In South Sudan and Uganda, sisters endure danger by relying on community, God

Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in a group photo; from left, Sr. Fulgence Aninayote, Mother Antonietta Bakosoro, Sister Mary, Sister Pasqualina, and Sister Elizabeth; in front row, novices Martha, left, and Mackline (Courtesy of Sr. Fulgence Aninayote)

"Living the Gospel in the midst of danger with complete trust in God."

This describes the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a congregation founded in Sudan in 1980, in between the end of one civil war in 1972 and the start of another in 1983. Sudan has endured many wars over the decades. Conflict continues in the region, since South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011.

My first encounter with the sisters was in 2006 in Yambio, a remote forested area alive with monkeys, as Sudan was emerging from the Darfur war. Nightly gunfire was common. Warring tribes were in constant conflict over land ownership, cattle-rustling and other tribal issues, creating an environment of fear and uncertainty.

The sisters' families lived through numerous wars beginning in early 1800 with Arabs in the Muslim north region enslaving and exploiting those in the African Christian/animist south. The British complicated their history through occupation that lasted on and off until 1956, when the country gained independence.

During the occupation, the British allowed the Muslim north to govern the country, leaving the Christian/animist south without a voice, inciting almost continuous rebellion from the south.

Rebellion led to civil war from 1955 to 1972. Christian missionaries were expelled from 1962 to 1964, adding fuel to the conflict until 1972, when a peace agreement granted the south self-governance and resources.

Peace lasted about 10 years until oil was discovered, then the government attempted to redraw boundaries giving the oil to the north. This action initiated a second civil war in 1983 that lasted until 2005. Although some 2 million people died, it was also a time of displacement, fleeing from conflicts. An African proverb describes it well: "When the elephant and the lion fight, the grass suffers."

The Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary were founded in 1980, shortly before this second civil war. Sr. Antonietta Bakosoro, the community's first elected leader, shared their story when I met her in August 2017 at a meeting of the Association of Consecrated Women of East and Central Africa, or ACWECA, in Tanzania.

Inspiration for founding local congregations began early on in Sudan as increasing instability of ongoing wars caused the expulsion of missionary religious from 1962 to 1964. It became increasingly clear that there would soon be no sisters left in the country. Educational institutions and evangelization would end unless something changed. Ministry to those deeply affected by war was a desperate need.

Two bishops recruited young women and founded local groups: Our Lady of Victories in Tombura, Sudan, and Our Lady of Nazareth in Wau, Sudan. Both enlisted the Comboni Sisters, an Italian congregation founded particularly for Sudan, to help with formation of these new groups.

As fear of war grew, recruitment slowed. The bishops, concerned that both groups were small and fragile, decided with the sisters' consent to merge them under a new title, Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Enthusiastic recruitment recovered until 1982, when increased fear of the imminent second civil war and internal issues caused by the merger, motivated all but one of the professed sisters, Sr. Bianca Bii, to depart. Sister Bii led novices and those in temporary vows through this wartime period, including a decision to flee to Central African Republic in December of 1990, where they remained for three years in the Mbo’ki refugee camp.  As foreigners in a French-speaking country, it was difficult for the sisters to settle or be educated. They left Central African Republic for Uganda at the end of 1993 at the request of their bishop, Joseph Abangite Gasi, who was determined that the sisters have a stable center and assistance from the Comboni Sisters to support their growth.

Gasi's dream was to educate the sisters as evangelizers and teachers, able to fulfill their mission of improving the lives of women and families. The sisters trained for all levels of formal and informal education with children, adolescents and women in Sudan, South Sudan and beyond.

Today, most of the sisters have bachelor's degrees in teaching; some have diplomas, an equivalent of grade 10, plus teacher training. A number engage in administration and social work, and one is a doctor.

Even so, education is still a challenge. Women from South Sudan have had their education disrupted because of war and inability to pay school fees. Thus, most achieve only primary or lower primary school level. Even those families who support their daughters' desires to be sisters can do little to help them.

Young women in South Sudan and neighboring countries live in camps for displaced and refugee families, so those who apply to join the community often lack funds to travel to the formation house in Kampala, Uganda, and the congregation does not have financial means to help them.

Recruitment in Uganda is also challenging as parents fear the possibility of their daughters going to remote areas in war-torn countries. These fears are validated by the stories the sisters share about their lives. Danger is always nearby, although Sister Antonietta says the sisters live in "full trust of God even when shootings and bombardments are on."

Their vocation promotion echoes that of Mother John Hughes, the foundress of my congregation, Presentation Sisters of South Dakota, as she recruited sisters from Ireland to Dakota Territory in the early 1900s:

"Ordinary virtue is not good enough for Dakota. We offer you no salary, no recompense, no holidays, no pensions, but much hard work; a poor dwelling, few consolations, many disappointments, frequent sickness, a violent or lonely life."

The sisters are now self-governing as a diocesan congregation. Sister Antonietta describes herself as a new leader this way: "To be a general superior is a service one is asked by God through her members, although it is not always sweet. It feels good (at times) but challenges discourage too, especially in our case as we experience ourselves as victims of political crises and war."

She said their spirituality is a strength: following the Virgin Mary, who lived a simple, self-sacrificing life, a missionary in solidarity with people who live in poverty, fulfilling God's plan to be with the most abandoned and vulnerable.

The Missionary Sisters have two communities in Kampala, one in the Bweyale refugee camp in northern Uganda, and three communities in dioceses of South Sudan: Juba, Yambio and Tombura. The community in northern Uganda works with refugee families and youth groups, teaching English, catechism, tailoring, baking, group dynamics, along with hours of prayer with patients. The sisters "get courage being among the people they serve and cannot just abandon them for their own safety," Sister Antoinetta says.

I asked Sister Antonietta how they support themselves. She answered simply: frugal living and trust in Divine Providence, along with a few donors and friends, income-generating projects, gardening and small salaries, each earning about $6 monthly. The sisters find themselves like those I saw in Yambio in 2006, standing in line waiting for stipends every two to three months. If engaged in pastoral work, bishops only offer a tiny payment now and again. They produce daily food from self-planted gardens and fields.

When I asked Sister Antonietta how the sisters cope with the trauma they experience and live with day after day, the answer she gave me was expected: strong community life and complete dependence on Divine Providence.

[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]