Franciscan sister reflects on her ministry in Kenya


CHARLESTON — The Franciscan sister who helped Our Lady of Mercy Church put an ebony corpus over its altar has had a chance to see the results of the parish’s prayers and effort.

Sister Bernadette Svatos, a friend of local Franciscan Sisters Colleen Waterman and Maigread Conway, recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya, and is staying with them until she finds a new position.

She found the artist, Agostino Alikutepa, a skilled craftsman and refugee from Mozambique who designed the African image of Christ, and helped get it to the inner-city church.

The Franciscan sister has been teaching in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania for the last three years in the indigenous community of the Little Sisters of St. Francis. Three weeks of each month were spent in the scholasticate in Kasarani, outside of Nairobi, for young sisters who had taken their first vows and the fourth week was at a formation house in the tiny village of Bahati, Swahili for “blessing.” There, she taught the history of the Franciscan order, Franciscan Christology, Franciscan mission, the Rule of the Third Order and the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare.

The Little Sisters of St. Francis in Africa run clinics, offer prenatal care, assist refugees, orphans and street children, work with people who have AIDs, and teach. They were founded by an Irish nun, Mother Kevin Kearney, and have novitiates in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. They draw women from 40 different tribes which Sister Bernadette said is rather unusual.

“That is quite a Christian challenge because of tribal unrest, especially around election times,” she said. “Tribes will burn out other tribes homes during elections. Also, when they are growing up they speak their own tribe’s language. If they go to school they learn English, because Kenya was a British colony, and the national language is Swahili. At Mass, the liturgy is said in Swahili.”

But the Little Sisters overcome their differences.

Sister Bernadette is used to teaching, learning and traveling the world. She has been out of the United States for several years. After earning her master’s degree in Franciscan studies and spirituality from St. Bonaventure University in 1995, she was invited to Africa by a former superior general of the Little Sisters of St. Francis community.

Before that, she was the former director of religious education at the Diocese of Tulsa and for the Diocese of Pueblo. She also taught at a Catholic junior college in Japan, worked in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in New Orleans and as a DRE in mountain towns of Colorado.

She is originally from Minnesota where she joined the Rochester Franciscans Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Now that she is back in America, Sister Bernadette would love to return to Kenya but doesn’t think she will because she was the only member of her community there. She also has a master’s degree in pastoral theology and catechesis and hopes to find a religious education position. Her insight into faith has only been enriched by her travels.

“Teaching the sisters was very beautiful for as poor as many of them are, they have such dignity and appreciation of themselves,” she said. “It is impressive. The beauty of the countryside, the awakening of consciousness of women.”

In Africa, tribes in 28 countries still practice female genital mutilation, a potentially fatal tradition that the sisterhoods work to educate women to stop.

“It’s a concern,” she said, “but there is a growing awareness of the role of women in society in Africa.”

Education is also a major concern because not all children go to school. Sister Bernadette also prays that in the Jubilee year, the World Bank Organization will cancel the loans to the countries in Africa because so many people live in poverty.

While living with the Little Sisters of St. Francis, Sister Bernadette was not living in poverty but said the indigenous sisters marveled at how simply she could live. They cooked over a wood-burning stove, boiled all their water, carried water to their baths, and lived without phone or electricity most of the time. She ate foods such as sukuma wiki, a coarse cabbage, which translates from Swahili into “to push the week.”

Catholicism, though not the predominant faith, thrives in Kenya, she said, and the majority of the priests are native. The African Synod, which ended in 1995, stressed the inculturation of the African people.

“I’m very impressed at how they have really done special things to prepare for the Jubilee year 2000,” she said. “It’s a struggle just to live. People hoe their crops by hand, have one cow, and maybe grow maize which is also cut by hand. Sometimes, tribes will steal corn from each other. A lot of hard labor goes into daily living. People try to make a living however they can, even if it’s a treadle sewing machine on the side of the road.”

Sister Bernadette left Kenya in July 1998 and has spent time in several Franciscan communities since then. She misses her former home because it was a “beautiful place with beautiful people.

“I can always live where there is beauty,” she said.