Although he now lives half a world away, Father Stephen Karani remains deeply attached to his home village of Gitare, Kenya — a poor farming community where educational opportunities have been notably limited.
In 2007 he began approaching members of Holy Family Catholic Community, where he serves as pastor, about building a school in Gitare but "I was not sure if it ever was going to take root," he said.
All uncertainties have long since disappeared, and a high point was recently reached when eight Holy Family parishioners were on hand in Gitare to honor the first graduating class of St. Josephine Bakhita Secondary School and bask in the gratitude of students, families, staff and other residents.
The school has been entirely funded by an ongoing effort from Holy Family (St. Pius V, Cohocton; St. Mary, Dansville; Sacred Heart, Perkinsville; and St. Joseph, Wayland.) Representing the parish at the ceremony were Father Karani along with Bill and Mary Biggee, Sally Leeson, Sharon Bricks, and Sue, Mark and Ethan Keister.
Their trip lasted from Jan. 29 to Feb. 11 and included delivery of donated school supplies, clothing, science equipment, sporting goods and money. In addition, the travelers mingled with students for singing, science and art instruction, and giving details about Holy Family’s location and climate. They also took part in Masses in Swahili, and Father Karani got to spend time with his large family of seven siblings and 32 nieces and nephews.
Meanwhile, the Feb. 9 dedication was held in conjunction with the feast day one day earlier of St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947), a Sudanese native who rose out of slavery to become a revered woman religious. A plaque was unveiled with the travelers’ names inscribed; it is now embedded in the school’s cornerstone.
This triumphant moment stood in contrast to a 2007 trip to Gitare by Father Karani, Leeson and Bricks when they saw the effects of severe overcrowding in the primary schools and lack of a secondary school in town.
"The need became more apparent to somebody else other than myself," said Father Karani, who has led Holy Family since 2006, the year he was incardinated into the Diocese of Rochester.
In 2008 the Kenya School Project was established, with Holy Family operating in conjunction with Father Karani’s home diocese of Nakuru, where he was ordained in 1993. (More details about the project may be found at www.hfccstjosephine.org.) The Kenya Outreach Committee has had 12 members over the years: Father Karani, Bricks, Leeson, the Biggees, Sue Keister, Mimi Edgecomb, Todd Forsythe, Sue Senator Kuhn, Mary Kuhlman, Mary Markle and Sister Mary Jean Smith, SSJ.
Father Karani paid special tribute to Sister Smith, who also served the Holy Family area’s rural poor for many years before her death on Dec. 6, 2014.
"She loved the whole project a lot," he said. "She was encouraging for us when we were not sure we would make it."
The committee has made slow but sure progress on St. Josephine Bakhita School, taking to heart its slogan, "Building the Future, Desk by Desk, Class by Class."
"Our thoughts were to build a secondary school in Gitare as funds accumulated, regardless of how long this would take," explained Mary Biggee, current outreach committee chair.
Biggee recalled that she and her husband visited Gitare in 2010 and saw the first two classrooms being constructed, with workers laboring by hand. The classrooms were in operation when the Biggees returned two years later; they learned that many students walked more than five miles to school.
Currently the school has four classrooms, offices, desks and chairs. Its science-lab exterior is complete and the interior is under construction. There are 100 students in grades 9 through 12, and the inaugural graduating class had 15 youths. Father Karani said plans are underway to add a multipurpose room that would include a library and storage space. Biggee added that other top needs are solar and electrical power as well as expansion of books and supplies, latrine facilities and water availability.
Biggee said the committee has raised $170,000 since 2008, with donations coming from Holy Family parishioners, community individuals and organizations, and supporters from all over. Fundraising is done independently of weekly parish collections, with the main streams being an annual appeal and annual golf event (the next tournament is July 11).
Biggee observed that the parish’s dedication to this cause is strongly linked to its faith.
"It is giving us an opportunity to follow the example of Jesus, who calls us to be compassionate to the poor and reach out to our brothers and sisters beyond our borders," she said.
"I’ve been very impressed about how supportive the people have been," Father Karani remarked. "The Holy Spirit is very, very good, I can tell."