President Lyndon Johnson presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Alumni from Washington’s Howard Medical University honored her as a “living legend.” She was awarded 14 honorary degrees. But Dr. Lena Edwards acknowledged that she loved best the Poverello Medal awarded her by Franciscan University at Steubenville because it was a symbol of St. Francis of Assisi’s devotion to poverty, a virtue she treasured for herself.

Dr. Edwards, born in 1900 on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, was an extraordinary physician, humanitarian and philanthropist, who, in her retirement and until her death in 1986, was among the faithful in the Diocese of Trenton and a member of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Lakewood.

“I can see her at Mass still,” recalled Katie Magnusson, parish secretary. “She was a regular communicant at church. She was incredibly devout and pious. She had a very beautiful smile at Mass and as a young mother I found her to be incredibly supportive to me personally with her smile.

“Her daughter, Genevieve West, was a parishioner here as well and was similar in her intense life of faith. They would come together to Mass. Lena died soon after I moved to the parish.”

Other parishioners, including David Hegedus, also remember her as a special person who attended Mass daily. Hegedus acknowledged having great admiration for Dr. Edwards as “a great Catholic; tenacious, while still remaining the consummate prayerful Third Order Franciscan.” He recalled that he became familiar with stories of the Edwards family from then pastor Msgr. George Everitt.

Life of Distinction

A devout Catholic, Dr. Edwards was one of the first Black women to be nationally board certified as an obstetrician-gynecologist and to be admitted to the International College of Surgeons. Featured by the National Library of Medicine in an exhibition of women physicians who are “Changing the Face of Medicine,” she is noted for having improved the quality of life for those most in need, particularly migrant women and women of color, while challenging often-discriminatory medical practices based on race or gender.

She was particularly invested in improving maternal health care and referred to motherhood as “God’s greatest achievement.” She was a proponent of natural childbirth and once turned down a hospital administrator post because of her strong objections to abortion.

Dr. Edwards grew up in a prominent Washington, D.C. family who were members of St. Augustine of Hippo Parish. Her paternal grandfather was instrumental in building the parish church and at one point approached President Abraham Lincoln, asking if he could hold a fundraiser on the White House lawn. The President agreed. The event took place on July 4, 1864.

Dr. Edwards was raised not to accept discrimination. Her maternal grandfather was a slave, and her family was present in Washington when mob violence against Blacks hit hard in 1919. She was no stranger to the problems of racism, which would follow her into her personal and professional life as well, but she never let that stop her from moving forward.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington, after having received correspondence from Hegedus about Dr. Edwards and her roots in the Archdiocese, responded: “Within the treasured history of those sons and daughters of the great African continent and diaspora, Dr. Edwards’ legacy of faith and service continue to inspire.” Cardinal Gregory, the first Black Cardinal in the nation, also said of Dr. Edwards, “Born in my new home here in Washington, D.C., at a time of great oppression, she personally knew the struggles that many go through and she was determined to make a difference, bringing light and hope to those in need.”

Champion of Impoverished

After her marriage to fellow Howard medical graduate, Dr. Keith Madison, the couple moved to Jersey City to open private practices and to raise their family of six children, all of whom chose professions of service. including two doctors, a social worker, and a Catholic priest. Her son, Thomas Madison, joined the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in 1953 and was ordained as Father Martin in 1962 as the order’s first African American priest.

Dr. Edwards once said that fighting poverty, love of God and love of neighbor were the three guidelines of her life. She observed, “If each and every one of us realized our obligation to our neighbor as St. Francis did, the Church would be repaired.”

At the age of 60, after many years working in Jersey City and in Washington, both as a physician and an educator, Dr. Edwards left her practice to fulfill a dream to serve the poor. Inspired by the suggestion of a Franciscan seminarian, she moved to Hereford, Texas, to help in the Franciscan Atonement Mission of St. Joseph. She devoted the rest of her working years to serving Mexican migrant families, especially mothers and children who lived in “The Labor Camp” – 36 converted prisoner of war barracks near the mission.

She once said, “When I saw the condition human beings were living in … all I wanted to do was cry. I saw it as a challenge, and I was going to take it upon me.” Dr. Edwards labored there for five years, without a salary, using her life savings to start the fundraising to expand the existing clinic to a two-story, 25 bed hospital which would become Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Clinic.

A heart condition forced Dr. Edwards to leave Texas and return to Washington for a time before moving to Lakewood, where she died having fulfilled her mission to ensure that the poor and disadvantaged received the respect and dignity they deserved.

Sources for this story are listed below. To read more about Dr. Edwards, visit, or listen to the podcast from Franciscan University at Steubenville,  In addition, an inspirational story about Dr. Edward’s missionary work in Texas, “Lady doctor to migrant workers,” appears in the February, 1962 issue of Ebony which can be accessed by going to com and typing “lena edwards ebony” into the page search bar.