Women religious show resilience in lifelong ministry

by Caroline Mbonu

NCR Contributor

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While some consider life's work is finished by the biblical age of 70 or 80, the lives and ministries of many women religious suggest otherwise. Unlike most persons in ministry, sisters never truly retire from active apostolate. Their resilience calls to mind the biblical observation, "In old age they still produce fruits" because they are "planted in the house of the Lord" (Psalm 92:13-14).

Some tend to believe old age eludes Africans. The grim statistics of the World Health Organization on life expectancy in many African countries confirm that not many Africans make the age 70 benchmark. In Nigeria, for example, the 2013 WHO figures put the life expectancy average for males at 53 and for females, 55. But many beat those odds. My dad passed away in 2007 at 82 when I was studying in Berkeley. Some colleagues there expressed surprise that people could live that long in Africa. People do and not just a few; Handmaid Sister Marie Anne Iwoh is one.

Born Aug. 15, 1931, Sister Marie Anne is still actively engaged in ministry. At 84, she is the chairperson of the diocesan education commission in Ikot Ekpene diocese and is at the helm of Catholic education in the diocese. She coordinates the work of 12 school managers and 24 head teachers, who are directly responsible for six high schools and 24 nursery and elementary schools. A veteran educator, Sister Marie Anne took vows in 1953 and has taught in many Catholic and public girls' schools in different parts of the present Akwa Ibom state.

Even after serving her congregation, Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, in the capacity of secretary general for six years and superior general for another six-year term, this natural teacher returned to the classroom, to continue to guide and impart knowledge to the young. She counts among her former students more than 30 women religious, numerous members of the Catholic Women Organizations (an indispensable constituent of the local church), and others who have risen to various positions of responsibility in the state and beyond. Youthfulness has its merits, but mature years have not diminished Sister Marie Anne's zeal and vigor for ministry. The school apostolate, a veritable traditional mode of evangelization, remains a domain of women religious in African Catholicism. Little wonder, then, is octogenarian Sister Marie Anne's relevance to that pursuit.

Asked why she loves the school apostolate so much, she says, "I love the children, I learn a lot from the way they interact with their environment, their playfulness is infectious. Children teach me not to take life very seriously." About the secret of her longevity, she says, "It is purely the grace of God. . . . I try to let God direct my day but I must tell you, I enjoy everything I do."

It was a privilege to live with Sister Marie Anne when I was a younger sister. Her simplicity was outstanding, an outcome, I believe, she allowed the students to teach her. Even now, she still enjoys cooking and makes her favorite dish, okporoko (codfish) salad flavored with the utazi herb, on feast days, a delicacy she usually shares with the members of the community.

Like Sister Marie Anne, a majority of the sisters in Africa continue to do what they do so well — teach the children and care for the sick — a rich legacy of western Catholic missionaries. With fewer young people signing up for the religious life worldwide, even here in Nigeria, the growing number of older sisters have the example of Sister Marie Anne to guide them in remaining relevant to the church and society.

The praise of mature years sung in Psalm 92:13-14 suggests a link between closeness to the sanctuary and longevity. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke presents a vibrant octogenarian prophet, Anna, who "never left the temple;" her fidelity to the things divine did not diminish with age and neither did her ministry. Lifelong religious commitment to God and God's people, whether in classrooms or in hospital wards, within the convent walls, at the margins or at the crossroads, continues to announce the beauty of a life that never grows old.

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]