The Deathbed
Dying Like the Savior, Dying Like the Saved

Dying Like the Savior, Dying Like the Saved

Hannah Ontiveros

Sister Alberta Marie Hanley felt like Christ on her deathbed. Blood seeping into her eyes from a low platelet count, the twenty-six-year-old told Sister Mary Mercy that her head felt tight, like the crown of thorns must have made Jesus’ head feel. Hanley took her last moments to wonder if she had done enough for the people of war-torn Korea. Mary Mercy, the head of the Maryknoll Clinic in Pusan, South Korea, assured Hanley that she’d done all she was called to do. On January 31, 1952, in the Army 21st Evacuation Hospital, Sister Alberta Marie Hanley slipped into a coma and died, feeling like “a baby in God’s arms.”1

Hanley had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1943 at the age of eighteen. After studying “Far Eastern Languages” at Yale, she was assigned to the Pusan mission in 1951. Granted entry to South Korea by General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations forces, to carry out medical relief among Korean civilians, this American Catholic order worked in the overcrowded city and formed close ties with the American military leadership there, as well as with United Nations and Korean officials. The Sisters administered vaccines, treated communicable diseases, and tended to the plethora of illnesses and injuries that ran rampant among the poor, malnourished, and displaced inhabitants of Pusan. Sometime around January 24, 1952, Sister Alberta Marie contracted toxic hepatitis, which caused hemorrhaging throughout her body and, eventually, her death.

Hanley received a funeral worthy of the Maryknoll Sisters’ reputation. It was equal parts grand, with a huge crowd including the who’s who of Pusan, and ramshackle, with an Army-issue coffin lined with bedding scraps. Sister Maria del Rey, the mission’s biographer, described Hanley’s funeral as solemn but joyful, celebrating her sacrifice to “her beloved squalid poor” and her return to God, while lamenting the loss of the young American with such potential.2

Throughout Hanley’s illness, death, and memorialization, her fellow Maryknoll Sisters described her as martyr-like. The doctor who tended to Hanley at the 21st Evacuation Hospital described her illness as exotic, a “VIP” disease.3 Underlying this framing was the notion that Hanley suffered and died because of her noble sacrifice. She had been born to an affluent family in Michigan; she never would have died from thrombocytopenic purpura, let alone contracted toxic hepatitis, had she not elected to join the Maryknoll Sisters and serve the Korean people.

The nuance and solemnity with which the Maryknoll Sisters described Hanley’s death stands in tension with their treatment of Korean deaths. Though they spoke frequently of Korean suffering and death – indeed relying on it to showcase the importance of their work – the Maryknoll Sisters never treated Korean deaths, even at their most tragic, with the gravity with which they treated Sister Alberta Marie’s passing. del Rey’s book mentions the deaths of many Korean patients, even naming them and describing cursory backstories, but none approached the detail with which she described Hanley’s deathbed scene. Neither del Rey nor other Sisters described funerals for Koreans, and indeed their correspondence and publications gave no indication of how Koreans were laid to rest.

Hanley’s death and those of the Koreans served different goals in the Sisters’ medical, political, and religious project. Hanley’s was a marker of the Sisters’ devotion and service. Korean deaths, treated with reverence but only passing attention, served as a means to convey the scale of devastation the Korean War wrought. Despite these differences, both narratives advanced the Maryknoll Sisters’ reputation and fundraising abilities, allowing them to continue their medical practice and maintain their relationships with high-profile policy and military officials around Pusan.

Three million Koreans died in the Korean War, and the Sisters provided end-of-life care to hundreds of civilians, many of them incredibly vulnerable – children, displaced people, young mothers, and pregnant women. A large part of the Maryknoll endeavor was garnering material support from American individuals, organizations, the government, and military. And a major tactic in garnering patronage was showcasing Korean suffering and the need for American-backed relief; stories of Korean suffering prompted Americans to send money and goods, from sweaters to medications, to support Maryknoll projects. Korean deaths, then, were an important part of the Maryknoll story in Korea. The Sisters drove home their abilities to prevent death wherever possible and to provide comfortable deaths in foregone cases.

Maryknoll Sisters wash a woman’s cancer-infected eye, Yeng You, Korea, ca. 1930-1950. (Courtesy USC Digital Library)

Providing comfortable deaths carried two important implications for Maryknoll service. First, it contained the idea that Maryknoll Sisters saved Koreans – even ones they did not corporeally save – by exposing them to God’s message. Second, the notion of providing comfortable deaths came along with the belief that Korean life was so hard that death could be, and often was, a relief. In some cases, these ideas were explicit: Sisters would baptize gravely ill children and rejoice that in death the children were saved and safe and comfortable in God’s kingdom.

In order to showcase the many features of the Maryknoll Sisters’ mission, del Rey’s storytelling endowed American and Korean lives with varying value. Hanley’s passing, her martyrdom to the cause, emphasized the depth of Maryknoll Sisters’ sacrifice and good works. In del Rey’s narrative, Hanley’s death was a greater sacrifice than those of Korean civilians because she had chosen to be in Korea. This suggested that her death was more tragic, more mournable because she could have lived a relatively comfortable American life. Koreans’ deaths, on the other hand, highlighted the need for Americans to help Koreans. Though the Sisters recognized the depth of suffering in Korea, and genuinely sought to help Koreans, they also subtly undermined the value of Korean lives. Where death was understood as a relief, lost lives were made less mournable.

These deaths help us to conceptualize wartime death that exists on a scale of mournability. Judith Butler has conceptualized grieveable death, especially in wartime, as a function of building political and cultural affinity. Some lives, she finds, are made to be completely outside our realm of understanding, and those deaths are not meant to be understood or mourned. But rather than thinking of lives as either grievable or not grievable, Sister Alberta Marie’s story helps us think about death on a spectrum of mournability. On one end we have the Alberta Marie Hanleys of the world, whose deaths are easily legible as noble sacrifice, tragic, worthy of a grand funeral and considerable thought. On the other are the utterly erasable and unmournable deaths. Butler, for instance, gives the example of deceased Palestinians as totally unrecognizable to most Americans. Between those two poles, we have the deaths of millions of Koreans in the course of the war and after, framed as at once tragic and also an escape from lives of suffering. Where any particular death falls on that spectrum has everything to do with who is telling the story and why.4

Death is part of a complex political project whose ends can be charitable and imperial, community-building and exclusionary, liberating and reactionary. The Maryknoll Sisters used stories of Hanley’s death and the deaths of hundreds of Koreans to garner empathy and to draw Americans’ attention to the horrendous conditions in Korea. The Sisters used resources gathered from sympathetic Americans to provide vital medical services to a terribly overburdened Pusan. But those stories also bolstered the Sisters’ relationship with the American military in Pusan and reinforced pervasive racial hierarchies that fed into Americans’ paternalistic attitudes toward Korea. The death scene is a product of particular political and cultural commitments, and in turn, produces political and cultural affinities. American observers saw Sister Alberta Marie Hanley’s death with its Christ-like detail precisely so the Maryknoll Sisters could carry on understanding themselves as the saviors of Koreans.


  1. Sister Maria del Rey, Her Name is Mercy (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1957), 119–121; “Report of the Death of an American Citizen: Alberta Elizabeth Hanley,” American Foreign Service, January 31, 1952, Return to text.
  2. del Rey, Her Name is Mercy, 122. Return to text.
  3. del Rey, Her Name is Mercy, 119. Return to text.
  4. Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4 no. 1 (2003). Return to text.

Featured image caption: Group portrait of ten Maryknoll Sisters and two Korean children at Maryknoll convent, Yeng You, Korea, May 18, 1930. (Courtesy USC Digital Library)

Hannah is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department at Duke University. She studies modern American history, gender, and empire. Her dissertation examines the role of American civilian relief in the Korean War in shaping Cold War policy.