No56 May 2003.4
The Missionary Sisters of our Lady of Africa
The Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, better known as the White Sisters, are celebrating this year their arrival on Canadian soil on 26 October 1903. The first community consisted of three French Sisters and one Canadian. They settled in 47 rue des Remparts in Quebec, their aim being to make Africa known and to invite young women to give their lives to Jesus Christ as apostoles and educators. We offer here some reflections on this Congregation and on its place in the world today, and especially in the world of Quebec.
A Little History
In 1867 Charles Lavigerie left the diocese of Nancy to become Bishop of Algiers, in North Africa, which he saw as a door onto a continent of 200 million souls to whom the Catholic mission was to be directed. He did not run a one-man show but in 1868 established, with many difficulties, the Society of White Fathers, missionaries of Africa. A year later he laid the foundations of a Congregation of Women Apostles, saying that only women could approach women. He had in view the evangelization of the whole African continent.
In his view the missionaries were like shock-troops who would launch the mission but would train Africans to be responsible for their own progress. The missionaries would be only initiators; the lasting work would be carried out by Christian African apostles. Lavigerie wished to be above all political and racial quarrels, and he told the missionaries to respect the language, the culture and the customs of the people to whom they were sent. It was they who had to adapt to the Africans, and not the other way round. He laid special emphasis on learning the people's language, for one could only belong to a people when one could speak to them in their own tongue.
He demanded that those who presented themselves for work in the African mission should give the whole of their life to extending the Kingdom of God. He spoke of heroic virtues and of "visas for martyrdom", for the harvest of souls demanded sweat and blood. These severe demands, far from putting off the young candidates, only stimulated their ardor. The first White Fathers were former French seminarists, and the first White Sisters came from Brittany.
Missionary Zeal in Canada
This apostolic zeal for Africa very quickly crossed the Atlantic with the handful of missionaries who came to beg for their work, while the publications read in the churches, like the letter of Pope Leo XIII on the abolition of slavery, sowed the missionary seed in this good earth. Our continent had its own history of faith, transmitted by evangelizers from France, England and Spain. The stories of Catherine of St-Augustine and Mary of the Incarnation, of Jean de Brébeuf and Lallemand, were told at the fireside and enkindled the zeal of generous souls.
The First White Sister Vocations
The summons to Africa fell on the cold air of Canada like a whiff of coffee or spice in the tropical night. Adelaïde Morin, from St Norbert of Arthabaska, was the first French-language Canadian to enter the White Sisters. She died in Africa in 1934 after a life partly devoted to raise the dignity of women in Algeria by teaching them Canadian techniques in weaving. The first Canadian White Father was John Forbes, who went to Algiers in 1896 with four Canadian women, of whom two persevered: Mélanie Picard, of St-Antonin of Rivière-du-Loup, and Marie Bourque, of Quebec. The last-named was one of the founders of the Quebec Postulate in 1903. Léda Bégin d'Héberville was a member of the first caravan to Kenya as the movement continued.
The Gift of American Christian Families to America
During these hundred years between 1903 and 2003, 464 Canadian women and 93 Americans made the missionary commitment. In other words, 557 families from the American continent saw their daughters leave for Africa with the White Sisters. We may remember that in the nineteenth century, one girl in eight entered the religious life, and that in 1960 there were 6,000 Canadian missionaries serving abroad. We have now been at Morelia, in Mexico, for thirteen years, and we are offering the same message as that of the Pope during his visit to that country: America, rouse yourself, the time has come to share your faith. The response has not been sensational, but it is gradually making itself felt in generous hearts ready to risk their life, as suggested by Teresa of Avila.
An International Congregation
Our Congregation reached its highest number in 1966 when it had 2,163 members, of different nationalities. Today we have 1050 members from twenty-nine countries. The members of the Council which governs the Congregation come from Congo, Germany and Spain. The Superior General, Marie McDonald, is Scottish. The youngest of the 235 Sisters working in Africa are for the most part themselves African. We have international communities in different parts of Africa: in Algeria, Tunisia and Mauretania in the Maghreb; in Mali, Burkina, Ghana and Chad in West Africa; in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi around the Great Lakes; in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique in East Africa.
Diminishing vocations in the Western world and increasing vocations elsewhere means that our center of gravity is shifting. Huguette Le Blanc, National Secretary of the Pontifical Work of St Peter the Apostle, in her Letter of Christmas 2002, invites us to contemplate the immense spread of the missionary Church in Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America. The love which finds expression in the call of the Church knows no distinction of race or culture. We all see today that there is mission in reverse. The whole ofthe Western world has become mission territory. One of the finest achievements of our Congregation has been our collaboration with the Bishops of eleven African countries in the establishment of 21 Congregations of African Sisters and one Secular Institute. It was of course the Spirit of God who, operating in the hearts of African women, led us into this work. Even before they could read, these African girls felt the call to give themselves to God. They received the strength to meet all kinds of opposition within a culture which saw women exclusively as mothers. 95 Canadian Sisters and 10 Americans have been members of international teams involved in this eminently apostolic work of training African religious Sisters, who have been so influential in educating and transforming their people. We rejoice when these Congregations achieve autonomy and thank us, saying, "You have made us your equals."
In the Muslim countries of the Maghreb, our approach has always been the daily dialogue of life and heart. Lavigerie had indeed forbidden us to baptize in order not to arouse Muslim hostility but to content ourselves with gradually penetrating mentalities with the values of the Gospel.
If you educate a woman, you educate a nation, said the proverb. Each of us, in our own small areas of competence, is rather like that midwife in Mali who said: "When I trust the women, their bring me their sick children to be treated, and then their uncle and their husband, their mother and their aunts. In the end, I am in touch with the whole population. "We know that women may not at present aspire to become priests, but while the latter use their power to consecrate the bread and wine, the women have always the power to wash people's feet and provide food. "Do this in memory of me" in this sense also. So it is that missionary Sisters find their rightful place in the camps of refugees from this endless war, in touch with the misery of desperate populations. The progress of medicine has enabled us to close down our leprosy hospitals, but now we have the AIDS victims to care for. The sexual commerce in women and children is another challenge to which we seek to respond by establishing a world-wide network including Sisters and all human beings of goodwill. This was the promise made by Major Superiors of Women's Congregations in Rome in May 2001.One of our American Sisters is working full-time in Ghana to establish the network there in union with our Sisters in Holland and Germany.
Knowing when to Continue and when to Leave.
Our first missionaries died prematurely, but improvements in both medicine and transport have changed that. Nowadays we eventually find ourselves back home from Africa, having successfully survived epidemics, malaria, wars, and natural catastrophes. It can be quite a shock.
At present there are 140 Canadian Sisters and 12 Americans who have returned to their respective countries after an average stay of thirty years in Africa. We try to meet the challenges of what has become for us a new world. We care for elderly and marginalized people, we help immigrants to become integrated in society, we go out to encounter Muslims, which is our original charism. We participate in the culture of non-violence, making petitions and going on marches against wars and campaigning for more justice and fairness in the world. The work involved in caring for our elderly Sisters also absorbs much of our energy, until, that is, our turn comes to be cared for. We believe that the offering we make of our life in old age constitutes a light for our world.
We left long ago the first house we occupied in Quebec in 1903 in the rue des Remparts. It was in many ways a prophetic spot. It is situated on the banks of the St Lawrence from which the great ships left for Europe and Africa; It is opposite the Ile-d'Orléans, the point of entry to the American continent; it is in the shadow of the City Hospital where the Augustinian Sisters, who preceded us by two hundred years, trained us as nurses; and it is in the Latin Quarter, home of new ideas. In the last hundred years, we have opened many houses in both French- and English-speaking Canada, in the United States, and now in Mexico. We have of course shed our habit, and we have taken down the notices outside our houses, and to that extent we have become invisible. We have often turned into nomads, living in other people's houses. But we still know that through the Congregation we belong to a reality greater than ourselves and our gaze is still turned towards Africa.
What are We Going to Celebrate in this Centenary Year?
In the first place, the tender love of God for each of us, for he has admitted us into intimacy with himself. I no longer call you servants, but friends. (John 15, 15) We celebrate also the gift which Africa has been for each one of us and for our Congregation as a whole, for Africa has fashioned us and has become a kind of seal on our soul. But we cannot forget the state of Africa today, torn by wars, pillaged by international companies, excluded from the great debates. It is another heart of humanity, as Césaire put it, a heart in reserve, waiting to be used. Meanwhile Africa's sons and daughters spread their human warmth and their love of life, their sense that life has a meaning and is to be celebrated in song and dance. We celebrate in this year also the generosity of all those benefactors behind us. We think of our parent sand friends, of all those who provided us with discreet but indispensable support. We think of the Bishops who have welcomed us into their dioceses, other Congregations who have given us their hospitality, the missionary groups, the Non-government organizations. Our thanks will find expression in our prayer.
Mission today is more of a partnership and a co-existence, a mutual path of conversion and growth in dialogue, from which one cannot expect to emerge unscathed, as the Superior General of the White Fathers, François Richard, expressed it. He adds: "Our dream is to see the Africa of tomorrow playing a leading role in the world by bringing forth a culture of constructive and peaceful inter-religious co-existence."
Emergence of a Missionary Laity
We receive more and more requests from lay people who wish to give Africa the benefit of their youth, their experience or their professional competence. They feel a need to meet the other and to share with her. They feel the same wind of the Spirit which moved the first apostles, and they ask us to pray for them and prepare them. We have been engaged in this kind of work for five years. We do what we can, and we find ourselves surrounded by people who want to share our charism in prayer, in communal living and working, ready to live the "All things to All Men" of St Paul, the Charitas of Cardinal Lavigerie. These Associates, or "Kizitos", are paralleled by other groups of people who have returned from Africa, and by people who simply seek spiritual nourishment from what we have to offer.
Pierrette Pelletier, MSOLA
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