advised to take a four-year homeopathic medical course. She completed the course before leaving for India in 1907. On the eve of her departure she remarked to a friend that “a woman who goes to the foreign field by herself should be very sure.”

It was that sureness that sustained her in very difficult circumstances. Katharina worked as the only American medical doctor in the India Mennonite Brethren mission territory from 1907 to her death in 1945. During those thirty-eight years she took only two furloughs, in 1914 and 1923. For the first twenty years she worked in several locations demonstrating to Indians that the medicines could be trusted. The task was far from easy. In 1917 she wrote her father that “the problems are so severe that one can hardly stand it, and one does not know where it will end. But God sees and knows all, and He can change things!”

Dr. Schellenberg at left with patient.

Photograph from the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Fresno

Dr. Schellenberg at left with patient.

With the 1928 completion of a hospital in Shamshabad she had a more permanent home. During the first year the hospital was open 8,519 patients were treated. They came with all kinds of illnesses, sometimes having waited too long to be helped. Often she worked a seven-day week, making do with limited equipment and medicines.

Since much sickness was related to poor living conditions or hygiene, the doctor tried to stress clean water and adequate sewage. Many cultural differences regarding diet, medicines and methods of health care had to be negotiated. Perhaps her most grateful patients were Muslim women who would not be seen by a male, but could now be cared for by a woman.

Dr. Schellenberg’s concern included the emotional and religious needs of her patients and staff. Each morning the hospital awoke to a devotional time for everyone in the facility. On Sunday afternoons the doctor would play her autoharp and sing with the patients. She joined in weekly meetings with co-workers and instructed in them in things far beyond medicine.

Beside all of her medical work, Dr. Schellenberg took in homeless infants, supervised a girls’ residence for five years, kept a fine fruit and flower garden, raised chickens, turkeys and milk cows and did some farming. She explained that these diversions were like a holiday and she therefore didn’t need the annual rest trip to the hills that was customary for many missionaries.

On January 1, 1945, suddenly and without warning, her work was over. John L. Lohrenz, who presided at her memorial service wrote that “I have never been at a funeral where there has been so much weeping. . . . There was much sobbing and lamentation. Strong . . . men who had been helped through her ministry wept like children.”

The inscription on the memorial stone in the St. George Cemetery at Hyderabad, India, accurately reflects the life of Katharina Schellenberg:

She lived for Christ
She served others
She sacrificed herself