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Missionary Spirit: Evangelizing Sisters of Mary share their African-influenced ministry with East Tennessee

By Bill Brewer

Pope Francis’ 2015 trip to Africa held special meaning for five women religious serving in the Diocese of Knoxville.

As the pontiff traveled to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic Nov. 25-30, celebrating Mass, ministering to the poor, meeting with government leaders and blessing all those he came in contact with, he was evangelizing in the homeland of Sister Angela Nikwobazeirwe, Sister Maureen Ouma, Sister Restituta Nyinoweitu, Sister Dorothy Casian Njala and Sister Elizabeth Wanyoike.

The sisters were inspired by Pope Francis’ visit to their homeland.

“The visit of Pope Francis to Africa, to me, is like a seed that he has planted in African soil. His emphasis on the care for the poor is a call to reawaken the African value of community responsibility for the poor, which is being phased out gradually, and very clearly seen in the gap between the poor and the rich. The pope called this a sad situation,” Sister Elizabeth said.

“His address to the religious touched a very major core of religious life — perseverance in prayer life. For me, prayer is the pivot on which religious life turns,” she added.

The Missionary Congregation of the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary has had a presence in the Diocese of Knoxville since July 2010, when it answered Bishop Richard F. Stika’s invitation to bring their ministry to the missionary diocese covering East Tennessee.

“I really value religious communities, both men and women, so I made contact with them, and the mother general came from Africa and we visited. We decided we were going to find a place for them,” Bishop Stika said about the relatively young community that was looking to establish a foundation in the United States.

Bishop Stika pointed out that the Evangelizing Sisters are teaching the diocese about their African culture while they learn about East Tennessee’s culture.

“They’re just a wonderful group,” he said.

Since the Evangelizing Sisters answered the bishop’s call, the Diocese of Knoxville has become their home, where they serve with passion to spread the Gospel.

The Church’s mission in East Tennessee meshes tightly with the charism of the Evangelizing Sisters: reach out to those in remote areas, especially the poor, bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to people in those areas and bring the Church to full development where it already has a presence.

As the Year of Consecrated Life came to a close in February, Pope Francis’ inspirational words for consecrated women and men religious that have been observed in the last year are especially poignant and speak to all consecrated religious serving in the diocese, including the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary.

The pope said the Year of Consecrated Life has called the consecrated to “live the present with passion.

“Grateful remembrance of the past leads us, as we listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, to implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life,” Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic letter.

“From the beginnings of monasticism to the ‘new communities’ of our own time, every form of consecrated life has been born of the Spirit’s call to follow Jesus as the Gospel teaches. For the various founders and foundresses, the Gospel was the absolute rule, whereas every other rule was meant merely to be an expression of the Gospel and a means of living the Gospel to the full. For them, the ideal was Christ; they sought to be interiorly united to him and thus to be able to say with St. Paul: ‘For to me, to live is Christ’ [Philippians 1:21].

Their vows were intended as a concrete expression of this passionate love.”

Pope Francis expressed admiration for the missionaries in Africa, women and men “who have left everything” for the Gospel. There are those missionaries who have left everything and traveled to Africa in service to God, and then there are those missionaries from Africa who have left everything and traveled to other countries for the same purpose.

Sister Angela, whose home is in Uganda, has been in the Diocese of Knoxville four years. She was asked by her congregation to be part of a new ministry to the United States, and she said yes.

“It was very scary, very challenging, and at the same time exciting,” she said, laughing at herself while noting that she spoke English, but didn’t understand why people didn’t understand her.

“When I got here, everything was opposite of what I had learned, but I adjusted quickly. It has been very difficult, but people are getting used to what I say,” she said.

While each Evangelizing Sister speaks English, the language is a common concern among them. Their accents are unmistakable … and conversation-starters.

But as all those who come in contact with the sisters soon find, any language barrier is miniscule and quickly overridden by their joy and warmth.

The Evangelizing Sisters, who all have advanced degrees, are closely tied to St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut, where Sister Angela teaches religion at St. John Neumann School in grades 5-7.

Sister Maureen also teaches at St. John Neumann School, instructing eighth-graders in religion and fifth- and sixth-graders in literature.

Sister Dorothy works at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee as a care specialist for the homeless, assisting them with medical and personal needs, as well as with their benefits and housing. Sister

Elizabeth and Sister Restituta hold ministry positions at St. John Neumann Church.

Their paths to East Tennessee were decidedly Catholic. The Church is as prominent in Kenya and Uganda, if not more, as it is in East Tennessee, as evidenced by the pope’s first visit to Africa. In fact, Catholicism is exploding, growing faster than any other Christian denomination or Islam.

They share stories of being born into Catholic families, baptized as infants, answering God’s call to the consecrated life as young women, and leaving home to serve in the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary.

“One thing I kept thinking about was one doesn’t choose to become a nun; one is chosen. Though I had the desire, I didn’t have the courage because I didn’t pursue it,” Sister Maureen said about joining a religious community. “I kept thinking should I or should I not?”

After a priest introduced her to the Evangelizing Sisters’ convent when she was 18, Sister Maureen decided she should.

And she is so glad she did.

Sister Maureen describes her formation as an “amazing experience,” where she realized immediately that she wanted to live a consecrated life. Like the four sisters she lives with, Sister Maureen answered the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary’s call to serve in the United States.

She acknowledges that she felt lost when she arrived in the United States.

She began studies at Alvernia University, a Catholic College in Pennsylvania where the sisters received their qualifications to teach and counsel in the states.

She said the difference in culture has taken awhile to get used to.

“Everything is so fast. But I’m used to it now,” she said.

Catholicism is a tradition in Sister Restituta’s household. Her father was evangelized and educated as a boy by Catholic missionaries. Her mother, as a young girl, wanted to be a nun. And she pointed out that, in Uganda, the demand to join a seminary is so great that only one in seven young males is accepted. A similar situation exists for young females looking to join a religious community.

“Back at home, it’s a very exciting thing to become a priest or a sister,” she said.

Sister Restituta, or Sister Resty, as she is affectionately called, is the only young woman from her village to be accepted into a religious community. Her earliest impressions of religious life were from sisters who worked in a hospital where she would receive treatment as a child.

Now, like all consecrated religious, she takes her vocation to heart, especially the call to be a missionary.

“Deep within my heart I had a deep longing to go beyond my village, to go far to see how other people live,” said Sister Restituta, who is a pastoral associate at St.

John Neumann, working with families, preparing couples for marriage and serving as a family counselor. “I wanted to join an order that would send me to the farthest place.”

Her vocation has taken her from Uganda to the Sudan, Tanzania, Rome, and now the United States.

Like Sister Restituta, Sister Dorothy was impressed as a young girl by sisters who were working in the hospital that treated her when she was sick. That early impression had a lasting impact.

“I used to dress like them when I was young,” Sister Dorothy said, describing how she would take a piece of cloth and tie it around her head to resemble a coif and veil. “I was impressed by them helping people they did not know. I was impressed by the work they were doing.

My mom said that when I was done with school, I could become a sister.”

Her parents allowed her to continue her studies in preparation for joining a religious community.

A reluctance to travel to the United States was shared by the sisters, except for

Sister Restituta.

“It was exciting, but also scary. I was scared because I didn’t know how I was going or who I would meet. Because of obedience, I had to say yes,” Sister Dorothy said. “It has been challenging. I had to learn the language. But once I learned the language, it has been easier to do my work.”

Now that she is acclimated to the United States, the language and the Diocese of Knoxville, Sister Dorothy feels fulfilled in her mission.

“It was hard at first to be assisting people, and I was thinking, ‘Where and how will I help them?’ I’m learning through them, and I’ve come to like my work. I feel very fulfilled. I know I’ve done something, as if I was doing something for my dad and mom, my brother,” she said.

If response to Sister Dorothy and all the Evangelizing Sisters from co-workers, clients, students or parishioners is any indication, the feeling of fulfillment is mutual. The clients and staff at Samaritan Place held an appreciation party for Sister Dorothy and gave personal testimonies about the impact of her ministry and friendship.

Sister Dorothy was then joined by the other four Evangelizing Sisters and, somewhat impromptu, performed for everyone at the party, singing a cappella – something they do well, albeit reluctantly.

They have a growing fan base.

Sister Elizabeth, the local superior who has a doctorate in religious studies, oversees the convent where the sisters live, which is close to St. John Neumann Church. Four of the sisters can walk to work, with only Sister

Dorothy needing transportation to get to Samaritan Place, a Catholic Charities residential facility in

Knoxville. During the warm months, the sisters plant flowers and a vegetable garden in the convent yard.

Like language, food has been another hurdle to overcome. And while they’ve tried to develop an East Tennessee palate, they easily revert to the tastes of their homeland. The trick is to find the ingredients for dishes like pillau, which is rice with meat and spices, but they’ve had success finding what they need at local grocery stores. Fast food is something they haven’t developed a taste for.

Sister Elizabeth, who is the adult faith-formation coordinator for St. John

Neumann, credits the parish for being so accommodating to the sisters, which she said has been instrumental in their U.S. transition.

“I feel so blessed because I am in this parish. I feel my faith has grown a lot by being here,” she said. “In the beginning, there was a struggle with language. But people in the parish are very patient.”

Sister Elizabeth, whose parents were farmers in central Kenya, comes from a family with deep roots in Catholicism.

Her father was a catechist in their parish, teaching religion and leading Sunday services when a priest wasn’t available to celebrate Mass. He also was a Eucharistic minister and a lector.

“My vocation comes from my parents.

My father wanted to be a priest, but his parents refused. When he married my mother, he prayed they would have a son who would be a priest or a daughter who would be a sister,” she said.

Her discernment included attending a high school with religious sisters and then as a family farmer, selling produce at market and considering married life.

But feeling unfulfilled, she returned to the convent and applied to join the Missionary Congregation of the

Evangelizing Sisters of Mary.

“I chose them because of their missionary spirit. The way the Missionary Sisters would interact with people had a great impact on my life; living that simple life impressed me,” Sister Elizabeth said.

Living simply had its challenges, though. And like most of the Evangelizing Sisters in the diocese, she had trepidations about foreign service.

“I didn’t look or ask for a foreign assignment. It took me by surprise when I was asked to come to America. I was not against it when I was told to go. I didn’t fight it. I just accepted it, but I had certain fears. And the fear I had was a new culture and new people,” she said.

And as with the other Evangelizing Sisters, a background steeped in strong family, community and faith has made the adjustment to East Tennessee easier.

While the religious sisters have adopted a new family, the Diocese of Knoxville, any future assignments now will be easier to adjust to. They are open to the Holy Spirit, and they’ll just remember what

Bishop Stika so frequently says: “Jesus, I trust in you.” The bishop also often quotes St. John Paul II: “Be not afraid!”

“Why our faith is very strong is because of community support. In small Christian communities, faith is what you live, and everybody participates,” Sister Elizabeth said. “Wherever the order needs me, I will go. I am always open.”

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