Sister Sheila Marie O’Sullivan
When I first entered religious life, I desperately wanted to go to Africa as a missionary. That was over fifty years ago and the Congregation had no mission there at that time.
However, 25 years later the Leadership Team decided it was time to send Sisters to Africa and Sr. Celestine Kavanagh was the first one to go to Kenya.
Soon after, a second Sister was missioned there, and at that time I began to ask if I too might go. It took years of asking and waiting, and not until Sr. Elizabeth Ann Hayes became General Superior was my request granted. I’ll be forever grateful to her.
From the very first day I set foot in Kenya, I fell in love with the place and the people. It was truly the beginning of a new life for me. I felt I
was home. Sr. Miriam Therese Miller warmly welcomed me to Nairobi and was truly a wonderful mentor for me during my first months in Kenya. She taught me so much in a short time because within my first year there, she returned to the U.S.A.
My first ministry was in Soweto, one of the many slums of Nairobi. I was asked to teach English to 7th and 8th grade students in an informal school sponsored by the Catholic Church. I must say, I was rather apprehensive at first, seeing 60 and 70 students per class all crammed into small spaces. The classrooms were made of tin, which made it very hot inside. Students were sitting five and six to a bench which was made for two! Some sat forward and some sat back. No one had textbooks. But when I saw the joy and hope on their faces I knew I was in the right place. The students were great, and were so eager to learn. It was truly a joy to teach them.
I was told that they arrived at school at 6:30 a.m. It is very dark at that time, so they lit small candles and did their homework. Many of them had little time at home to study since they left school late in the evening and then had to do their chores like collecting firewood or drawing water. When I heard that, I certainly didn’t mind getting up early and walking through a very big field to reach the school! Before long, I knew many short-cuts through the slums to the little school. Sometimes I felt like the Pied Piper because all the little children would follow me and keep saying: “Howa you, howa you….” I spent two very happy years in that ministry.
When preparing a Regional Plan for presentation at our Congregation’s 2000 Assembly, the Sisters in Kenya named caring for children whose parents had died of HIV/AIDS as a primary concern. There were no organizations at the time that accepted families of children. The Sisters from the Region met with Sr. Olive and the Council during Assembly. Together they made the decision to use the beautiful buildings of Elizabeth Place as a home for families or individual children orphaned because of HIV/AIDS.
The program needed a Director. I was quick to volunteer for the job, though I hadn’t a clue where to start! But I was not afraid. I had Sr. Raphella Curran with me, and I knew with her help I could do this task. I also found a wonderful Irish Mercy sister, Sr. Mary Killeen, who had worked in the slums of Nairobi for almost thirty years. She became my mentor. Within a few months, with the help of Sr. Raphella and Sr. Mary Killeen, I had received all the necessary permissions to open the home, which by the way, we called Elizabeth Place Children Centre. It was named after Sr. Elizabeth Ryan, one of the Sisters at St. Mary’s Orphanage in Galveston who lost her life in the 1900 Storm.
On May 9th , 2001, Elizabeth Place Children Centre opened its doors to receive the first two orphans, Monica Mwikali and her brother, Paul. On May 23rd , Sr. Olive Bordelon, General Superior; Sr. Margaret Ann Toomey, General Councillor; Margaret Wambui, the Housemother; Serah Muthoni, the Housekeeper; Sr. Raphella, Monica and Paul, our Sisters from St. Catherine’s and I were present. Sr. Olive blessed each room in the house and we sang, prayed and celebrated the great occasion. Later that evening, Samson Mbugua, a third child, came. It was not long before we had several children.
Then Sr. Raphella returned to the U.S. and Sr. Christina Murphy came. Chrissie, with her abundant administrative gifts, began to write policies and procedures. Together we wrote a Mission Statement, a Vision Statement, and some Admission Criteria for the Centre as well as job descriptions for our staff. We hired a full time Social Worker, Mildred Amiani, (she’s a treasure), whose main duty is to research the background of each child. We want to help children who are most needy.
Today we have twenty three happy, healthy children at the Centre. We have eight boys and fifteen girls. We are particularly interested in protecting the ‘girl’ child. The children range in age from three years old to fifteen years old. All attend school daily.
The four little ones leave at 6:30 a.m. on the bus for kindergarten, and the older children walk to the Catholic Primary School nearby which is run by the Apostolic Carmelite Sisters. The children have a definite routine during the weekdays, but weekends are a little freer. The older children are very good about helping the younger ones.
There are so many more orphans who need our help, but space in the Centre is limited. That’s why we started an Outreach Program whereby we help about 50 other orphans who stay with relatives with our assistance. We help pay for medicines, school fees, school uniforms, books, and sometimes food.
Raising funds for the orphans can be a full time job. It’s not my favorite thing to do but it has to be done. I’m grateful to the many people who have helped us in the past. Know that the children pray for all of you daily.
With the Psalmist I’d like to say: “I will give thanks to you O, Lord, with all my heart” (Ps. 9:1) for allowing me to come to Kenya.