Sister Severina in the Sudan*
The Canossian Daughters of Charity
By Julie Rattey
*Based on the story of Sister Severina Motta, FdCC, Canossian missionary in the Sudan, and her interactions with a family whose names have been changed for privacy. Information for this feature was provided by Sister Severina.
Photo courtesy of The Canossian Daughters of Charity
Sister Severina blinked back tears as she sat at the bedside of her student, Thomas, and watched his thin chest rise up and down in sleep. He was only 17 and dying of an incurable brain tumor. Around her, Mother Teresa’s Sisters — for it was their residence on the east side of El Obeid, Sudan, to which Thomas had been brought to spend his final days — slipped quietly in and out. As a missionary with the Canossian Daughters of Charity, Severina had spent decades in Africa and seen much suffering, but this boy especially touched her heart. She remembered the day she had queried him after class about his weak appearance and difficulty following the lessons.
“I want you to answer me honestly,” she had said. “Are you eating breakfast each day with the money the Sisters give you?”
Thomas’ eyes had been apologetic. “I’m sorry, Sister. I have sisters and brothers at home. I’ve been bringing the money home so they can eat.”
Severina had been momentarily struck silent, humbled by this boy’s sacrifice and determination. Every weekday, he walked one and a half hours to school, through slum villages, extreme heat, and, when rain fell, miles of muddy ground. And now this.
“Mama…” Back in the present, Thomas shifted in troubled sleep. Severina wondered if he was dreaming about life before his mother died — when his family lived in a mud hut in Juba, in the South. When Thomas was 12, soldiers had destroyed their house and land — casualties of civil war — compelling them to flee to the North. There, Thomas’ mother died from hunger in their sparse, desert home, and Thomas’ father fell into depression and drink, causing him to lose the job the local Catholic church had provided. The children had no money for school and, as refugees, few opportunities for work. Severina and her fellow Canossians had begun providing money for food and school. But she could not replace a parent.
“Mama,” Thomas said again. Severina gently rested her hand on Thomas’, trying to provide comfort without waking him. When he did wake, Severina knew, he would insist on returning home to help his family, despite his imminent death.
Within the week, Thomas was dead. Severina paid her condolences to the family and brought biscuits and soap for the girls, who at ages 6 and 8 were too little for school, to try and sell. Thomas’ father was bent down by grief, and Thomas’ younger brother, Stephen, 13, looked devastated. Severina made a mental note to keep an eye on him.
The following week, the father was out, and the girls seemed on edge.
“Well, now, how many biscuits did you sell last week?” Severina asked brightly, hoping to break the ice.
“Um… none, Sister,” admitted Anne, the eldest.
Severina expressed surprise. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have better luck this week.” The girls squirmed.
“They didn’t sell any,” their brother piped up, “because they ate them all. The last one went this morning.”
Teresa, the youngest, gasped at her brother’s betrayal. Severina looked from her mortified face, which she was now assiduously wiping to remove any possible evidence of crumbs, to her brother’s stoic one.
Suddenly Severina was laughing, and the girls, their fear disappearing, dissolved into a fit of giggles. Even Stephen grinned.
Of course they’d eaten the biscuits! Severina thought. How had I expected those hungry children not to?
Before she left, Stephen approached her. “I’m not returning to school, Sister,” he informed her. “I need to provide for my family now. I want to start a shop. Can you help me? I could sell tea, sugar, salt, soap…”
“Biscuits?” Severina asked mischievously.
He smiled. “Yes, Sister. Those too.”
Two brothers dead within the year.
Severina’s heart ached as she opened the convent door to find Anne, ready to begin her task of sweeping the Sisters’ residence for pay — a way to help the family earn money and keep their pride. Anne was quieter these days, now that malaria had taken Stephen and, with him, their shop business.
“There’s a breeze today,” Severina said, gently placing a hand on Anne’s shoulder. “We could sit outside after you’re done sweeping and have some lemonade.”
Later, when Severina came to check on Anne, she saw that she had stopped sweeping the courtyard and was sitting on a nearby rock with her chin in her hands, the wind fluttering her worn dress around her knees. The ground was covered with leaves.
“Why should I sweep the leaves when the wind just keeps spreading them again?” Anne exclaimed, frowning.
Severina held her breath. The girl’s plaintive comment held more depth than she knew. Why did she keep ministering after nearly 40 years in Africa, when each day, people still died of hunger, were killed by soldiers, kidnapped into armies, or displaced? Why did people go on marrying and bearing children when life was often so brutal? Why did people go on praying, or living, at all? Severina sighed. Only God knew why the will to live, to love, to give still burned like fire in the hearts of the poor, the suffering, and those who ministered to them. She sat down next to Anne and put an arm around her thin shoulders.
“Never mind,” she said kindly. “In times like this, we wait for the wind to die down,” she said, “and we try again.”
Anne put her head on Severina’s shoulder, and the two sat in silence, watching the leaves blow.
What happened next?
When Anne came of age, she married and, as the civil war eased, moved back to the South, taking Teresa with her. There, Teresa plans to continue school while Anne works. Their father has remarried and also moved back to the South. Though the family has endured much hardship, says Sister Severina, she hopes that the loving sacrifices made by the two boys and the help of the Sisters have “saved the lives of the girls and prepared them for a dignified future.”
Conflict in the Sudan
Conflict and civil war in the Sudan, rooted partly in cultural and religious tensions, have been nearly constant since the country’s independence in 1953. “Northerners, who have traditionally controlled the country,” reports the U.S. Department of State, “have sought to unify it along the lines of Arabism and Islam despite the opposition of non-Muslims, southerners, and marginalized peoples in the West and East.”
The conflict has severely affected the population of the South, resulting in more than 2 million deaths and more than 4 million people displaced between 1983 and 2005. An initiative aiming to facilitate the return to the South of up to 1.5 million Southern Sudanese is ongoing.
How You Can Help
The Canossian Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor is an international missionary congregation of women founded by St. Magdalene of Canossa (1774-1835), an Italian nun who was canonized in 1988. The Sisters’ ministries around the world include education and human promotion, evangelization and faith formation, and pastoral care among the suffering. To support the Sisters in their work in the Sudan and elsewhere, visit canossiansisters.org or call 505-873-2059.