DEAR FRIENDS OF AFRICA, SEPTEMBER 2013
The following story has a beginning some twenty or more years ago and is still unfolding. It is the story of the odyssey of a vocation and the determination of a little village girl to answer a powerful call to serve the Lord. I became aware of this child’s vocation one Sunday as I was going to our little country out station. That out station eventually grew into the vibrant parish of St. Benedict’s Mabughai. We now have seventeen small Christian communities in the parish and a parochial school with some 160 students. But that is another story.
The little girl in question approached me that Sunday of twenty years ago and told me she wanted to become a nun. There are more than a dozen religious sisters who have come from our parish belonging to several different congregations but at the time little Theresia approached me I knew of only our diocesan congregation of the Sisters of the Usambara mountains. I assumed she had the Usambara Sisters in mind and suggested that she contact the Sisters at one of the local convents. But Theresia had other ideas and said that she did not want the local congregation but wanted to join the congregation of the Precious Blood. This is a congregation founded some 100 years ago by a German missionary, Father Franz Phanner. Father Phanner was a dynamic apostle, some critics however claim he was more of a maverick. The controversial apostle started his mission career in East Africa then moved to South Africa where he set up the Marianhill congregation of religious missionaries of both men and women. Somehow little Theresia had determined to join them and showed no desire to be persuaded otherwise to join our local sisters.
I gave her my blessing and sent her to the nearest Precious Blood convent where she started her secondary education. After her fourth year of secondary school Theresia was sent to various other institutions of the congregation helping out in orphanages and giving care for the elderly, presumably to assess her interests and her capabilities as a potential Sister of their congregation.
It was seven or eight years of such activities before Theresia entered the Postulancy in preparation for her Novitiate, the final 2 years before formal entrance to the Sisterhood. I did not see much of her during this period, perhaps at most once a year. However when she did write to me during her novitiate years it was of her happiness and her yearning to take her vows as a professed Sister of the Precious Blood. I was naturally happy for her as she approached the goal she has set for herself at the age of 13.
What a seismic blow it was on a late afternoon when I was called to the visitors’ room here at Mazinde Juu to find Theresia in ill fitting clothes dissolved in tears. She was so distraught that it was a half hour before I could get any kind of story out of her. The bottom line was that she had been called by the Mother Superior and told that she’d have to leave the convent for their Council had ascertained that she did not have a vocation to the Sisterhood of the Precious Blood.
The body and soul wracking sobs seemed coming from some unworldly creature, not our sweet little Theresia. When her shaking tremors subsided she was able with two hands to hold a cup of tea to her lips. As I watched her sip the tea I searched my soul for a word of comfort, finding nothing. So I sat there silently and when she had regained some semblance of composure I told her that I was there for her in whatever she needed. The following two weeks were a trial by tears and ears. Tears on her part and ears on mine, trying to detect between the crying and rambling verbal pleading for the rhyme or reason for this horrible dashing of her lifelong hope and desire. These episodes went on for the fortnight as we sat together daily over tea after our morning Mass. By this time Theresia was coming around to some suggestions of how to build back her life. Her determination to become a Precious Blood Sister was still alive and the thought of joining any other congregation was not an option for this young woman.
At this time we were in the process of setting up our library and we had a Sister in training at the National Library Center to become our librarian. I took Theresia to the library in the making. As she entered the room she stood still and stared at stacks and stacks of books on chairs and tables as well as on the floor. All of these were waiting for classification and when Theresia asked how we knew where they should go on the shelves I knew she was coming back to the land of the living. I told her that the secret to that was to be found in the Dewey Decimal Classification, a tome about six inches thick. And we just happened to have one, the gift of my sister Kathleen, a Sister of Mercy from Rochester NY, who has been a lifelong partner with me in my missionary work in Africa. After about an hour and a half of puzzling over the classification process I asked her if she would like a job in our school library. She was ready and accepted the offer. As the days went by her proficiency grew and she became more and more engaged with the physical and mental tasks of setting up a library. We were also able haltingly at first but more thoughtfully later on to talk over what had happened to her future and where to go from here on.
Theresia regained her appetite and the glowing beauty came back to her face. When the Sister Librarian returned from her course the two of them made great progress in putting the library on a good footing. I was overjoyed on the occasions I could hear laughter in the library and on climbing the stairs finding Sister Christiana, the librarian and Theresiasharing a happy moment together. With Sister back in charge there was less work for two people and when I suggested to Theresia that she go on to library school she was delighted for the opportunity and to get to know the ropes about books.
Our budding librarian did the year’s certificate course at the National Library Center in Dar Es Salaam and was granted a certificate with honors. By some special heavenly favor we had just completed the building of the library for our school at Kongei, another of our girls’ schools, and Theresia could take over on day one as the official certificated Librarian. She did a first class job in putting the new library in running and reading order. I would always make a special trip to the library on my tours of Kongei secondary school. It is only 15 miles from here on a lovely drive through a patch of rain forest and skirting some massive rock formations and descending a five mile winding road to Kongei nestled in a lovely valley with a web work of mountain fed streams. Over the months our new librarian seemed to thrive there but there was always a bit of a forlorn wistful look about her that told me she was really somewhere else in her mind and heart.
Then one day after she had been a year or more at Kongei she made a sudden appearance at my office here at Mazinde Juu . “I’ve got to see you” she exclaimed waving a letter at me. “Just read this” she exclaimed. In brief the letter from a new Mother Superior said that the Congregation had reconsidered the status of the sisters who had been expelled and that they would be welcome back if they so wished. It seems that a new administration had come into office and reconsidered the brash dismissals ordered by her predecessor.
My gut male reaction was that Theresia should write back and tell them flatly to go fly a kite. But before a word left my mouth she exclaimed “And I’m going on a three month renewal course next week before going back to the Sisters of the Precious Blood”. Theresia did all of that, went through the novitiate again, took her vows and radiates a joy that is infectious. When I meet her now I always ask myself, “What am I missing out on in this religious life that this young lady has found.”
The final chapter on this interlude on Sister Theresias’ redemption, but certainly not of her life by any means, was another summons to the office of the Mother Superior. This time too it was a departure for Theresia. But the marching order this time was quite different and certainly more welcome. Theresia had been selected to go for further studies in the United States for a college degree in Education where she is at the moment of this writing. Her future pupils will have a lot to learn from this determined lady. A perfect example of conviction, tenacity and faith.
Now for a final word and this about Theresia’s father. Joseph had worked for many years as a cook in government institutions. He spent much of his retirement puttering about on his little farm and going about the village having a word and a chat with his old friends. I was one of his station stops and would have a cup of tea ready for him when he came by. He had the most glorious orb of snow white hair that bobbed as he walked along seemingly unattached to his head. I am sure that when Joseph arrived at St. Peter’s gate and Peter saw him coming with his halo already in place that some strings were pulled for his dear Theresia.
But as for performance we are doing quite well. In our graduating class of the VI Formers as they are called (the two year course of Advanced Level Secondary School) everyone of our class of 87 students were selected to go to the university. That means they also qualify for a government loan which is quite generous with both tuition and board included. Formerly a student from a poor family would have to prove destitute poverty to receive a loan but now with so few students passing the ordinary secondary academic level the colleges are glad to take in students with a less rigorous scrutiny of their economic status. At one stage a student from Mazinde Juu would not qualify for a student loan for the very fact she came from our school. The very name was a liability. The assumption was that anyone coming from such a prestigious school must belong to the upper echelons of wealth.
At present our enrolment has passed the 670 mark and rising. With the dismal results in most government schools the private sector, especially the mission run schools are being overwhelmed with applications. As I mentioned many of our students come from poor and deprived families and our school provides them with the only avenue to a better life. I have included a couple of pictures showing some of our girls busy at an exam. Just by the way, the desks they are so busy at were made in our own carpentry shop and the wood itself comes from cypress trees that we planted thirty years ago. That wonderful bit of advice about the best time to plant a tree is thirty years ago holds true especially if one did plant them back then.
There is also a photo of our newest building, a dormitory on the ground floor and classrooms and a library on the second. We are nearing completion and I am hoping that it will be fully functional by the end of the year. I am in great need of furniture for this building with items like one hundred desks and chairs at fifty dollars a set, shelves galore for thelibrary along with more tables and chairs in the library reading room, so anything that you can spare for this grand project will be most gratefully received and may you all be richly blessed by your generosity. I don’t often beg but I do invite you to become a part of this endeavor in spite of all the hardship that so many of you have to bear these days and also to share a blessing upon us though you prayers.