March 16, 2009

A Different Sort of Jubilee

Q. What do you get when you mix an adventurous Sister of Mercy from California with a Golden Jubilee trip to war-ravaged Sudan?

A. A new ministry!

Golden Jubilarian Kathleen Connolly, RSM from Burlingame, California (West Midwest community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas), accompanied Marilyn Lacey, RSM, to Kenya and Sudan in May of 2008. For Marilyn, it was an opportunity to set up connections for the nonprofit, Mercy Beyond Borders; for nature-loving Kathleen, it was a jubilee trip offering the chance for a wild animal safari. Little did Kathleen imagine that that the trip would lead her to a life-changing new way of ministering with the poor.

While in Kenya the two stayed at the Mercy Provincialate in Nairobi, enjoying many comfortable cups of tea, learning about the various works of the Mercys throughout Kenya, and navigating the traffic-clogged streets of Nairobi on foot and via matatu (crowded taxi-vans). Their first attempt to travel up to Southern Sudan was stymied when the small aircraft flying them from Nairobi to Lokichoggio (on the Kenya/Sudan border) had to turn around and return to Nairobi because of stormy weather over Lokichoggio. On the second attempt the next day, they landed successfully in Loki and from there rode several hours into Sudan in a minivan, escorted by two trucks crammed with armed soldiers for protection against ambush by bandits. Their destination: the small town of Narus, where Sr Kathleen immediately fell in love with the place and the people. She returned in February of this year to live and work there fulltime.

Southern Sudan has traditionally not educated its females. Narus is the site of the first girls’ school in the entire country: St Bakhita Elementary. Its 800 students, ages 4-17 (many of them started their education late), eagerly crowd the rustic classrooms. You can do the math: yes, 100 girls per class! Some of the rooms have benches or desks; most do not. No matter. The girls sit on the floor. Their dorms originally were empty corrugated iron shipping containers, blazingly hot in the tropical sun. Over the past three years, since the Peace Agreement ended the civil war between North and South Sudan and therefore ended the aerial bombings that had often sent the students diving into the dugout bomb shelters outside each classroom, the school has built dorms from hand-made bricks and has improved the classrooms with cement floors. There is even a little computer room for the teachers, with internet access to satellite via solar power for a few hours on most days.

St. Bakhita Girls’ School is the brainchild of Bishop Paride Taban. “For 50 years we’ve been teaching the boys,” he says, “and all we got was war. We need to teach the girls!” Recognizing that tribal rivalries hold back the country, he gathered young girls from 24 tribes and brought them to the school, where the instruction is in English. The girls thus have a common language and are building relationships across the historical tribal divides. Graduates of the school can matriculate into a brand new high school built adjacent to the campus, unless their families push them into early marriages. Some will find employment as the region develops its economy. All of them, knowing how to read and write, will be able to improve the standard of living of the next generation.

Sr Kathleen (an experienced teacher, social worker and emergency medical technician) is helping out in various classrooms and specializing in teaching health and hygiene to the older students and to the women in surrounding villages. She stresses basics like hand-washing and water purification through boiling. “I’ve got their full attention when describing the various intestinal worms and maladies that can result from improper hygiene,” she says. She loves being with the girls and getting to know their cultures and worldviews. “God is here, and I am happy. It’s that simple.”

To follow Kathleen’s experiences over the coming months, read her blog at

To support St Bakhita Girls’ Elementary School, you may donate to Mercy Beyond Borders, the nonprofit started by Marilyn in the U.S. last year specifically to alleviate the extreme poverty of displaced women and girls through education and through small entrepreneurial women’s projects. For more details, see

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