Trusting and daring in Africa since 1970

A new continent for SSND

The parents of Sister Mary (Marie Daniel) Dooley wanted her to join a local congregation. Why join an order that “goes all over the place?” she recalled them saying. Yet, Sister Mary became one of the first School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) to go in mission to Africa. Like Blessed Theresa and Mother Caroline, she opened a new continent for SSND.

Sister Mary (Marie Daniel) Dooley, far right, boards the African Star enroute to Monrovia, Liberia in October 1970.
Sister Mary (Marie Daniel) Dooley, far right, boards the African Star enroute to Monrovia, Liberia in October 1970.

A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sister Mary departed in October 1970 for Liberia. She was one of four SSND who had all been on assignment at St. Saviour Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. when they felt the call to Africa. The St. Saviour parishioners raised the necessary funds for transportation, books, supplies and construction of a boarding school for the sisters to teach and house up to 35 girls in Liberia.

Initially, it was not considered a good idea to venture into a new continent, with all the other changes following Vatican II. But after months of prayer and discussion, it was decided the sisters could follow where the Spirit was leading them. “The pull was strong. It had to be of God,” said Sister Mary.

The sisters ministered in Liberia over the next five years, then were replaced by four other SSND. By then, SSND had established missions in other African countries as well. Sister Mary went back to the U.S., but returned to Liberia from 1978 to 1981. SSND left Liberia for good in 1990, during the first civil war.

Today, Sister Mary continues to be drawn to meeting the needs of women and girls, working with immigrant women from Guatemala and Haiti in Indiantown, Florida. Remembering the day she left for Africa, she said, “The exact same feelings that I had then, I have now - the uncertainty about what lies ahead, the inability to see family.” But as she’d tell her 1970 self, “Do not be afraid. With everyone pulling together it will be okay.”

Called to be there

Originally from Blue Earth, Minnesota, Sister Mara Frundt had Africa on her mind since she was a child in the 1950s. Her family subscribed to the Maryknoll Magazine, and reading it deepened her desire to go to Africa. Part of her discernment in choosing a congregation was seeking one that would offer international missions.

Sister Mara Frundt, left, says goodbye at the Kisumu postulancy as Sister Maris Simon leaves in 2015. They were two of the first SSND to go in mission to Kenya in 1974.
Sister Mara Frundt, left, says goodbye at the Kisumu postulancy as Sister Maris Simon leaves in 2015. They were two of the first SSND to go in mission to Kenya in 1974.

After taking final vows in 1974, she volunteered to be one of the first SSND to go to Kenya that same year. Eventually she spent 36 of the last 46 years there. “I grew into adulthood in Africa. I was formed by the culture and the people. It is hard to know who I would be now without that experience,” said Sister Mara.

Sister Mara served in formal education and pastoral ministry in Kenya for 14 years. She left in 1989, but returned to Kenya nine years later to start a new mission. In 2011, she was asked to become novice director in Ghana until 2015, when all SSND provinces consolidated their novitiates in Rome. At that point, she went back to Kenya and served as postulant director until 2019.

“We were invited to Kenya to empower the African congregations; it was not a priority to think about ourselves as SSND. With the girls asking [to become SSND], we began to realize we were called to be there,” Sister Mara mused when reflecting on the development of SSND vocations in Africa.

Companions on the journey

Left to right: Sister Antoinette Nauman with Sisters Ruth Mose and Sarah Tanjo in Bumbuna, Sierra Leone, 2016.
Left to right: Sister Antoinette Nauman with Sisters Ruth Mose and Sarah Tanjo in Bumbuna, Sierra Leone, 2016.

Like Sister Mara, Sister Antoinette Naumann felt called to a foreign mission, since she had observed other sisters going to East Asia when she was a novice. During a year of discernment following seven years of teaching in Iowa, she responded to the 1979 provincial request for sisters to go to Sierra Leone. She arrived in Sierra Leone in 1981, where she taught in a secondary school. By 1989, several young female students were asking to become SSND. Sister Antoinette was called to open the first novitiate in Sunyani, Ghana.

Sister Grace Okon from Nigeria was one of the first novices at Sunyani, arriving the second year the novitiate was open. It was her first time away from home, the first time out of her country.

“It was a journey of faith. I did not know where that journey would lead me but knew God was there. At first, I was homesick. It was my first Christmas and Easter away from home,” recalled Sister Grace.

Life in community gave her strength. “I was encouraged by the sisters from the U.S. who were even farther from home. They are women of faith, which made them strong. They trusted and dared, and gave their entire life to accompany us on our journey. We would not be here without them.”

Sister Grace made her First Profession in 1993, among the first native-born Sisters to do so. Today there are 72 SSND who were born in Africa.

First District, then Province

By the 1990s, with African sisters taking final vows, the SSND presence in Africa was solid and growing, as multiple provinces invested in their respective mission locations in each country. The need arose for one unifying body of leadership on the continent. Sister Antoinette was then called to lead the establishment of the District of Africa in 1996. She served two three-year terms as district leader. Eventually returning to Sierra Leone for several years in parish ministry, she retired in 2018, upon celebrating her 60th jubilee.

“I am humbled to be chosen to do the things I have done. I was amazed I could do it!” said Sister Antoinette. Because of her experiences, she imparts this life wisdom, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Trust and be vulnerable.”

Sisters rejoice at the establishment of the Province of Africa on August 28, 2011.
Sisters rejoice at the establishment of the Province of Africa on August 28, 2011.

Just 15 years after being formed, the district was poised to become a separate province within the congregation. Sisters Mary, Mara and Antoinette were present to take part in the dedication of the new Province of Africa in 2011. “I was thrilled to see young African women with such joy on their faces, well-educated and passionate about what they are doing,” said Sister Mary. Sister Grace was installed as a province councilor.

SSND in Africa today

At the peak, around 1988, there were 42 SSND from North America serving in Africa. Today there are less than 10 still present on the continent.

“There is a lot more ahead [for the Province of Africa] than behind. The majority of SSND vocations are coming from Africa; seven of the nine newly professed SSND are from Africa. It gives us hope,” said Sister Mara, who will become the novice director in Rome.

“The future is in God’s hands. Who will answer God’s call? I pray there is another Theresa, another Caroline,” said Sister Antoinette.

Originally published in the 2020 Trust & Dare Magazine.

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