Backstabbing or deal gone sour? The tragic tale of St Mary’s Hospital

Utterly inconsolable but vowing to fight on, Dr William Charles Fryda, the American missionary who co-founded St Mary's Mission Hospital now walks like a wounded lion.

He can hardly believe that the work he did with others to grow the reputation of St Mary's as one of the most affordable hospitals in the country serving the poor has turned into dust amidst a protracted battle for control, that laid bare the greed and deceit within the Catholic Church.

In the end, the tussle characterized by ugly public spats, embarrassing fits of rage and court cases ended up in a Pyrrhic victory of sorts with no winners.

Bill, as he is fondly known, not only lost a battle of his lifetime, he also lost a spiritual and a legal fight that left his persona mortally punctured. He is now a priest who cannot preach and a cancer doctor without a hospital or patients to treat.

His beard is greying, perhaps a little faster than his age. The brave face he puts up as he meets strangers cannot fully cover the thick cloud of hopelessness that surrounds him.

But he is not defeated. He is not done fighting, at least not yet.

“It is not over,” he says from his house in Naivasha, but asks not to be asked to comment on the aftermath of the legal battle. Well-wishers are helping him fund-raise for the next phase of the battle.

His bitter rivals, nuns and also members of the Catholic Church that defrocked him and later defeated him in court, have put up three more layers of building blocks on a perimeter wall that separates his home from the St Mary’s Missions Hospital along Nakuru-Naivasha highway. The hospital is one of the two institutions that he and a catholic order of nuns fought for, each demanding total control.

The wall has effectively blocked his view from the hospital he founded. At its peak, it was serving nearly 350,000 patients a year, majority of whom are from the low income settlements. The hospital, in its hey days, was charging between Sh5,000 and Sh7,000 for a Caesarian section. This same procedure costs over Sh100,000 in most private hospitals.

“Our model was to be inexpensive. But not poor quality,” he says.

Fryda is the main protagonist in a brutal property fight that has placed the Catholic Church’s teachings on humility, greed and raw accumulation of material wealth to test.

But the biggest puzzle is why a priest or a nun would go against the preaching of Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church to fight over property.

More puzzling, even to the judge who presided over the battle, was the fact that the property they were fighting over was majorly funded by donors and they were mere caretakers.

Worse still, they were irreconcilable in the fight described by the church itself as a ‘public scandal.’

The judge would wonder how the protagonists in the case would not take an out of court settlement, forgive each other and move on, in line with the principles of the church.

“I must say that I was rather taken aback that the parties herein could not agree, even to an attempt to resolve their dispute out of court, despite my continued encouragement and cajoling that they pursue this path,” Judge Munyao Sila, who presided over the feud, notes in his 121-paged judgement.

“Regrettably, my efforts on this came to naught. It is a high time that the parties considered pursuing out of court remedies which bring satisfaction to both parties, especially where they have unique relationships such as the one in this case,” Munyao added.

This way, there will be a win-win situation, unlike a court process, where usually the winner take all scenario ends up being the result.

He would also be shocked at the lies that were presented before him in court from the clergy.

“On my part, I think both parties were not entirely honest on the input that the other had in the initialisation of the hospital. I say this with a heavy heart, given that both parties profess the Christian religion, and are both persons within the church pecking order,” Judge Munyao observed.

A priest is supposed to live a simple life. In the Catholic Church, he is not supposed to receive a salary for their work. Instead, he is given what is known as the ‘viatique’, which is a stipend for maintenance.

For those who do jobs that should attract salaries, their money is collected and turned over to their congregation. In this case for Fryda, it is the Maryknoll Fathers.

On their part, nuns dedicate their lives and talents to serve the communities they live in. Just like priests, they live in convents and it is not common for them to own any property.

For a hospital that was serving nearly 1,000 patients a day, it is impossible to miss how the fight has taken its toll on its operations and reputation.  

The facility, serving the poor, turned into dust amidst the protracted battle for its control and patients had to look for alternatives [File, Standard]
The car park in Naivasha was virtually empty when we visited. Hardly no patients had checked in.

In Nairobi, which seems to be picking up its pieces, the lines of hundreds of patients that characterised the hospital are now shorter. There are more and more empty waiting benches. Security guards say they are serving fewer people than they did a couple of months ago.

At the heart of the battle is the ownership of four properties. Two of these properties are situated in Lang’ata, Nairobi. The third property is in Elementaita, which was donated, while the fourth is in Sagana.

At the height of the tussle and with services paralysed, patient; distraught and in agony, had nowhere to look.
This story is pieced together from the court documents and testimonies in court that helped the judge to rule that Dr Fryda had no place at the St Mary’s Mission Hospital table.

Fryda’s story

Dr Fryda arrived in Kenya in 1991.

He is an American citizen and a Catholic connected with the order of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. This order of Catholic priests do not take vows of poverty but take vows of chastity and obedience to religious matters.

“I came from cowboy land in the states. My dad was a cowboy and my mum was a standard six teacher. They were poor. I was in class six before I learnt that most people don’t take a bath in a cow tank,” Fryda says.

“We didn’t have money, but I never felt poor.”

He graduated as a medical doctor from Baylor University in Houston, Texas. Before he landed in Kenya, he specialised in internal medicine at Mayo Clinic.

At the clinic, he narrowed down his specialisation further to haematology-a branch of medicine involving study and treatment of the blood.  He was ordained as a catholic priest in 1988.

By the time he landed in Kenya, he had worked as a missionary in Nigeria, and Haiti where he was engaged with Mother Teresa Sisters in Port Au Prince. His tour of duty had also seen him spent time in Guatemala.

He had also volunteered as a missionary in Bukoba,  Tanzania as a lay mission volunteer. These should have prepared him for his mission in Kenya, one that has been the most painful for his illustrious career.

Before St Mary’s was born, he was attached to the Nazareth Hospital in Limuru, which was managed by the Consolata group-an Italian religious order. But he says his experience saw him frown upon the model where nuns ran hospitals like a high school despite growing resistance from trained local medical personnel who never wished to spend their career under the supervision of nuns.

This was what inspired the St Mary’s dream.

Dr Fryda started looking for land in Nairobi in 1998. Specifically, the land he sought was for catering for the poor. With the help of Mr Ramesh Shah, described as a businessman and philanthropist is court papers, he found two parcels in Nairobi’s Lang’ata area, which he says he bought for Sh38million. He instructed his lawyer to register the properties under the name of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN), move that became his single biggest mistake.

“He needed a place where the land could be held before his company was incorporated and he thought that he could trust the Assumption Sisters,” the judgement reads in part.

“He had trusted them with smaller things, such as a Sh5million advance the sisters needed to buy some land, when the deal fell through they gave it back so he believed that he could trust them with bigger things.”

Dr William Fryda at the construction site of St Mary's Mission Hospital. He says he bought the piece of land at Sh38 million. [Courtesy, Paul Wafula]
His plan was to get a company registered in whose name these properties would be transferred.

But because the company had not yet been registered at the time of the purchase, he pleaded with the Assumption Sisters in Nairobi, a catholic order, to register the land in their name. He says the deal was to transfer the land to the company once it was registered and using the nuns was just a stop gap measure.

Fryda says he started developing these parcels using his own money and what he solicited from friends. He sunk Sh553million in developing these parcels of land in Lang’ata.

He later got the Elementaita land and put up another hospital at a cost of Sh365million. He also purchased another property in Sagana at a cost of Sh4.8million. He operated these two hospitals while awaiting the Assumption Sisters to transfer these parcels of land as earlier agreed. 

Fryda would in the beginning receive money directly into a personal mission account from donors. The money would first be deposited into a mission account in New York and then transferred to his personal mission account in Nairobi.

This money was meant for mission work only. It is from this account, he says that money to buy the land came from.

The land was to be held by the Catholic Church. But he was not comfortable with this position, hence the move to approach the Assumption Sisters. He hoped they would hand it to the company. His first contact with the nuns was when he heard that they were taking over Nazareth hospital in 1997.

Since he had been there, he offered to assist them set up shop. The nuns gave him a residence at their premise from where he offered them free medical care. He also doubled up as a chaplain then. It was while he was living here that the Assumption Sisters say they helped conceptualize the idea St Mary’s.  But he would hear none of this in court.

Retired Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki gave his support for the hospital and wrote a letter for Fryda to use to seek funds from the Vatican. This set the pace for fundraising and building of the hospital.

The facility under construction in its humble days. [Courtesy, Paul Wafula]
In his words, all the money used to purchase the properties came from himself (his own money) and his donors. According to him, the nuns did not contribute a single penny. He oversaw the design of the buildings and the layout. In his own words, he put together ‘every little detail.’

He tendered the construction work to Kilimanjaro Construction and the architectural work to one Andrew Gremley. He signed the contracts with the professionals and paid them. 

A completed building at St Mary's Mission Hospital in the good days. [Courtesy, Paul Wafula]
The first account of the hospital was opened in 1998 before the company was formed. It was held at Barclays Bank. It had three signatories but Dr Fryda was the custodian of all the cheque books and signed the cheques alone.

Dr William Fryda (left) and colleagues during an operation at St Mary's Mission Hospital. [Courtesy, Paul Wafula]
Fall out

Come August 2009, more than a decade later and with the hospital running, there was a change of leadership at the Assumption sisters, a change that became the beginning of their fall out.

Fryda says the new leaders started to claim they owned the parcels of land and the developments in both Lang’ata and Elementaita. Fryda accused the nuns of interfering with the running of the two hospitals by imposing some employees and allocating them some duties without consulting him or the hospitals management.

He says the fallout with the nuns was made worse after they started doing things behind his back.

For a man who believes to have been the promoter of the company having paid for its incorporation and registration, he expected these bits of information to count in court. He also hoped that having been solely involved in the acquisition and development of the parcels of land and the hospitals would help him wrestle the property from the nuns.

But what tipped the scales of justice against him was when the nuns started Regina Pacis University College, which is a constituent college of Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), on one of the parcels in Lang’ata. The university was established by a trust deed on July 13, 2009 with an emphasis on education for the less privileged women.

Fryda thought that the establishment of the university, in the space that would deny the hospital room for future expansion was contrary to the tenor and intentions of the acquisition of these parcels of land.

As the feud escalated and moved to the courts, he says he started receiving pressure from the Catholic Church to withdraw or face sanctions.

A damaged nursing station at St Marys Mission Hospital, Elementaita in December 2017. [File, Standard]
To survive being ousted from the country due to lack of a work permit, he changed his work permit from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers to the medical mission charitable trust formed in 2010.

Fryda’s testimony got a big boost in court from a Mr Joseph Boro Ngera, who donated the land where the hospital in Elementaita sits. Ngera, also a catholic, said he had approached Bishop Ndingi, then of Nakuru diocese with a need to give back to the community.

The man who owns 900 acres of land in Elementaita said he donated 58 acres to Dr Fryda to do the hospital. He told the court he never met any of the nuns before his donation was done. He says at some point, Dr Fryda came to him and told him the sisters were looking for land to put up a university. He thought it was a good idea and agreed to give them 100 acres of land, opposite what he had already given for the hospital.

He testified that Dr Fryda built the Elementaita hospital on the land he had donated and his wishes as a donor were fulfilled.

Businessman Joseph Ng’era during a past interview. He donated 58 acres to St Mary’s Mission Hospital in Elementaita, Gilgil. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]
Some years later, he came to learn of the differences between the priest and the nuns. He tried to reconcile them with the assistance of Cardinal Njue, and the Nuncio, in vain.

He asked that the hospital land be transferred to Dr Fryda or St Mary’s company. He threatened that if the nuns failed to do the transfer, he would revoke his donation of 100 acres. When they failed, he went ahead to withdraw his donation.   

He told the court that his donation was to have Dr Fryda and not ASN whom he thought were persons trained in education and thus more suited to managing the university and not hospital.

Fryda’s case was also supported by the testimony of a Mr Ramechandra Khetshi Shah who was there in the beginning. Besides helping him secure the Lang’ata land, his family also donated money to Dr Fryda to help with the construction.

He never met the nuns during this period.

But this evidence was not good enough to wrestle the land back from the nuns.

So just who are the Assumption Sisters?

And how did they turn the tables against Dr Fryda, who was once a close confidant, and convince the judge to kick him out? 

Part Two of the St Mary’s Saga can be read HERE

For the latest news in entertainment check out Sde.co.ke and Pulser.co.ke , for everything sports visit Gameyetu.co.ke and ladies we have you covered on Evewoman

St Mary’s HospitalWilliam Charles Fryda