The Wisdom of the Ages
I had not been long in Africa and was on my way to visit an outstation with a catechist as guide. Being new to the country and the ways of the Luo people 1 peppered the catechist with questions. The topic of elders came up. Elders are important people. They safeguard the traditions of the tribe and are looked to for judgement and advice. They ensure the continuation of the tribe when they pass on the traditions and their wisdom to the children as they sit round the fire on those wonderful star-filled African nights. So age is venerated and the older one grows the more one is respected. The catechist then said something which surprised me. "You know, Father, the mission hospital has done a lot of good but it has also done a lot of harm." "What harm?" I asked. "Well, in the old days our elders were truly respected and wise but now the hospital keeps them alive and they have grown senile and foolish." A back-handed compliment if I ever heard one!
Msgr. John Corcoran, Sr. Hedwig Shastovsky,* Sr. Patricia McConvey
The hospital was Nyabondo Mission Hospital, the last great project of Mother Kevin, the foundress of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa. At that time in 1975 there were a dozen sisters stationed in Nyabondo who ran the hospital complete with operating theatre, nurses' training school, a project to teach women basic child healthcare, and a centre which enabled terribly crippled children to attend school, undergo corrective surgery and learn a trade. The hospital also ran a mobile clinic which took the hospital's mother and child welfare services out to the people. Almost everyone lived on-site, so the hospital compound resembled a large village. It was there that I learnt how good management makes a little go a long way. Bandages, gloves and other medical paraphernalia and instruments were sterilised and re-used time and time again. The handicapped children's wheelchairs, crutches and callipers were all locally made. And what a difference those pieces of iron and leather made to the children. Instead of crawling in the mud and dirt, they were able to stand, walk and play.
The trainees in the nurses' training school not only received a medical education that was second to none but also learnt from the sisters that greatest of healing techniques - TLC, tender loving care. The sisters taught by example. They persuaded some of their best past pupils from a much older training school in Uganda to come to Nyabondo in the middle of the Kenyan bush and help set the standard in this more recent foundation.
Idi Amin was in power in neighbouring Uganda at the time and although many white technicians, teachers and other ex-patriates left the country, the missionaries stayed put. The sisters however, used to come to Nyabondo for a peaceful break. Others would stop off on their way to Nairobi to buy the supplies no longer available in Uganda. They always arrived smiling despite the difficulties they faced at home.
An American missionary, Bishop Walsh M.M. once famously said "Missionaries should go where they are needed but not wanted and leave when they are wanted but no longer needed." Missionaries should be pioneers and then move on. The Franciscan Missionaries for Africa do just that.
They went to East Africa and pioneered women's education and medical services. The time came to move on and they handed over their big schools, hospitals and leprosariums to the local sisters, lay teachers, nurses and administrators whom they had trained. The faces changed but the work continued.
The sisters moved on to open new apostolates, and particularly to work at a more grassroots level with refugees, the urban poor, people with HIV/AIDS and the most disadvantaged of all, women living in poverty. Instead of training nurses in clean, well-run hospitals they teach ordinary folk who live in Africa's spreading shanty towns how to care for their sick. There is no national health scheme in Africa! Instead of curing illness they teach the poor how to avoid and prevent it. Instead of educating girls in well-run schools they teach widows, abandoned women and prostitutes how to set up projects to earn a livelihood and to survive. But there is one apostolate which has not changed - training young African women for the religious missionary life.
Mother Kevin founded the Little Sisters of St. Francis specifically for women. That order is flourishing so the Franciscan Missionary Sisters now accept African novices for their own society. Like the Elders of the land they have adopted, they are passing on to a new generation the wisdom and spirituality they inherited from countless generations of religious women who came before them; a wisdom and spirituality which has deepened during long lives of service to African women and particularly the poor of the world's poorest continent.
Msgr. John Corcoran (2000)
* Sr. Hedwig, pictured with Msgr. Corcoran has gone to her eternal reward. R.I.P.