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Trailblazing Anglican women Dr Catherine Hamlin and Bishop Barbara Harris die

Renowned Australian obstetrician and the first female bishop in the Anglican communion remembered

By Mark Brolly

March 30 2020Two pioneering Anglican women -- renowned Australian obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Catherine Hamlin, and the first woman to be consecrated a bishop in the Anglican Communion, US Bishop Barbara Harris -- died within days of each other. 

Dr Hamlin, 96, died on 18 March at her home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she and her late husband Dr Reginald Hamlin co-founded Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, a healthcare network treating women who suffer from the debilitating effects of an obstetric fistula – a horrific childbirth injury.

The official obituary for Dr Hamlin published by the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation said in part: "To say Catherine was a remarkable woman is an understatement. In our eyes, she is a saint. She was much-admired for her work in Australia and globally. She was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize ...

"In 1958, the Hamlins answered an advertisement in The Lancet medical journal for gynaecologists to set up a school of midwifery in Addis Ababa. Together with their six-year-old son, Richard, they travelled to Ethiopia to take up the contract. What had been intended as a three-year stay in Addis Ababa turned into a lifetime of service to the Ethiopian people.

"Women and girls who suffer from obstetric fistula have been described as our modern-day lepers. Obstetric fistula is a horrific childbirth injury, that leaves women incontinent. It is caused by long, unrelieved obstructed labour. Tragically, 93% of obstetric fistula survivors give birth to a stillborn baby ... These women and girls are often ostracised from their communities and rejected by their husbands.

"Catherine Hamlin lived to give these women their life back."

The Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation said Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is now a healthcare network of more than 550 Ethiopian staff – many trained by Dr Catherine – servicing six hospitals, a rehabilitation centre, a College of Midwives and 80 Hamlin-supported midwifery clinics. 

Dr Hamlin is survived by her only son Richard and his family, her sister and two brothers. Dr Reginald Hamlin, whom she married in 1950, died in 1993. 

Dr Hamlin will be buried alongside her husband in the British War Graves Cemetery in Addis Ababa. Last year, she said: “I love Ethiopia and I have loved every day here. Ethiopia is my home.”

Bishop Harris died on 13 March, aged 89, in Massachusetts, where her historic consecration as bishop occurred on 11 February 1989.

She served as suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts until her retirement in 2002.

The Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, said: “Bishop Harris was not large of physical stature. In fact, the opposite. But she was larger than life. She was larger than life because she lived it fully with her God and with us. She did it by actually living the love of God that Jesus taught us about. She did it walking the lonesome valley of leadership, paving a way for so many of us whose way had been blocked. She did it lifting her voice for those who had no voice. She did with a joke, a whispered word, a secret joy in spite of anything that got in her way, including death. No wonder she titled her memoir, Hallelujah, Anyhow!

Barbara Clementine Harris was born on 12 June 1930 in Philadelphia and initially worked for a public relations firm and later in business as a community relations consultant.

She was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and in 1965 helped register black voters and took part in the historic Selma to Montgomery march in the South.

She was priested in 1980, when the ordination of women had been officially recognised in The Episcopal Church for only four years.

Bishop Harris' historic consecration was held before a congregation of 8000 in a Boston auditorium and extensive international media coverage. The New York Times said in its obituary that the Boston police offered her a bulletproof vest to wear on the day but that she declined.