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HISTORY OF THE SISTERS OF THE SACRED HEART OF JESUS,
JUBA – SOUTH SUDAN (1954 – 2011)
Sr Mary Daniel Abut
Before I present the history of the Sacred Heart Sisters’ Congregation,
allow me to take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude to the organisers for the selecting the Sacred Heart Sisters to be part of this Symposium. We feel humble indeed and at the same time grateful for the honour bestowed on us by being invited to come and share with you the history of the Congregation which is here because of you and for you. The role I am asked to play in this Symposium places me in an advantageous position. It has given me a chance to re-visit the life of the Congregation in a very particular and critical way since its foundation in 1954. The Sacred Heart Sisters’ Congregation is a Church in diaspora, with its members constantly on the move from place to place, but serving the people of God and the Church. The sharing of the history and our mission is certainly a time of grace and renewal for us the Sisters, an opportunity to re-affirm ourselves and our resolutions to focus single-mindedly on our calling and mission. Every religious congregation is called to be prophetic, but in a situation that cannot be generalised. This is a history of a journey of faith and hope, and I believe so, because he who called this institute into existence is at the very core of its history. In it we want to deepen our faith in God and our understanding of his values and allow the Spirit’s power to make a gradual change in our unfinished lives.
The Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a religious and apostolic Institute of local origin. “SISTERS OF THE SACRED HEART OF JESUS – JUBA” is our official title. In Uganda we are called “Sacred Heart Sisters of Moyo”, as our main centre is Moyo town, Arua Diocese. We are a Catholic, local congregation of religious women founded in 1954 by the late Bishop Sixtus Mazzoldi in Juba, South Sudan. Bishop Mazzoldi was a Comboni Missionary who was then the Bishop of Juba. We are not attached to any other international congregation who may also bear the name “Sacred Heart”. Our members are mostly South Sudanese, Ugandans and a few Kenyans. Presently we work in Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. Our Mother House (headquarters) is in the Archdiocese of Juba. We are the oldest local congregation in the Sudan.
It is worth mentioning that the Sacred Heart Sisters are not the only local women's religious congregation founded in the Sudan. We also have the Nazareth Sisters (NS) in the Diocese of Wau, founded in 1959 by Bishop Edward Mason MCCJ. The Sisters of Our Lady of Victories (OLV) in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio were founded in 1957 by Bishop Dominic Ferrera MCCJ, who was then Prefect Apostolic of Mupoi (later diocese of Tombura-Yambio). In 1973 the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SCBC) proposed the amalgamation of the Sudanese religious women's congregations which had started in various dioceses to give service to the local church in Sudan. In 1977 the two congregations, Nazareth Sisters (NS) and Our Lady of Victories (OLV) merged into a new Congregation called “Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (MSBVM)”. The Bishop of Tombura/Yambio by mandate of Rome became the ecclesiastical authority supporting it, and so Bishop Joseph Gasi Abangite is considered the founder.
The beginning of the Sacred Heart Sisters
Fr Sixtus Mazzoldi came to Sudan in 1931, and was at Rejaf Parish among the Bari people. Three years later in 1934, he was transferred to Kapoeta. He remained at Kapoeta for 12 years. Then he left the area in 1946 in order to become rector of Okaru seminary. In 1947, he went to Italy to take part in the General Chapter of their congregation. At the end of that same year he was appointed the Regional Superior of the missionaries of the Prefecture Apostolic of Bahr-el-Gebel. In 1951, when the Prefecture Apostolic of Bahr-el-Gebel was elevated to Vicariate Apostolic, Mazzolidi was chosen to be its first Bishop. He was consecrated Bishop on 24th June 1951 in Trento (Italy). His Episcopal motto was: “So that they could have life”. His attention to the evangelisation of the rural population entrusted to his care continued in his new place of responsibility as pastor of the whole Vicariate. It was at this time that besides the normal pastoral work in his Vicariate, Bishop Mazzoldi took upon himself the responsibility of starting the two religious congregations of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Brothers of St Martin de Porres.
At foundation, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were called “The Sudanese Teaching Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Juba”. The aim of establishing this congregation was to evangelise and educate children in schools. However, with time, the sisters began to engage in various other activities that could foster the development of the local Church, such as pastoral work, social work, nursing (health care) and others. As the Congregation expanded to Uganda and Kenya, the name of the congregation was modified to “Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” to include all nationalities.
What is the relationship of the Sacred Heart Sisters with the other women's religious congregations? My answer would be like that of Jesus to the disciples when they felt that some one was intruding into their area of activities and reported how they acted towards him. “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Lk. 9: 49-50). As consecrated women religious, the other congregations are not competitors with us; rather they are collaborators. We work with them in serving and building up the Kingdom of God.
On 23rd March 1952 the first postulants, Barbara, Annetta, Angelina and Modesta, received the habit from Bishop Mazzoldi to join the Novitiate at the Assumption Church of Loa, Eastern Equatoria State. The Bishop appointed Sr Donatilla Moroni, a Comboni Missionary Sister, as the first Superior General and the Novice Mistress (formator). After two years the novices were professed on 28th March 1954. The year 1954 has significance in the congregation because it was the time the congregation was officially established with its first four members. In 1955, the Holy See (Rome) approved the constitutions of the young institute.
Growth and Expansion
Bishop Mazzoldi, in founding the congregation, had in mind the urgent needs of the local Church in South Sudan, but God has led us further to become a truly missionary community of different tribes and nations, called to respond to the needs of the poor, the neglected and especially those who have not as yet heard the Good News of Salvation. Due to the civil war, when all the missionaries were expelled and the Church was being openly persecuted, the sisters were forced to flee to Uganda and settled in Moyo, Arua Diocese. Eventually the Convent in Moyo became the Generalate and the centre of intense work aimed at establishing the congregation on solid spiritual and cultural foundations. Many candidates joined the congregation and through God’s providential designs, it became international in its members and commitments. The Sacred Heart Sisters now serve in fifteen dioceses. In Uganda, we work in eight dioceses. We have one community in Kenya, in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. In Sudan we work in six dioceses. The Congregation has 167 members, and these are from 46 different tribes. The official language of the congregation is English.
Charism is a special grace or gift of the Holy Spirit which some people possess; the gift of the Holy Spirit is the basis of a variety of gifts in the Church (Rom 12:6-8) which are used for the benefit of the Church and the people of God. Our charism is “evangelisation”, making Christ known and keeping him present among the most needy and abandoned through our personal life witness. Called by God to preach His Good News among our people, we cannot separate preaching the Good News from solidarity with the poor. For this is exactly what Christ did. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, enlightened the ignorant and consoled the afflicted. We exercise our ministry of evangelisation through the ministry of teaching. Our congregation responds to the needs of the local Church by sending sisters to meet the expressed needs. Sometimes we are not able to meet all the requests asked of us, because the disciples are few in number.
The General Council resides in the Archdiocese of Juba. However, for effective administration, the congregation has been organised into Uganda Province and Sudan Region. The centre of administration for Uganda Province is Moyo, Arua Diocese, while that of the Sudan Region is in the Archdiocese of Khartoum.
In the Sudan Region, the Aspirancy and the Postulancy are in Juba, while the Novitiate is in Khartoum. In Uganda Province the Aspirancy, Postulancy and Novitiate are all in Moyo, Arua Diocese.
Leadership / Self-governing
The congregation held its first General Chapter in 1976, where Mother Annetta Rose Yunith was elected Superior General, with four Assistants. This congregation thus had one of its first members as Superior General after Mother Elizabeth, the Comboni Sister, left in 1973. In 1979, the congregation celebrated its Silver Jubilee (25 years) and also the Silver Jubilee of its four first members. Sadly, Rev Mother Annetta died three weeks before the celebration. This was a great blow for the young congregation under her guidance at the time.
In 1982, the second General Chapter took place at Palica National Centre in Juba. Mother Theresina Ihure was elected the Superior General. The members of the General Chapter decided to transfer the General Administration to Juba, South Sudan. During the 3rd General Chapter in 1988, Mother Theresina was re-elected Superior General. The 4th General Chapter took place in 1994 in the Archdiocese of Khartoum. Mother Catherine Jore was elected the Superior General. In 2000, the 5th General Chapter took place, again in Khartoum; Mother Mary Jina Ihisa was elected the Superior General. In 2006, the 6th General Chapter took place, also in Khartoum, where Mother Mary Daniel Abut was elected the Superior General. The 7th General Chapter will take place in Uganda on January 9, 2012.
Setbacks in the Congregation
Instability and insecurity – the chains of wars in Sudan and Uganda the main countries where our sisters are operating – led to so many ups and downs in the growth and flourishing of the congregation, with constant displacement of the sisters and subsequent opening of new houses for the displaced sisters. The sisters keep on losing congregational assets. This has hindered the growth of the congregation and of the Christians where we carry out our apostolate.
Our mission has a prophetic role in the present and the future. A prophet has to scratch where it itches, ready for risks, pain and rejections, without fear. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are involved in the field of education. High priority is given to education as the means of liberating people from ignorance, poverty and low self-image, to bring them into the light of God and knowledge. The children are the hope of every nation; we do not neglect the adults in our services but we give priority to the children, especially in the field of education. It is the children who fill the churches, football grounds, playgrounds and even the accident scenes. It is the children also who respond easily to change, because their minds are more free and their hearts are enthusiastic. We wish to give a chance to future generations. We wish also to help them move out from the continuous cycle of ignorance, poverty, disease, injustice and oppression. We have seen that this cycle of helplessness is very much linked with the poor education we have in the country. It is sad to see so many children sick, malnourished, illiterate, running off to towns to earn a little money, where they must sleep on open ground and feed from dust-bins. We are also flexible and open to a wider apostolate; women's promotion programmes, parish activities, nursing, orphanages, catechising and working among the refugees and displaced people.
As a congregation we are convinced that it is only the Love of Christ translated into service for the poor which will bring real change in our country. Quality education is our priority. It will not only bring external material development but, much more, an internal, spiritual development which will help an individual to appreciate his/her being, to respect other beings and to use his/her God-given talents for the good of all. This will gradually lead towards peace which is lacking in our country today and in the word at large. We believe that the unity of our members from different countries, tribes and cultures proclaims the Good News of sisterhood/brotherhood and reconciliation to our people so torn apart by religious, political and tribal divisions. We keep praying to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, whom we honour, to bless the congregation and guide us on our human and spiritual growth.
In conclusion I would like to bring in the parable of the sower in the Gospel of Luke 8: 15. It is persistence that has brought this congregation to what it is today. The seed has really struggled to grow. In spite of all the obstacles presented in the various types of soil on which the seeds were scattered, the good news for us is that the seed does succeed in growing and produces a rich harvest. We are grateful that God has been with us, guiding us through all these events in our history. This is how I see our congregation; it is God’s gift to us and to His people. May His blessings be upon all of you.