EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the second in a two-part series on local parishes supporting missions in Tanzania.
When Marian and Dr. Gregory Ryan worked as Maryknoll lay missioners in Kowak, Tanzania, they were alarmed at what they found.
A drought, famine and meningitis epidemic had severely strained the finances of the small medical dispensary where Gregory Ryan worked.
The couple contacted their parish priest, Father John L. O’Connor, who was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Brighton from 1980 to 2006, to tell him that the dispensary needed immediate help to stay afloat. At first the parish sent supplies, but soon parishioners learned their assistance went farther if they sent money.
"We ended up sending over $3,000 a month," Father O’Connor recalled.
More than 20 years later, Our Lady of Lourdes continues to give between $3,000 and $5,000 a month through its second collections and other fundraising. All told, the parish has raised more than $600,000 for the people of Kowak and has given the Maryknoll missions in Kowak a reliable source of income.
"Your generous gifts have made Kowak (Health Center) into a hospital," Maryknoll Father James Conard told parishioners in a February letter that was printed in the March 10 parish bulletin.
In addition to expanding the health center, the parish’s contributions have helped support St. Brigit Parish in Kowak and have helped Father Conard expand Kowak Girls’ Secondary School, a boarding school of more than 500 high-school- and junior-college-level girls.
A native of Green Bay, Wis., Father Conard has served as pastor of St. Brigit in Kowak since 1978. He built upon a long legacy of missionaries in the area, which is part of the Diocese of Musoma. Maryknoll missioners started the medicine dispensary in 1949 three years after they arrived in Musoma in 1946 to help the Missionaries of Africa, who were known as the White Fathers.
This year the hospital has expanded to 112 beds, and it has added a cardiac monitor and ultrasound machine. Crews also are building three more duplexes to house six additional staff members.
In only the first two weeks of January, the hospital performed 150 blood transfusions –many transfusion patients are children younger than 5 who are fighting malaria. The hospital’s HIV clinic routinely serves more than 1,300 HIV-positive patients. Also in January, Kowak Girls’ Secondary School graduated 38 students, who earned a junior-college-level education.
Sister Joan Sobala, pastoral administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Brighton and St. Anne Parish in Rochester, noted that in addition to the monthly second collections, parishioners pray weekly for their friends in Kowak. A group of 14 third-grade girls recently sold boondoggle bracelets as a fundraiser, raising $71 for St. Brigit Parish.
Today Our Lady of Lourdes is filled with reminders of its friends in Africa, including a crèche and a handmade batik wall hanging.
"These are all things that we have around so that people are aware that we are part of the big world," Sister Sobala said.
Some of the friendships between the twinned parishes were forged during a trip by parishioners to Kowak in 2002. Several of the parishioners who went on that trip recalled hair-raising driving; lively, two-hour Masses with hundreds of girls singing, dancing and using drums; and unexpected meetings of old friends and people with ties to Rochester.
"We felt really comfortable," recalled Maureen DiPoala of Webster. "Even though you were so far from everything and thinking what is this going to be like, we met people there and had this connection."
At the time, the school housed about 400 girls, and the hospital had about 50 beds.
"We could not believe how many girls were in the school," DiPoala said. "They were always running out of space."
Traveler Miriam Santana said those on the 2002 trip felt like they were the recipients of St. Brigit’s gratitude.
"They were trying to give everything they have," said Santana, who noted that the people of the area didn’t have many material goods to give.
"They really give themselves," she said.
Santana, who is originally from Mexico, had the opportunity to venture off to meet some Mexican missionaries, and coincidentally ran into one of her former high-school teachers who happened to answer the door of the mission she was visiting.
It was just one example of how connected the travelers felt to those they had been helping, she said. Some of the people they met were familiar with Rochester and some of the sisters who are educators at Kowak Girls’ Secondary School attended Nazareth College in Pittsford.
After the group of travelers came back, the parish made plans for them to show the video Santana made of trip after Masses in the parish chapel. But Father O’Connor said he was so impressed with the video that he decided it should be shown at all Masses.
When sisters from Africa visited the parish, parishioners presented their offerings at the altar in the manner in which it is done in Tanzania, Father O’Connor said.
"That kind of brought it home that these are our friends," he said.
The long-term success of Our Lady of Lourdes’ twinning partnership with St. Brigit in Kowak recently helped inspire a similar partnership between St. Anne Parish in Rochester, with which Lourdes is clustered, Sister Sobala noted.
St. Anne has twinned with Holy Nativity Parish in Terawi, Borneo. The rector of the Borneo parish is Father Peter Abas, who served for a time as St. Anne’s parochial administrator. Special collections taken up six times a year at St. Anne will go toward a catechetical center.