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Holy Spirit Sister lives out SHSp mission and charism

January 06, 2015 | posted by Sister Rose McHugh, SHSp

Topics: Vocations

Holy Spirit Sister lives out SHSp mission and charism

In a chapter held over 25 years ago the Sisters of the Holy Spirit made a decision to answer the Holy Father’s call to send missionaries to the Third World.

After much prayer and discernment three Holy Spirit sisters responded to that call. This was a decision of faith and trust as our members were dwindling but our foundress Mother Margaret Healy Murphy always called on us to trust in divine providence. Our SHSp mission and charism is to manifest the compassion of Jesus to the poor especially those who are denied respect for their human dignity. With this in mind the Western Province of Zambia was chosen as it is the poorest and most neglected province in all of Zambia. Being part of SubSahara Africa it is sand, sand and more sand. For six months of the year it is cut off from the rest of the country due to the flooding of the plains and boats have to be used for travel. This surely was a place in line with our SHSp mission and charism.

To prepare for this journey of faith we took the Maryknoll Cross Cultural Program, a program of one month’s duration which dealt with personal issues relating to foreign mission. In addition, we took a two week course on SubSahara Africa putting us in touch with the political, historical and religious realities of the region.

The first few years in Zambia were difficult for us as South Africa was still under the apartheid system. Basic food items were scarce and one had to queue up for hours to get basic items such as sugar, rice or flour. However, it was a great opportunity to get to know the people and their struggles.

Entering into a Third World country is like being turned inside out. All the familiar parameters are gone. One has to learn a new language, culture, customs, greetings, etc. One has to do as Pope John Paul II did … which was to kiss the ground knowing that this new land is as sacred as the one you left … it is holy ground. I was once questioned by a First World acquaintance as to how civilized the people were. I tried to hide my hurt as I found the Zambian people compassionate, loving, generous, forgiving and above all faith filled. Their graciousness especially put me to shame. Even though they might be very hungry they would never place a morsel of food in their mouth without first washing their hands and blessing the food. This applied to children and adults alike.

My first years in Zambia were mostly spent in evangelization. Before I left the United States for Zambia I had the great opportunity of learning the RCIA and fell in love with it. What a beautiful way of welcoming adults into the church! For the first 10 years or so I trained RCIA teams both at the main church and at all the Mass stations in the surrounding villages. As I watched their faith come to life my faith was also deepened. I realized that conversion is a two way process.

By the early 1990’s the AIDS pandemic was reaping its devastation in Africa and Zambia was no exception. Mothers were dying like flies leaving behind so many orphans. At this point I became deeply involved in caring for the orphaned and vulnerable children as well as teaching AIDS Education and AIDS Prevention courses. We used an excellent program from Uganda titled “Keep Hope Alive” in which each activity we engaged in such as eating, watching a video, or being with a dying person, all was dedicated to keeping hope alive. Keeping hope alive was forefront in our thinking every day. That led me to develop a feeding program for the orphans and vulnerable children and soon after I saw the need to set up a pre-school for the same orphans. Upon arrival at our pre-school in the mornings the orphans were given a glass of milk and a scone and later on before going home they would be served a nutritious lunch. For many it was the only food they would get for the rest of the day. To help with the cost we sowed our own vegetable garden and raised our own chickens. The guardians of the children helped with the cooking and preparation of the food.

A milk program for babies at risk also became necessary. This was for babies whose mothers could not produce milk due to breast infection, malnutrition or HIV and we provided infant formula as well as milk.

On a weekly basis I would take AIDS patients to the hospital for treatment or review. I would pick them up along the side of the road in the morning and load them into the truck and in the afternoon go back for them only very often to find out that they were where I left them sitting on the floor of the hospital hallway still waiting to see a doctor. Some were so weak that they would be lying on the floor. But never a complaint, never a word of anger, they would just say to me, “Sister, we are still here.” It was at frustrating times like this that I would recall my favorite Scripture passage “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” I would feel so powerless, angry, weak and helpless. Yet out of nowhere would come the strength of the Lord and I could feel Mother Margaret walking alongside me. Although it was heartbreaking to see so many sick and in pain it would occur to me that really no one was to blame. There just were too many patients and too few doctors.

There is a saying that the darkest night will bring a dawn and the dawn came in the form of ARV medicines. What a gift, what a blessing, what a miracle and all I can say is huge and heartfelt thanks to the countries donating such medicines. While the ARV’s are not a cure they help keep AIDS at bay. Now parents are able to live longer and raise their children. That has really helped keep hope alive.

The elderly forgotten ones were also close to my heart. I helped provide food and housing for those who had lost extended families and had been pushed aside during the AIDS pandemic.

Another project to which I dedicated my time while in Zambia was the Girl Child Project. If a family had money for education this money was always given to the boys in the family leaving the girls to marry at a young age and/or work in the fields. With the help of donors from Ireland I supervised the building of a hostel where girls from the villages can stay while attending the secondary school (high school) nearby. The day the hostel opened 40 girls arrived from all the surrounding villages with blankets, pots, pans and all they needed to take care of themselves while attending school.

This is merely a snapshot of my sojourn with the people of Zambia. Due to serious health issues my time there was cut short and after 25 years it became necessary for me to bid farewell to that beautiful land and its people. The memories of my experiences there will be forever etched in my memory. Although my heart was broken on leaving yet it is full of gratitude to God and my community for 25 wonderful years of “being with the people” of Zambia.