PITTSFORD — For one girl, nuns were kindly souls who fed people.
For another girl, nuns were tall women who stuck needles in her arm. Not for fun, of course, she said — the nuns were nurses.
Eventually, both girls were inspired by the women religious they encountered as children to join the Sisters of the Congregation of Our Lady of Usambara as adults. The congregation is based in the eastern African nation of Tanzania, and claims about 500 women religious as members. The Tanzanian sisters do everything from work in medicine and education to minister in parishes and homes.
The two Tanzanian girls who looked up to nuns as children were Sister Evetha Kilamba, 39, and Sister Fokas Mjema, 33. The women have been studying at Nazareth College since 2000 and have both obtained master’s degrees in education. The Tanzanian sisters, who hail from the Tanga Diocese, are currently readying to return home.
The two sisters were feted by friends and well-wishers during a farewell party Jan. 8 at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse on French Road. The Tanzanians are the latest in a series of 10 such members of the Usambara order who have since 1988 come to Rochester to pursue undergraduate and/or graduate studies at nearby Nazareth College, which pays for their tuition, according to Sister Marilyn Pray of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Sister Pray noted that her congregation, as well as the Sisters of Mercy, began collaborating with the Tanzanian congregation in order to educate the Tanzanian sisters so they could return home and educate their own people, especially women.
“Most young (Tanzanian) women do not have the educational opportunity beyond the elementary level,” Sister Pray said. “This forces many into a life of poverty.”
Along with Nazareth College and the St. Joseph and Mercy sisters, private donors support the Tanzanian sisters program, she added. It’s money well spent, apparently, as she pointed out that four of the 10 women who have come through the program have obtained master’s degrees, and one sister even went on to become the congregation’s reverend mother in Tanzania.
During an interview at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse a few days after the farewell party, Sisters Kilamba and Mjema spoke of how they came to join their order and what they planned to do when they return home.
Sister Kilamba said that as a child she remembered the German nuns in her parish handing out tea, bread and rosaries to people.
“From that time, I was thinking, ‘That is why people become nuns, so that they can give people bread and tea,'” she said. “When I was 12, I remember telling my mother clearly that I was going to be a nun.”
Her mother supported her decision, but her father, who had converted to Catholicism from Islam, thought she was crazy, she said. Eventually, however, she won over her father by convincing him that while she would serve God completely as a sister, she would still remain the same person she was before she entered religious life, she said.
Sister Mjema’s vocation was inspired by the women religious who staffed a medical clinic in her home region, she said. As a child, she recalled the religious nurses being much taller than she was and laughed when she noted that she was afraid she wasn’t tall enough to become a nun. Then, at the age of 12, Sister Mjema met a short nun and realized that her height would be no obstacle to pursuing her calling.
“What attracted me was the (easy manner) of the sisters,” Sister Mjema said. “They were comfortable talking to people.”
She noted, for example, that the women religious she saw would minister to anyone — Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim — and were not constrained by the demands of husbands and children. In their traditional culture, both Tanzanian sisters said that if they had married, they would have had to seek permission from their husbands to engage in any kind of ministry to others.
“If I want to help people, I didn’t want to get permission to help someone,” Sister Kilamba said.
Sister Kilamba professed her final vows in 1992, and Sister Mjema did so in 1997. Both sisters noted that they have no regrets about giving up the possibility of marrying men and rearing families. Sister Kilamba added that one of her biological sisters has had 11 children, so there are plenty of nieces and nephews whom she can mother.
“My sister said, ‘Remember, you went to the convent and didn’t have children, so I have to bear yours,” Sister Kilamba said with a chuckle.
In addition to studying at Nazareth, the sisters have done student teaching in Rochester and said they want to continue to teach when they return home. Both women added that they have come to admire the women religious they have met in Rochester for all of their ministries, including their work in prisons and with refugees.
“They are not distributing bread and tea in the way I thought,” Sister Kilamba said, alluding to her first impression of women religious. “They are distributing knowledge to the people.”
The sisters want to distribute some knowledge themselves and said they hope to open in their homeland a secondary school for girls.
Both sisters expressed gratitude to Nazareth College, the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph, and all others who have supported the Tanzanian sisters program.
“Coming to America made me recognize that I didn’t make a wrong choice to become a nun,” Sister Kilamba said.