Project Canterbury

Within the Green Wall
The Story of Holy Cross Liberia Mission 1922-1957

By the Rt. Rev. Robert Erskine Campbell, O.H.C.
Formerly Prior of Bolahun and Bishop of Liberia

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, [1957]

Reproduced online by permission of the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, 2006.

Chapter 18. The Sisters Again

IT IS high time that we now say something more about the Sisters, for it is impossible to describe them as anything but indispensable. Not only do they enjoy the distinction of being the very first nuns to come to Liberia, but their contribution to the tone and quality of our work defies appraisal. We have already mentioned several times the urgent need for just such help as they can supply. Earlier in the story we have noted their arrival and first impressions. Real missionaries, devoted teachers and nurses, always competent, efficient and understanding, they have earned rightly widespread admiration and respect. No account of Bolahun would be complete if lacking a heartfelt salute to these heroines of the Church.

From 1931-1945 their local Superior was Sister Monica Mary, a person of rare judgment and zeal. Under her were Sister Mary Katherine, an adept in acquiring the native dialects; Sister Mary Joseph whose hospital ministrations and whose evangelistic hips to Kisiland are still remembered affectionately by [196/197] the people. She told us that one night when sleeping in a native hut she was awakened by some strange noise and was thoroughly frightened when some large animal put its head through the open window. Lighting her lantern quickly she saw that it was nothing but an inquisitive horse!

In that first group were Sister Marguerita, who acted as housekeeper at the convent; and the school teacher, Sister Clare, who opened St. Agnes' for native girls in 1932. All these formed a goodly company, well equipped for their respective tasks.

In spite of their initial battle with the termites in the convent the Sisters began at once their work in the mission, maintaining all the while their full daily round of offices, Mass, and other community exercises. Scores of curious visitors interrupted their routine during the first weeks. "Who were these 'white mammies' anyway? What were they doing?" Chieftains and their retinues came to "say how-do" with generous presents of rice, chickens and eggs. Throngs of women and girls clustered about just to catch a glimpse of them. On such occasions small children would begin to howl with terror, for they had been taught that white is what the most dreadful devils look like.

We have recounted the classes for women and girls organized promptly in Bolahun. But with these the Sisters did not stop, for they began at once trips to surrounding villages. Night by night they could be seen setting out, the interpreter carrying a lantern, they their books and papers. This led to excursions of some length into Kisiland and over to Boawohun across the Kaiha on alternate weeks when the Fathers did not go. Zeal and a single purpose of bringing people to Christ marked their every effort. Evidently they had prayed and thought it all out beforehand.

Now that the earlier doubts as to the ability of women living and working in the tropics had been blasted once and for all, the Sisters were here, and, we hope, are here to stay. Before they came some few doubters had expressed their sentiments loudly. They averred that English Sisters and American monks could [197/198] never get along together. That of course was just so much nonsense. As one might expect, adjustments had to be made both on their part and on ours. They found our breezy, informal way of doing things a great trial at first, and they were sincere enough to tell us so. But a few conferences with candor on both sides ironed all this out very promptly.

Perhaps we can do no better than allow the Sisters to speak for themselves by transposing a few extracts from their "Convent Log," beginning Friday, May 22nd, '31:

"In the afternoon four of the Sisters visited Chief Vevanda Molli at Susomolahun. He received us with great dignity and in spite of the fact that he has already sent us a dash of rice and five chickens, he gave us another chicken and a big bale of native cloth. Coming back through Tagulahun, the old chief gave us another chicken and some eggs. We promised to pay him a proper visit one day. The procession coming home consisted of Tufa playing a weird tune on a hollow stick he had cut, four very hot, limp-looking Sisters and "small boy" (Tufa's boy) carrying a bale of cloth on his head and a loudly protesting chicken in either hand."

Then, the entry May 13, '32, reads, "The laborers are clearing a large tract of bush to the right of the convent preparatory to building the new schoolhouse. Things are moving at last--quite exciting. A snake in chapel just before silence at 8:30 P.M. Sisters Monica Mary and Clare being the only folk there, had to kill it--with the assistance of kitten, who was much interested in it.

"May 17th. The schoolhouse staked out last Saturday, first poles fixed today. It is to be a one-roomed house with palaver house attached.

"May 20th. Sister Monica Mary returned from Nyokoletahun at 8:45 A.M., having had a good number of people for the godpalaver last night. Chief Hina is very generous, gave rice, chicken and palm oil, also boys' chop. Sister introduced to the [198/199] first prospective schoolgirl, a minute person by the name of Nikai. Father Whittemore sent to borrow our gramophone and some records, but when we got the latter out we found bug-bugs thick in the box and the greater number of records spoiled. Further search showed the creatures had made a track all along the box along one side of the library.

"Monday, July 4th. About 4:30 PM. the first school girl arrived, Robert's Titi, brought by her mother and Momo Carpenter. She had a large bundle which proved to be an eiderdown quilt and a pillow. She is not at all shy. Mononje arrived later, and she settled down happily with Titi and Faymata.

"Tuesday, July 5th. Morlunjo, the child from Yengbelahun, arrived quite early. Thomas Fodi is to act as school interpreter. The children spent the morning collecting things they need and putting the house straight. We have twelve small wooden stools, a very large blackboard easel and a table. We hope to have small desks for the children. Sister Clare started to teach them to sew this afternoon.

"Wednesday, July 6th. Lessons were formally begun today. Ndua has dug a piece of ground for them behind the house so they can make farm for themselves. The blacksmith at Masam. balahun has made two small hoes for the girls to use.

"Saturday, July i6th. Sister Mary Katherine arrived back from her usual Bwawulahun trek as early as 10:15 A.M. She had a difficult trek back, there being no less than seven waters and swamps to be carried across; sometimes the water was up to the carrier's armpits.

"Thursday, Sept. 8th. St. Agnes School Bolahun blessed today. The blessing took place at ii too A.M. We gathered in chapel; after some prayers a procession was made to the girls' schoolhouse singing 'A mu li,' John Yengbe carrying the cross--6 schoolgirls and Sanga, Sisters, Fr. Kroll, Charles Keoli with incense, Fr. Whittemore in cope. Arrived at school, Fr. Whittemore blessed it and placed it under the patronage of St. Agnes [199/200] V.M. The hymn of Virgins, "Jesu the virgins' crown" was sung as we returned to chapel, and then "Ye who own the faith of Jesus." Afterwards Fr. Whittemore spoke a few words to the girls and made them very happy by a dash of two chickens for their feast.

"Christmas, 1933. Friday, Dec. 22nd. Visitors began to arrive, including Chief Momolu and Mamai Janga. We had the last pageant rehearsal.

"Saturday, Dec. 23rd. More visitors arriving; many parents of schoolgirls and boys, all bringing gifts for different sorts.

"Sunday, Christmas Eve. After the Sung Mass the crib was put up in church and looks very fine with the beautiful new figures. The pageant began at 4:45 so that all except the last two scenes were done in the daylight.

"Christmas Day. High Mass at midnight and two low masses at 6:30 and 7:30 A.M. Also two low masses at the convent. The two Fathers who had been invited by the D. C. to Kolahun left at 9:00 o'clock and arrived back about 6:30 P.M. This meant that all the visitors came to the convent and stayed a long time. We had 6 to 8 rattles going all the time for between two and three hours. Everybody seemed to be having a happy time. We tried to get a siesta, but a small devil would not let us. He pranced about on the porch for a while and then went off. After 4:30 Vespers we went into the town where there were two drum bands. At about 6:00 o'clock some of the boys who had gone to Kolahun with the Fathers came back, and we had Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in church.

"St. Stephen, Dec. 26th. We had about as many visitors as yesterday. The Fathers spent the morning giving out presents to laborers, etc., while we had the rattles. In the afternoon all the women of the town came to see the girls dance. It was a most happy and successful party.

"St. John, Dec. 27th. Kutubu is having a holiday to recover from two strenuous days interpreting. The girls and boys have [200/201] all gone home, many of the boys coming up to say good-bye before going.

"Sunday, Dec. 31st. Ninginanga, the convent cat, was lost this morning. He strayed into the hospital where two patients tried to kill and eat him. However, he escaped, and Sr. Clare found him again in the evening.

"Saturday, Jan. 14th, '934. A hen which had gone up into the attic to lay pecked at a soft patch of bug-a-bugs on the celotex over the chapel and fell headlong through the ceiling, to the surprise of Sr. Thecla who was sweeping underneath.

"Friday, April 27th, 1940. Three men from Kolahun came to the market to tell the people that irons were no longer to be used but instead 48 half-cents would be the value of a shilling, this value not to change. The people were so scared that they took up their goods and fled into the bush and nobody could buy anything.

"Tuesday, April 22nd, 1941. The people of Bolahun had a feast to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Sisters' arrival. Long tables laid out for schoolboys and girls and teachers and Sisters, and also workmen and hospital dresses. The one at the top was for Fathers and Sisters. Schoolboy and schoolgirl made nice speeches. It was a very happy party, and the people seemed so sincere in their gratitude for the Sisters' work.

"Wednesday, Oct. 22nd, 1941. This afternoon we went at 4:00 P.M. to Tagulahun for the blessing of the new church. The three Sisters and a few girls arrived first and found that arches of green and flowers had been erected. The church was beautifully arrayed and decorated, and seats had been put outside. The church is round with half the wall solid and half only a low wall wide enough to sit on. It is very nice. At 4:45 a drum was heard and all the people of the town gathered at the top of the hill and formed two rows, all standing very quiet and reverent. The procession from Bolahun came headed by servers, cross, incense, etc. Then Mr. Tergusson, a refugee from [201/202] Vichy-held French Guinea, followed by Fr. Bessom vested in cope; and lastly a long line of schoolboys and people and all the schoolgirls in their school dresses and headties. Arriving at the church, Fr. Bessom blessed it, and then went outside to give a short address to the people, urging them to reverence the church as God's own House and so to use it. It was a most beautiful little ceremony and full of teaching for the people."

The Rev. Mother Elfrida made her first official visit to the Bolahun convent in 1947. She (with Sister Hilary) arrived in the late afternoon of March 19th, and so was able to share in the Holy Week and Easter observances. From all accounts she was greatly impressed by all she saw and heard, and it certainly was a joy to everyone on the mission to have her here. Continuing an extract from the "Convent Log" under the date April 15th, we read: "End of Mother's visit. She has gone away refreshed in body and spirit and very happy about her family in Bolahun. Everyone, Fathers, Evangelists, teachers, Christians, catechumens, boys and girls, all have been so wonderful to her, making her feel she was indeed the 'Big Mother.' The generosity of the dashes she has been given has been amazing. Above all it is the real worship of God that is so striking. The law that only Christians may remain after the Creed and that Hearers are not in church at all makes people feel it is a real privilege to come and worship, not a rather boring duty. The schools are doing really valuable work; and it is almost unbelievable what Sister Hilary and the dressers do at the hospital with no doctor to advise them."

Nor should we imagine that with the passing years the work of the Sisters has lessened. Sisters have come and gone, yet all have shown themselves quick to sense opportunities, diligent in the discharge of duties no matter how small or irksome, immensely popular with the people. No one now can imagine Bolahun without them. To avoid possible confusion in the minds of our readers we may here explain what the Sister said [202/203] above about the catechumens being turned out of church at a certain part of the service, and the hearers not being allowed to come at all; the reasons are two. First, it accords with the discipline of the early church that none but the baptized attend the Holy Communion proper; and next, with us it is a matter of room. Even our big church today cannot hold such a throng. For years now, as the late Mass is being offered, the Sisters hold two classes in the native town, one for the Bandis and one for Kisis. These congregations assemble in separate palaver-houses for simple evangelistic services and instructions in the fundamentals of faith and right conduct. The members are neither baptized nor catechumens as yet.

The Sisters have through all these years maintained regular trips to outstations and to what are now called instations too (i.e. places not necessitating a stay overnight). Their St. Agnes School presents itself as a model of its sort, while in the hospital their latest contribution, in June '56, was Sister Una, a skilled physician and surgeon. Because of illness, this Sister had to return to England in May '57, to the great distress of her many friends in and about Bolahun.

Not only have the Sisters not let us down, but they have supplied what we most needed. In our account of them we have tried to give some idea of the invaluable help they brought. But beyond that their presence and example have brought an inspiration to all at Bolahun. That includes the Holy Cross Fathers, for as brothers and sisters in Christ we have been able to pool our resources and energies with ever increasing marks of success. The Gospel must be planted firmly in a land where until recently they knew it not; and that Gospel is for all. No matter how great or how limited one's talents may be, when coming to a foreign mission field everything a person knows or has is called into service sooner or later. The Sisters have displayed an amazing diversity of gifts, and all for the glory of God.

[204] One of the Sisters told us that years ago, when first she was assigned to make a trip to Boawohun, she was really frightened. Go out into the wilds so? What reception would she as a woman receive, for among the natives women are always given a place below that of the men? But when she arrived she saw at once that anybody from Bolahun who might bring them the Word of Life was cordially welcomed and protected. With these indications of the honor being paid her, all fears vanished like the morning dew before the rising sun.

When she returned from furlough in England, another of the Sisters related an amusing conversation she had held with some woman who evidently had been reading bits of current cheap philosophy. "Why," inquired she, "do you spend your time going out to spoil the natives? 'Why don't you let them alone? They are so happy with their old religion and customs it is really a dangerous thing for you to try to change them into something they really do not want." Sister's reply was too long to try to reproduce here, but her point was well taken that we are not working for modern humanists, but for Cod. Indigenous Africans are neither happy nor healthy. They need desperately all that we have to offer them, gifts showered upon us by God, but gifts entrusted to us to share.

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