Kigali, Rwanda — Nsengiyomva Antheri and Nzamukunda Regine sacrificed all they had to ensure their oldest child, Valentine, received the best education to secure government employment as a teacher. Therefore, her decision to become a nun after college was a big disappointment.
However, they had no choice but to accept her decision after efforts to talk her out of it bore no fruit.
Months after Valentine joined the Missionaries of Charity and became Sister Reginette, Antheri received a letter from the government with a job offer for his daughter, and he traveled to the convent to convince her to come home and take up the teaching job. She turned down the offer and insisted that her mind was already made up on becoming a nun.
"When I received news of her death in Yemen, I was shattered and wished she had listened to me and taken up the teaching job," Antheri said. "She wouldn't be dead today."
Sister Reginette was among four Missionaries of Charity sisters killed March 4 by gunmen who attacked their retirement center in Aden, Yemen. She was 33.
According to testimony from Sister Sally, the superior of the community and the only sister who survived the attack, on the morning of March 4, the sisters had their adoration session and prayers, then went to their assigned places of work in the home where they took care of elderly patients.
At 8:30 a.m., an Ethiopian boy who was helping in the home opened the door for a boy who came to visit a patient in the home. When the door opened, four men rushed inside with their faces covered and guns in their hands. They shot dead four sisters — Sister Reginette, Sister Anselm from India, Sister Judith from Kenya, and Sister Marguerite, also from Rwanda — and 12 workers.
Sister Reginette was born Valentine Uwingabire on June 29, 1982, and was the oldest of four children of Nsengiyomva Antheri and Nzamukunda Regine from Mugunga village in Ruhengeri, northern Rwanda.
Sister Reginette started showing interest in charity work when she was a teenager. When she was 16 years old, she went missing for a month: She had left school to care for a sick friend in the hospital. She missed many classes and had to repeat the year.
In form four, her parents received reports from other students that the 18-year-old Sister Reginette spent most of her time writing letters to sisters from various congregations, asking them how to become a sister. Her parents said they became concerned, though they didn't discuss the issue with her.
She joined a different school for her form five and six, where she was an average student, and at 20 left the village and joined a languages college in Kigali. One year later, she joined the Missionaries of Charity in Kigali and told her parents she had decided to become a sister.
Because Sister Reginette's parents had used up the little resources they had educating her, their expectations, just like any other African parents, were that she would get a well-paying job and give back to them.
"She was not able to send us any help, not even soap," Regine said. "It is good to serve as a nun, but the church should consider help to the families. Even after her death, no one has considered any compensation to us. When army soldiers die in war, their families are compensated. It should be the same case with us."
Sister Reginette professed her first vows on Dec. 10, 2011, in Nairobi, Kenya. In December 2015, in her last application for the renewal of her vows, she wrote, "In my spiritual life I deepen the knowledge of Him by allowing the spirit to lead me, Jesus to heal my fears, supporting me in difficulties, remembering that I am finite — unable of anything without Him."
Sister Mary Prema, the Missionaries of Charity superior general, described Sister Reginette as generous, thoughtful and full of zeal for souls.
"She loved the poor and the poor loved her," Prema wrote in a tribute to Sister Reginette. "She had a strong desire for holiness, always sought spiritual advice. She saw the needs of the community and took full responsibility in all her duties."
Sister Reginette left home in 2005 and only returned once in 2011.
"She only came back home to collect some documents after spending seven years in Kenya," her mother said.
She did not communicate much with her family, and her parents had to seek the intervention of their parish priest, who asked the superior at the Kigali Missionaries of Charity convent to advise Sister Reginette to get in touch with her parents.
Her last letter to her family was written on March 22, 2014. Sister Reginette complained about the hardships they faced in Yemen. She mostly lamented about the cold weather and war.
"I thought by becoming a sister I would find satisfaction because that's what I wanted to be, but things are not good here; maybe I should have taken up the teaching job instead, but no one can satisfy human beings, only God," she wrote.
Fr. Festus Nzeyimana, Sister Reginette's parish priest, said he talked to her on phone toward the end of 2015. He said she expressed fear of imminent death.
"She told me the situation was bad, that they couldn't walk around in their veils," Nzeyimana said. "They remained holed up in the convent, and no one went out. She said they knew they might die anytime, but they had to obey and continue serving."
On a phone call in early 2016 to her younger sister, Uwinema Clementine, she said their lives were in danger because of the war in Yemen. Clementine pleaded with her to come home, but Sister Reginette said she had elderly patients who needed her more there.
To see if her daughter was safe, Regine went to Kigali to ask the sisters about the situation in Yemen. She said a superior told her, "Pray for your daughter and all will be well. Consider her married because when a girl gets married, she never returns home, no matter what. All I can promise you is if all goes well, she will come home to visit on Dec. 10."
The parents were waiting for Sister Reginette to visit them on the promised date, but it was never going to be. They received the news of her death from the Missionaries of Charity in Kigali on March 4.
They requested to be allowed to at least see the body of their daughter before burial, but Prema said no priest or Missionary of Charity was able to enter the city.
A Catholic woman from Aden volunteered to bury the four sisters in Aden with directions from Sister Dency, the superior of the community at Sana'a, on how to conduct the burial.
A week after Sister Reginette's death, Bishop Harorimana Vincent of the Ruhengeri diocese led religious leaders and the Mugunga village, where Sister Reginette hailed from, in celebrating a Mass in her honor in Janja Parish.
Vincent said he knew Sister Reginette as a girl of decision, and that's why she chose to remain and serve in the war-torn Yemeni environment.
"She is a martyr. And becoming a martyr is not easy," he said. "It is to die for the faith and the service you offer in the church."
[Lilian Muendo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.]
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