In the midst of the challenges in our province – restructuring, diminishment and walking into an unknown future, something happened this week which made us, perhaps, look again at our place in the bigger picture. This bigger picture is about being part of something that is bigger than the Congregation itself. We attended an event that reminded us that God is always at work in all sorts of different ways, that he is a God of surprises, and that his blessings often come unexpectedly and when most needed. And that we are a part of all of that.
On Saturday 18th November five of us, Sisters of Charity, responded to an invitation to attend celebrations by the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus to mark 100 years since the arrival in Nigeria of their Foundress to be, Sr Mary Charles Walker RSC.
Sr Mary Charles joined the Sisters of Charity in 1901 and for many years taught in various parts of Ireland until she received her missionary call in 1920. She obtained special permission to join Bishop Shanahan and his mission in Southern Nigeria where she went on to make a major contribution in education, medicine and social work. Gradually others joined her and a new Religious Congregation was formed.
In 1934 she had to return to Europe, where she settled in her native land, England, until she returned to the Sisters of Charity and finally to her beloved Africa where she spent her remaining years. She was buried where she died, in Chikuni, Zambia.
So high is the regard in which the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus hold Sr. Mary Charles Walker that they consider her to be their foundress although she returned to England when the new congregation was in its infancy, and in 1981 they sought and gained permission to take her remains from Zambia to be reburied in their Mother House in Calabar, Nigeria.
The celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary began with Mass in the parish church of one of the communities of the sisters. Bishop John Sherrington was the main celebrant with 17 concelebrants. The church was full, and many members of the congregation were Nigerian.
Most parts of the Mass were sung, sometimes in English and sometimes in Ibo. A beautiful African choir led the singing with great energy. In his homily Bishop Sherrington spoke of Sr Mary Charles’ ministry before she left for Africa and he also spoke of the entrepreneurial spirit of Sr Arsenius, and its influence on Sr Mary Charles and the numerous projects she undertook both in Ireland and in Nigeria.
Every aspect of the Mass was filled with life and celebration, it was inspiring to see how much preparation had gone into it and one couldn’t help but feel through the joy of the sisters and the beauty of the occasion that it was a labour of love.
After the Mass when photographs had been taken, in which we were included as the ‘aunts’, everyone was invited to a meal in the parish hall and, again, another labour of love as we were met with many beautifully decorated tables, and chairs, and a lovely meal, with plenty of choice.
The legacy of Sr Mary Charles Walker lives on in 885 sisters ministering in five African and three European countries, five US states, and Canada.
In the introduction in the Mass booklet, the sisters say of their Foundress:
“Mother Mary Charles Magdalene Walker believed for a missionary to succeed she should be prepared to turn her hand to many works besides the actual one which is her special strong point. This explains why, while in Nigeria, she was single handedly an educationalist, an architect, a social worker, a nurse, a catechist and a Foundress.”
This event reminded us that as RSCs we are deeply connected to another Congregation, The Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, who claim a Religious Sister of Charity as their Foundress. And what a privilege it is to have that connection