SHCJ Foundation in Africa and the Call to Reinvent our Mission

17 October 2016

A Reflection By The First African SHCJ On The Occasion Of The 170th Anniversary Of Our Society

By Teresa Okure SHCJ

Seventy years is our life span; ten more perhaps for the strongest. For the most part they are frustration and toil. They pass quickly and we are gone. Teach us to number our days that we may gain wisdom of heart. (Ps 90:10).

When I first read that we are celebrating our 170th anniversary this year, my immediate reaction was “Is that all?” Then upon further reflection, “Does it mean the Society is only about 95 years older than I?” Yet it seems we have been in existence for centuries alongside such Society as the Jesuits to which Cornelia was greatly associated and from which she drew inspiration for her little Society of the Holy Child Jesus. What landmark events have happened in the Society in the past 170 years? I am not a historian. But when in 2005 I wrote an impromptu The Story of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Africa 1930-2005, for the 75th anniversary of this Society in Africa, I made a discovery which I feel we need to reflect on and appropriate as a Society as part of 170th anniversary celebration.

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Sister Teresa Okure, the first African sister to enter the Society.

It has to do with the request from the same Rome that had initially commissioned Cornelia to go to England in 1846 to found a congregation for the education of the middle and upper class women, to which Cornelia added the poor. This same Rome through the Apostolic Visitor or Delegate to West Africa Archbishop Arthur Hinsley in 1927-29, requested the Society under the leadership of Mother Mary Amadeus to accept the invitation of Bishop Shanahan of Eastern Nigeria to go there to rescue a situation in dire need.

That was not all. Hinsley told Amadeus and her Council that in accepting the invitation to go to Nigeria, we were not just being asked to go on mission. We were being asked to re-found the Society as it were, to become a missionary Society, not simply a Society that sends people on mission. The invitation further added that in accepting this invitation, the Society itself would be the greatest beneficiary. That was about 86 years ago (last year we celebrated the 85th anniversary of the SHCJ in Africa, 1930-2015), 46 years after Cornelia accepted the invitation and mission in 1846 to go to England to found the Society.

Why did the Apostolic Visitor say that in going to Africa we were to re-envision ourselves as a missionary Society when Cornelia had already sent sisters to America in her lifetime? The answer seems simple. At that time Europe and America were not considered as mission lands, lands which needed to have the Christian faith brought to them. The mission lands were Africa (in the lead), Asia and to a certain extent Latin America. I discovered this in my review of Edinburgh 1910, especially Chapter II, “The Church in the Mission Field”! (Teresa Okure, “The Church in the Mission Field: A Nigerian/African Response”. Edinburgh 2010:Mission Then and Now. David A. Kerr and Kenneth R. Ross, eds. Regnum Studies in Mission. Oxford: Regnum, 2009. 59-73).

Highlights of the correspondence that led to the unanimous decision by the General Council and General Chapter to come to S. Nigeria as a missionary Society are sketched in The Story of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Africa (Teresa Okure et al., eds.; Lagos, Rome, London, Drexel Hill, PA: Society of the Holy Child Jesus, 2005; chapter one pp. 18-42, esp.20- 31). A few quotes from the relevant correspondence are worth remembering:

Amadeus accepted Bishop Arthur Hinsley’s invitation provisionally, pending the decision of the General Chapter:

As I have already told your Lordship, I and my Council are each and all personally and officially, much in favour of the proposal. But we all agreed that any missionary enterprise, especially a fist venture, is of such importance that it requires very careful consideration and a first-hand knowledge of the local conditions which can only be acquired by visit to the country, Consequently, we consider it advisable that the final decision be deferred until after the General Chapter of the Congregation which has been convened for June. I am glad to know that, from your letter that the suggestion seems to you, also, wise and necessary for all concerned. (Letter of M. M. Amadeus to Shanahan of 22 January 1930, Story p. 28)

After hearing and weighing all the pros and cons of the invitation, The General Chapter of June 1930 unanimously accepted the invitation. The minutes of the Chapter on June 16, 1930 has this entry:

The Chapter delegates were unanimous in their desire to undertake the work and expressed their approval with great enthusiasm. It was decided though that Rev Mth. general should first go and see Calabar & the mission work in order to make sure the conditions were satisfactory . . . the mission itself should be under the Mother General. (Story, p. 28-29).

Actions not Words. About three months after the Chapter’s decision, M. M. Amadeus and M. M. Genevieve, her second Assistant General and Monitress of the Chapter, sailed from Liverpool and arrived in Calabar on 20 September 1930. They were the first SHCJ in Africa; they spent seven months instead of the initial “few week” she, the Council, the Chapter and Shanahan had envisaged to see the place before the first three missionaries: Joachim Forster (34), Edith Rudwick (42) and Laurentia Dalton (28) arrived in October. This means that up to April 1930, five SHCJ were in S Nigeria at the same time; or four if M. M. Genevieve had returned to Rome before the three sisters arrived. In our historical recording we do not usually consider Amadeus and Genevieve as missionaries, or the first SHCJ missionaries in Africa. Yet as Cornelia could be called a missionary because she accepted the invitation of Gregory XVI to go to England (not her country), so must we of necessity see Amadeus and Genevieve as missionaries. Cornelia lived and died in England. Amadeus and Genevieve spent seven months (September 30, 1929 to April 31, 1930) in S Nigeria as part of their leadership ministry in the Society. The months they spent there were full of toil and sweat, specially, given the living and travelling conditions of those days.

“They spent seven months, September to April, visiting the territory, gathering impressions and all the while laying carefully calculated plans. They met and negotiated with bishops, chiefs, government officers, priests and the people; selecting sites for schools, health stations and convents” (Story, p. 30) “She travelled the length and breadth of the mission territory where the Holy Child Sisters would work: Anua, Oron, Essene, Asong, Edem Ekpat, Ndon Ebom, Etubkpe and Onitsha ([this last] at Shanahan’s invitation).” [At this point M. M Genevieve must have returned to Rome; or the narrative decided to focus on M M. Amadeus alone as the Superior General]. Part of the planning included inculturation. The sisters would wear white instead of the usual black habit and modify its voluminous size; they would also learn Pidgin English as the people’s popular means of communication.

Hinsley and Bishop Shanahan’s response to the acceptance of the invitation by the Society, concretised by the visit, are uplifting. By this time Amadeus and Genevieve were already in S. Nigeria.

In my arrival in Rome recently I had the privilege of meeting you & council & of making viva voce the request already made in my name by Most Rev Dr Hinsley. You were good enough to assure me that the matter was receiving every favourable consideration but that before arriving at the final decision in a matter of such importance for the congregation & for S. Nigeria, you thought it wise that first of all you should visit S Nigeria and see things for yourself. This I consider to be both wise and necessary for all concerned. A few days in S. Nigeria will enable you to get first-hand knowledge of the work the Sisters will have to do, of the people among whom they are to work, of the climate in which they have to live, in a word a good idea of the tropical world & the missionary work in the tropics. (Letter of Bishop Shanahan from Blackwell College to M. M. Amadeus; November 18th 1930, Story, p. 23)

Thank God a thousand times for His goodness towards Calabar and the Efik country. What your present undertaking means for the thousands of souls in the next few years, Heaven alone can calculate. Deo Gratias! Te Deum Laudamus! (Hinsley to Amadeus, Letter of 1/10/30. Story, p. 29)

I thank you for having come in person to S Nigeria to study the situation before making final arrangement for the taking over by your Society of Sr Magdalen’s great work in Calabar. Now with full knowledge of the whole situation, you have decided upon taking over the work and, at the same time receiving her into your Society. This is a perfect arrangement for which I am perfectly grateful” (Shanahan to Amadeus, 11 November 1930. Story, p 25).

 

Out of his tears, his sighs, his throbs doth bud a joyful spring.

(“Let Folly Praise”)

 

Why am I reflecting on this story of the SHCJ in Nigeria in this our 170th anniversary? Many reasons. We cannot forget that what we are celebrating is not simply our foundation in Derby in 1846. If that foundation had ended there, we would not be alive to celebrate the event today. Seventy years and more have been our life span as a Society; by the same grace of God it will continue till the end of time, God’s time. Pope Francis has reminded consecrated persons (Witnesses of Joy I.1) of the importance of remembering our past; of learning from it, getting strength, grace and energy from it to forge rightly into the future. Secondly jubilee celebration rests on returning to one’s/our roots (Lev 25:8-17). These roots for us lie in Rome (where CC’s vocation started), England, America and Africa. “I am cosmopolitan, the whole world is my country and heaven is my home” (CC).

Our 2016 General Chapter Enactments have asked us to re-invent our mission, comprehensively by asking us to be open to possibilities. CC was open to possibilities in 1846. This led her not only to found the Society in the most trying of circumstances, but also to send sisters to America in her lifetime (including a novice). M .M. Amadeus, her Council and the General Chapter of 1930 were open to possibilities when they accepted the invitation to come to S Nigeria, a decision described as “the most important and single act of Amadeus’ administration between the years 1924 and 1936”; “the biggest enterprise we have undertaken since Mother Foundress sent pioneers to America” (Strub, Story, p. 26). They followed up this acceptance with assiduous and devoted action. God blessed their efforts and today the prophecy of Hinsley has been fulfilled, that the greatest blessing to our becoming a missionary Society will be for the Society itself. Who knows what blessings God wants to shower on his Society (not that of Cornelia who said the Society is not my work), if we but decide to step out of ourselves and reach out to the poor “with the very love of Christ” (SHCJ Const. §20)?

SELT at its last meeting has highlighted the need to reach out to migrants, internally and externally displaced persons, as the area to focus today in this outreach. Along with the outreach to migrants, or in order to tackle the problem at its roots, we need to make concerted effort to reach out to the people who are causing the astronomical almost unprecedented refugee situation in the world today. We need to do this with undaunted gospel faith that these people: war mongers, Al Shabaab, Isis, Boko Haram, human traffickers, devourers of nature, destructive competition and hatred, crave for holding on to power at the expense of the poor, multi-faceted travesty and exploitation of religions and so forth, can be won over to the truth of the gospel to reclaim their natural heritage of image and likeness of God, and for Christians, their endowment of grace as God’s children and siblings of Jesus. This is where as religious, consecrated persons we are called to bring something unique, a solution which the rest of the world, even social workers may not be able to supply because it is our charism and mission as consecrated persons, especially women to do so.

It seems to me that Cornelia recognized the need for this essential, prophetic dimension of our vocation. Prophets listen to, understudy and represent God’s ways to the people. “In our time, the final days, God has spoken to us in the person of his Son” (Heb 1:2) whom he has appointed heir of all things to share it with us (all humanity); a Son who is our way, truth and life (cf. John 14:6). It seems to me that the single most important thing the world needs today to resolve all its diverse and seemingly interminable and solution-less problems, is the Eucharistic way of life. A Eucharistic way of life for Christians or peoples of other faith, consists in spending and giving one’s life to improve the life of others. If we, all SHCJ, all consecrated persons and all Christians at least committed themselves to being a Eucharistic people, our world would surely be a much, much better place.

The Eucharistic way of life is the antidote to a world that lacks in gratitude to God for one’s life, for the lives of other peoples, for creation and for life itself. Our Society was founded on the Eucharist. The installation of the Blessed Sacrament at the first house in the Society on 15 October 1946 happened to be the feast of St Teresa of Avila. It does not seem that the feast rather than the Eucharist was the reason for making this a Society foundation feast. Teresa of Avila had such great devotion to the Eucharist that she obtained permission to receive communion daily, something which was not the practice in her time.

As we celebrate this year our foundation day, our 170th anniversary, may we return to that love of the Eucharist which will make us truly a Eucharistic people, breaking the bread of our lives so that others may eat and have life in its fullness (John 10:10). May we draw from it the undying and joyful effort to help others who already “know and believe that God lives and works in them and in our world” (SHCJ Const §4) to practicalise this knowledge and faith by doing all in their power to be and remain Eucharistic people.

To all SHCJ, Associates, collaborators (including those we minister to), colleagues, family members and friends, I wish a very happy 170th anniversary! Long live the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, in and by the unfailing and unconditional grace and love of God.