Sr Anne Cahill OLA tells Ruadhán Jones about her 50 years as a missionary
Sr Anne Cahill OLA spent more than 50 years on mission to Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania. In all that time, though the demographics of her order have changed, the generosity of the Irish people never has, she says.
“We’ve done very well, Ireland is wonderful,” Sr Anne tells me, reflecting not only on her experience as a missionary, but also the future of Irish missionary orders. While the numbers of missionaries from Ireland aren’t near those of the past, the vitality of indigenous African missionaries and the continuing generosity of Irish people bode well for the future, she says.
“I would go right back to my first tour, when we had a few lay missionaries with us,” Sr Anne begins. “For ourselves, there will always be a place for lay missionaries. I’m still friendly with Tina Coughlan from Donegal… and Mary O’Driscoll, a great colleague of mine, she died three years ago now. She helped me in Tanzania. One of my big things was sourcing funding for girls, especially in secondary education. I remember one day saying to Mary, she was asking me about one of the girls, and I said she’ll get married after 14 or 15 after primary school. She said, Anne I’ll fund her.
“A lot of laypeople have been funding students for the next six or seven years, otherwise they would never get into secondary education. In Mwamapalala, a very rural village, we have a lot of girls educated as a result. And there’s one boy, he was sponsored and he came back with his father, he’s a teacher now, which really touched me, to say thank you. He said he didn’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t sponsored him, he’d never have been educated. This is much more the case for girls.
“That’s where the money we get from Ireland goes, into sponsoring for education and helping where help is needed. For HIV, we’ve got a lot of help from the Vatican and American drug companies as well. That help will be for the hospitals the schools, a lot of it will still come from overseas.”
From the age of 13, Sr Anne knew she wanted to be a missionary. She knew this after visiting the convent of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA) at Ardfoyle, Co. Cork, with her father. One of the sisters said to her father, “maybe someday your daughter will join us”.
“I said, that’s exactly what I will do,” Sr Anne remembers.
It was always specifically in terms of Africa that she thought of mission life. Sr Anne recalls an encounter she had with a local priest, not long after beginning at the OLA’s school in Ardfoyle.
“A priest from Farranferris [Co. Cork] said to me, did you ever think of entering? And I said I did. He said, I’ve two sisters in America. I said I’m not interested in America, I’m more interested in Africa. He said that’s grand and I stuck with my Africa all the time.”
The OLA sisters were ideally suited to Sr Anne’s desire – the OLAs have a special charism for Africa, having been founded by a priest of the Society of African Missions or SMA, Fr Augustine Planque. Sr Anne’s first posting was, as she puts it, to a “first-class school” in Northern Nigeria.
“My first posting was to a very good school in the north of Nigeria,” Sr Anne explains. “It was one of the first education institutes, OLA run since 1938 or ‘40. When I went out in ‘68, it was a first-class school. Then the government took it over in ‘72, so there was some chaos. I wasn’t interested in leadership of the school, taking over as headmistress. The other sisters who were there had retired because they were late 60s and early 70s. I taught there for some years, doing the best I could. We had some good teachers. At that stage, they needed teachers from outside, so we had some Indian and other teachers.”
Having spent several years in Nigeria, Sr Anne was offered the chance to spend some time in Rome on sabbatical. She spent nine months there, before returning to Nigeria to oversee the novitiate while the novice mistress was away. It was during this time that she received a call – “much to my chagrin and my surprise”, she says – inviting her to join the order’s council.
She spent four or five years on the council before, in 1986, she was sent to Sudan, a posting which she considers to this day to be simultaneously her most rewarding and most challenging. Having worked mostly in education in Nigeria, she found Sudan very different.
“Outside of Khartoum was a centre for displaced people,” Sr Anne begins. “I was there for 7 years. It was very different. It was across four roads of desert, sand and then shacks put up and you’d have somebody knocking at your door. The great need would be for cardboard boxes to shelter them from the Sahara wind. So my work, I used to go round to primary schools.
“I remember once getting €10,000 during Lent from one of the Irish sponsors and the children got bread every single day for breakfast and it was a wonderful, wonderful thing to be able to do because they would seldom see it – they would get a cup of tea and they’d get sugar in it. They were really beggars most of the time when they were there, most of these years. We had a primary school and, especially girls, they didn’t go past primary school normally.”
Sr Anne faced many challenges during that time, as the country was experiencing great unrest. These included encounters which, had they turned sour, could have claimed her life.
“I remember once at the middle of the night coming home, I was driving an Egyptian sister who had come in, it was after midnight,” Sr Anne says. “We were coming across those four kilometres of sand. This soldier stopped us, he was an Arab speaker, so he was obviously Muslim to us. There was a Southerner, a younger lad behind him. We felt threatened, anything could happen, we wouldn’t know where he’d lead us to. But the southerner kept on making the sign of the cross, just to say, I’m a Christian, I’m on your side, I’ll help you no problem. Anyhow, the other lad left us go afterwards.
“That was just one shock, but there was another time when we were out in the centres. We had two Canadian foreign missionaries and each sister would be in charge of two centres, those of us who were mobile and could walk there or drive a car. I remember being there once on Christmas morning. The next thing, a group of soldiers came loudly to the back.
“And I just wondered, this could be the end now. I said to them, we’re going to visit a sick person, we’re going to pray. When they saw it was all prayer and not politics, my heart began to beat again. We were sent off, ‘Ok, ok, you’re ok, go on your way’.
“It was a very challenging time in Sudan, very different from anything I had been used to. Just going around and looking after the sick and displaced. All the area would have been seven big centres divided by Catholic missions, we’d have displaced people and our work would be… helping them as much as we could when we were there.”
Other challenges were smaller and more humorous. Sr Anne recalls how she used to sleep outside at night because of the heat: “We were surrounded by a five and half, six-foot wall. I didn’t feel afraid, but they were afraid for me. I said, no problem. I slept outdoors to get a bit of cool and a decent sleep at night.”
After Sudan, Sr Anne spent some time in Ireland caring for her mother, but for returning to Africa in 2007. This time, she was posted to Tanzania, which she found to be more like Nigeria than Sudan in terms of its challenges.
“It was, it was more normal, there was a big secondary school there, I taught there,” Sr Anne explains. “My subjects would be science subjects, chemistry. But even in Nigeria after a year I taught no more chemistry. I was teaching English for a while, then Bible knowledge.
“In Tanzania the big, big need would be English. You would have some who could speak English, but they wouldn’t be very good. I was teaching English all the time I was there, going out to small Christian communities, visiting in the evening. They’re very poor, but they’re managing.
“They were living in peace. I don’t know now what will happen, Islam has taken a different turn for Nigeria and all West Africa. I believe Tanzania is under threat as well.”
This last reflection Sr Anne fleshed out as she went on, remembering how different Nigeria was when she first arrived there in 1968.
“It was very different from today,” she begins. “For example, in our school, which was a famous school in the north of Nigeria, a third would be Catholic, a third other Christians, and a third would be Muslim. We had a great relationship with the Muslims.
“Now there’s extremism and the situation has changed. The government took over the school, but that didn’t change it too radically for a while, slowly, slowly it changed. But now the situation is quite terrifying with extreme Islam. They’re just a group that have put the fear of God into other Muslims as well.
“They’ve come to places where we’re in in the north of Nigeria and they have killed some Muslims as well as Christians. They probably thought because the Catholic church was there that they were all Christians, I don’t know. They just take us prisoner or kill a lot of the local people.”
When I asked if Christian and Muslim communities on the ground continued to intermingle and work together, Sr Anne said that in the villages, they certainly would: “But people are living in fear now. It’s a different Nigeria from what it was even 10 years ago. It’s changing, radicalism is taking over.”
Sr Anne only returned to Ireland at the start of October, this time with the intention of retiring after 53 years as a missionary. When asked about how things have changed since she began her life on the missions, she pauses for a moment before answering.
“We went big into education,” she says. “In the 1950s, we had a provincial here, she withdrew so many sisters from Nigeria and Ghana. They were saying, what’s going to happen to us? But she said, they need degrees. All the sisters who had diplomas did degrees, there were sisters in their 40s and 50s even who went to university, and the rest of us just starting out went straight to university before going out or did proper training in nursing.
“Then, we were capable of running schools and hospitals, which we did in a big way in Nigeria. Maybe we said our focus was a bit much on education. But then in the evening time, we tried to devote to other things, to smaller Christian communities and visitation and so on.”
Considering the future of her own order, Sr Anne points to the youthfulness and spirit of vocations in Africa.
“Our average age in Africa would be in maybe their 30s. There’d be many in their 20s, 30s, 40s, some in their 50s, a few in their 60s and 70s, a very few. Here, it would be the opposite. We’d be a majority of over 70s, I’m 78 myself. That’s a big change for us. It’s reversing if you like.
“Those who are going out, they themselves have to be our missionaries going out to other countries. We’ve tried to install it from early ages. You’re a missionary, you’re not here for Nigeria and Ghana only, you’re here for wherever you’re sent. We’re opening a place in the Congo now and in Liberia. Sisters have already gone to Liberia and they’re getting ready to go to the Congo. “
With young sisters from Africa leading the charge for the OLA’s, their charism would seem to be coming a full-circle. Sr Anne can enjoy her retirement in the knowledge that SMA Fr Augustine Planque’s call to the sisters to “know and love God in order to make God known and loved” is being carried on by her African sisters.