International leadership team discusses mission, vocation with local SSMNs

North Texas Catholic
(May 19, 2023) Local

five women in front of convent

The International Leadership Team at the Our Lady of Victory convent on May 17, 2023. From left, General Superior Sister Immaculée Mukabugabo of Rwanda; General Councilor Sister Maria das Graças Oliveira of Brazil, General Councilor Sister Marie Justine Penge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, General Councilor Sister Mary Laura Lesniak of the United States, and General Councilor Ana Havenne of Belgium. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

FORT WORTH — Five women representing five countries and five cultures visited Fort Worth, but their mission to share the love of God unites them, as well as their hosts.

The International Leadership Team of the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur (SSMN) visited the 21 sisters of Fort Worth’s Western Region of SSMNs from May 11-18.

The leaders shared news of the congregation’s work in eight countries where SSMNs serve: Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Rwanda, Tanzania, the United States, Canada, and Belgium, where the order was founded in 1819.

General Councilor Sister Mary Laura Lesniak, who is from Buffalo, NY’s Eastern Province, explained the reason for the visit.

“It’s a grace to have the opportunity to be with sisters in Fort Worth where they live. To listen to them, to listen to their concerns, to share with them what’s happening in the other regions and provinces of the congregation. There’s so much that’s going on,” she said.

In addition, old friendships were rekindled as several Western Province sisters have served as missionaries in Brazil and African nations alongside the international leaders.

Education and more

Education, from elementary to college, has been the primary charism of the SSMNs, who established almost 30 schools in Texas since they stepped off the train in Waco in 1873.

According to General Superior Sister Immaculée Mukabugabo of Rwanda, the congregation focuses on education, especially for young people, in each country where they serve.

“In addition, we try to be open to what are the actual needs of people in a certain area,” including impoverished women, orphans, and those with physical disabilities or AIDS patients, said Sr. Immaculée.

“All of this is in view of sharing the Word of God, the Gospel, in the various places and cultures where we find ourselves called,” she added.

In their decades of service, each of the sisters has seen plentiful evidence of God at work.

General Councilor Sister Marie Justine Penge of the Democratic Republic of Congo recalled an illiterate woman who was determined to learn to read so that she could be a reader at Mass. When she achieved her goal and read the Word of God at Mass, the congregation applauded.

“They were proud of her and the effort she had made,” said Sr. Marie Justine.

Nearly 50 years ago, General Councilor Sister Ana Havenne of Belgium was one of the first missionaries to Brazil. They settled in a poor, dangerous section of the city, which led a despairing woman to question, “Why do you come here? Because all of us want to go someplace else.”

By sharing the Gospel, caring for abandoned children, and praying, the religious women helped restore faith and hope to this woman. “This is the experience that our sisters have, no matter where they are on mission,” Sr. Ana said. “There is a renewed sense of faith because of the presence of the sisters — faith in life, faith in God, faith in the Church — faith in humanity, even.”

In Rwanda, education goes beyond the classroom. The sisters teach sewing and cooking to prostitutes to provide an alternate way of earning a living and to reinforce their dignity and worth as creatures made in the image of God.

The joy of vocation

As with every vocation, joining the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur is a response to God’s call.

For Sr. Marie Justine, God is present in the people whom they serve, especially those who are most in need. “It is to them that we are called. We try to be the presence of God amongst the people as we share God’s Word with them, and as we try to put that Word in action,” she said.    

Their vocation of service brings joy, they agreed.

Sister Maria das Graças Oliveira of Brazil spoke of the joy of being part of the religious congregation. “To share the call to become a Sister of St. Mary is always with great joy and simplicity. One of the things that gives me great joy is the concern the [sisters] have with people on the margins.”

Sr. Immaculée added, “It’s the joy of being called to a unique relationship with Jesus. Then, being part of a mission of the SSMNs — the internationality, we are in many different countries and have the privilege of serving many different people.”

Local life

In addition to their enormous contribution to Catholic education in the Diocese of Fort Worth, the sisters of the Western Province, as part of an international order, have brought to the diocese a consciousness of the needs and the gifts of the people of Africa and of Brazil, according to Sr. Mary Laura. “A bridging between the cultures,” she explained.

Sr. Immaculée visited the Western Province last year also, and she is heartened “to see how the sisters are a part of life here and have been so beautifully accepted and appreciated by the people [of the Diocese of Fort Worth], many of whom have become their benefactors.”

Finally, Sr. Ana emphasized that while many of the local sisters are retired, the mission fields of Africa and Brazil still cry out for laborers. “If there are young people here in Fort Worth who feel the mission call, there are many places where they can serve, working with our sisters and others,” said Sr. Ana.

EDITOR'S NOTE: French is the common language between the International Leadership Team, and Sr. Mary Laura provided translation into English.

Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur, SSMN, Sister of St. Mary of Namur, Western Province, Diocese of Fort Worth, trending-english