Our diocese recently hosted Sister Mary-Louise, a nun from Rubengera in Rwanda, whose convent has played a vital role in helping its community recover from the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Sister Mary-Louise was introduced to visitors from our diocese during the recent trip by the School of Mission and Education teams back in February – the 42 sisters showed the Winchester folks such warm hospitality and so it was our diocese’s pleasure to host Sister Mary-Louise in return!
As part of the itinerary, Sister Mary-Louise spent some time with Bishop Debbie and shared stories about how she and her fellow sisters had taken in over 150 orphans during the genocide, whose parents had been killed in the violence – transforming the convent into an orphanage.
“We had to build five new houses,” explained Sister Mary-Louise, “and we grouped the children into different families, each house with a different name – there was Kindness House and Light House and so on. Each house was staffed by volunteers who were the ‘aunties’. The children were all from different ethnic tribes – there was no discrimination – but many were terribly traumatised, not eating or sleeping.”
Sister Mary-Louise also told the story of how the convent was protected by the presence of one fellow nun who was from Holland and had lived with them for many years – “lots of other Europeans went home when the killing started but she stayed. She told us “I will die with my sisters”. And when the militia would come to the convent she would speak to them and offer them whatever she had to keep them away. Some of our sisters were Tutsi and we had to hide them in the attic. And not one of our sisters was hurt or killed and we are so thankful to God.”
Many of the children from the orphanage are now grown up, but the sisters try to keep in touch with as many as possible. During her time in the UK Sister Mary-Louise visited one of her “sons” who is now in the army in the UK. “I have lots of sons and daughters!” she said, “And more grandchildren than I can count! Next year we hope to have a jubilee celebration and invite them all back”.
On site at the convent there is now also a primary school and a nursery, accommodating 540 children, both providing subsidised education for the poorest families. “At least a third can’t afford the fees but the sisters find the funds to support them. I remember when the convent was so quiet – now we love the noise of the children!”
But, despite the signs of joy and flourishing since those dark days, there remains much evidence of trauma, and the nuns are now seeking to open a Trauma Healing Centre to continue to provide care for the community. “Even in the children born after the genocide we see signs of trauma – the families can’t escape the memories and the loss, and it’s all been made harder by the Covid pandemic. There is so much loneliness and doubt and hopelessness. But with God there is always hope.”
In the Winchester Diocese, churches in Alresford (in the north) and Sway (in the south) have mission partner links with Rwanda. See here to find out more about mission partner links.