Sisters, family mourn death of Kenyan sister in Yemen

Sr. Judith's family and fellow sisters at her memorial Mass (Courtesy of Fr. Bonaventure Musyoki)

Nairobi, Kenya — News about the killing of four nuns in Yemen filled the air on that fateful day of March 4. They were Missionaries of Charity, commonly known as Mother Teresa Sisters. The sisters killed were identified as Sr. Anselm from India, Sr. Judith from Kenya, and Srs. Marguerite and Reginette from Rwanda. Curiosity grew when Kenyans learned one of the sisters was a daughter of their country.

I spoke by telephone with Sr. Gracia, the superior of Huruma Convent in Nairobi. She told me that Sr. Judith, who was 41, hailed from the remote town of Kitise in Makueni County and the Machakos diocese. She was born Anastasia Kanini, the third of eight children to Mr. and Mrs. Kasangi Kimutu. She was baptized in 1989 and soon developed a desire to become a nun.

Anastasia's family lived in poverty. After Anastasia completed her primary education, her parents couldn't afford to enroll her in secondary school, so she joined a village polytechnic training center to try her hand at dressmaking.

Fr. Bonaventure Musyoki of St. Joseph's Parish in Mbuvo, Sr. Judith's home parish, spoke with Sr. Judith's mother, who sadly narrated her own ordeal. She had to raise the children alone after her husband's death. As sometimes happens to widowed women in the Kenyan culture, she was chased away from her matrimonial home. She took shelter in a faraway town in Makindu located along the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway in Makueni County.

In answer to God's call, Anastasia left home in 2000, and in May 2005, she professed her first vows in Huruma, Nairobi. She then changed her name and henceforth would be called Sr. Judith. This is a practice of the Missionaries of Charity whereby during first profession, one becomes a new being and takes a different name.

No sooner had she professed her vows than she was sent to Yemen — her first and last mission. All of her years as a sister were spent in a nursing home in Yemen, where she worked with three sisters and other staff, mostly from Ethiopia.

In 2010, Sr. Judith returned to Kenya for her home visit. That same year, she traveled to Rome to prepare for her final vows, which she professed in May 2012. She then returned to Yemen, a place she had come to know as home.

During her 2010 trip to visit family in Kenya, she had no idea where her mother and siblings were. They were scattered to different parts of Kamba land. Word had it that her mother was in Makindu.

Musyoki, her parish priest, offered to drive Sr. Judith to Makindu in search of her mother. They found her and, since she had no home of her own, the Missionaries of Charity purchased an acre of land for her at Kitise, where good Samaritans helped to put up a grass-thatched house. During this time, Sr. Judith was offered accommodation by the priests at the parish house.

"Where else could she go? She had nowhere," Musyoki said. "She could go and visit her relatives, spend a few days with them and return."

Because of the ongoing war in Yemen, other men and women religious had fled the country, and Sr. Gracia said the superior general in India requested that Sr. Anselm and her sisters do the same. But they could not leave the senior citizens they had come to know like parents. They chose to stay. Death found them there, at the center of the work they enjoyed doing: nursing Christ himself through the sick and elderly.

Upon learning of the death of their fellow sisters, Sr. Gracia and Sr. Joserick from Makueni County traveled the 120 miles to Kitise in the Kathonzweni ward to inform and console the family.

Sr. Judith's mother with Fr. Bonaventure Musyoki at her memorial Mass. (Courtesy of Fr. Bonaventure Musyoki)

On March 8, the Missionaries of Charity family of priests and religious brothers and sisters, both active and contemplative, celebrated Mass at the convent in Huruma, Nairobi. There, they prayed for the repose of the souls of their sisters.

Sr. Judith was buried in Yemen, Sr. Gracia said. Both her biological and spiritual families celebrated Mass on March 12 at her home compound and the next day at her parish church, St. Joseph in Mbuvo.

The Yemen convent's superior, Sr. Sally, was at first reported missing but was found safe. She has taken refuge at her regional superior's house in Jordan, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Salesian Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil was kidnapped during the attack and has been missing since. This week, the Indian external affairs minister said rumors of the priest's Good Friday murder are false, and efforts are underway to return him to India, The Christian Post reported.

The Missionaries of Charity have three more convents in Yemen. Sr. Gracia says the sisters in those houses will not leave despite the worsening political situation in Yemen.

The death of the sisters in Yemen has caused mixed feelings among sisters in Kenya. The majority of sisters regard them as heroines, martyrs of our time, but others question the choice of remaining in harm's way.

Sr. Mary Donatus Kilolo, the Immaculate Heart of Mary regional superior, said she hails the sisters as "soldiers of Christ." However, she said she would have fled the war until there was no imminent danger of death for her and her sisters. 

She reminded me of the 2007 and 2008 tribal clashes in Kenya. The Immaculate Heart nuns fled Kapkoi Health Centre under tight security by the police because indigenous people threatened to kill the sisters.

Sr. Mary Frances Wangare of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph agreed with Kilolo and quoted the Bible: "God takes care of those who take care of themselves." Wangare said the sisters' deaths would have been prevented if they had left because the terrorists' aim was to kill Christians. If the sisters had left, she said, the killers would not have thought of visiting the nursing home.

According to the Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Sr. Anslem was 59, and Sr. Reginette, the youngest in the group, was 32. Sr. Marguerite was 43.

In an official statement from the Vatican, Pope Francis called the sisters martyrs who "gave their blood for the church."

May God rest their gentle souls in eternal breeze. Amen.

[Adelaide Ndilu is a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the administrator of Radio Waumini in Nairobi, Kenya.]