National Directory of Sisters creates purpose, pride in Nigeria

by Melanie Lidman

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Book helped organize chaotic problem of unrecognized congregations which can exploit young girls

The National Directory of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious is not a flashy book. Tan cover, very few pictures, 144 pages. The pages are filled with the names of the more than 6,000 sisters who make up 52 recognized congregations in Nigeria, which doesn't exactly make for gripping reading.

It may not be an exciting book, but the directory is much more than a simple list: it's a tool of empowerment that is enabling women religious to regulate and improve the organization of sisters across Nigeria.

The problem of “spontaneous congregations,” or unregulated groups of women who call themselves “sisters” has been an issue in Nigeria for years and is widespread across the world. The main worry regarding these illegal organizations is exploitation of young women.

“A priest can just get up one day and gather some young girls around him, and they're running unsupervised, and maybe he's paying a small stipend for them to be cleaning or doing work,” explained   Sr. Mary Nicolette Ihenacho, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister and executive secretary of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious.

Young girls from rural areas might not realize they are joining an unrecognized congregation of sisters, or that even that there is a difference between recognized and unrecognized congregations. They can end up as little more than poorly paid laborers, who do not receive any training or formation.

Sisters wearing a veil command an enormous amount of respect in Nigeria. Becoming a sister can also be a way out of poverty and violence or an opportunity for a solid education and a chance to feel a sense of community and belonging. But each congregation needs to have the resources to support the girls in their development as sisters, especially as they age. The Nigerian conference, the umbrella organization for all women religious in Nigeria, wants to regulate the congregations being founded to ensure each congregation can properly support their sisters, both for religious formation as well as practical concerns of food, housing and employment.

“Anyone can put on a veil and people will call them religious,” said Ihenacho. “This is not so good for the image of the religious in this country.”

“You can really see the difference when a sister has had proper formation,” she added. “It's like the development of a child – you have to go through different stages. The same for religious life, it's not that just out of the blue you are wearing this veil.”

Other problems arise when sisters are asked to leave a congregation due to a disagreement and they turn around and form their own congregation, which often quickly degenerate into petty fighting without proper leadership. A directory enables the national conference to keep tabs on this kind of activity.

At their annual gatherings, the conference’s leaders frequently mentioned “indiscriminate founding of congregations” as one of the top concerns the conference faces. In January 2009 at the general assembly, leadership first began discussing the possibility of an organized directory in order to combat the issue.

They looked at the Nigerian Conference of Women Religious statutes to determine the guidelines for documents congregations needed to submit to prove they are a recognized congregation of sisters; they developed clear criteria for the acceptance of congregations. At the following general assembly in January 2010, Ihenacho appealed to the mother superiors of all the congregations, requesting they submit their official founding documents.

Then came the task of informing a handful of congregations that the conference would not recognize them as member congregations due to incomplete documentation. “Some reacted very negatively and said, 'for years we've been in this conference, how can you shut us out now?’” recalled Ihenachoe. “But some took it well and continued with their process of getting their diocesan rights.”

Eleven months later, in December 2010, the conference published the first edition of the directory with a run of 7,000 copies.

The effects have been far-reaching. The directory is available to the members of the public for purchase for 350 naira (about U.S. $2), allowing young girls to gather valuable information about different groups of sisters. It also ensures that any congregation they want to join is recognized, which will enable them to take full advantage of learning and formation opportunities that the conference provides. Sisters can give it to students who are considering religious life.

The directory instills pride among the sisters who see their names in print and motivates those in unrecognized congregations to pressure their mother superiors to complete the registration process so they can also be included in the directory.

“It gives you a voice,” explained Sr. Mary Amanda Nwagbo an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister and the assistant secretary of the conference. “It says, 'I am here.'”

“Priests have a directory, it has all the information about the bishops and the addresses of the diocese and everything, but we as a body didn't have one,” she said. In the church's directory, the priests were listed individually with contact information, but there was no information about sisters beyond the name of their convent. “But now we have this [directory], and it's like these people are existing,” said Nwagbo.

She added that the criteria now help give new congregations a sense of purpose. “We would ask for information, like what is the charism of your congregation? What is your motto? What is your logo? And some of them didn't have these things,”

“These things give us direction, when you have a mission statement and a vision statement, these things give us an identity.”

The first directory was so successful the conference published a second edition earlier this year, which coincided with their 50th anniversary celebrations. Now the sisters hope other people around the world will be able to replicate their directory to bring empowerment, organization, and a new sense of identity to the national conferences of other countries. 

“It has brought us a lot of sanity,” said Ibenacho, laughing. “People cannot dash into the conference one day and the next day they are looking for a way to get food to eat. Now when people want to register, they already have their documents right.”

[Melanie Lidman is a freelance journalist based in Israel.]