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Home WHAT’S NEW OBLATE MISSIONARIES OF THE ASSUMPTION: RUNNING AN ORPHANAGE IN A WAR ZONE

OBLATE MISSIONARIES OF THE ASSUMPTION: RUNNING AN ORPHANAGE IN A WAR ZONE PDF Print E-mail

Some of the orphans at the Beni facilityThe Oblates Sisters arrived in Beni-Paida (Belgian Congo at the time; today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on December 23, 1935. Two days later, an infant was left on their doorstep. That was the beginning of an orphanage that has survived to this day. The following is an interview with Sr. Françoise Bichunchuma, an Oblate Sister with detailed knowledge of this facility.

By Sr. Zoé Vandermersch, O.A.

ZV: Could you tell us a little about the arrival of the Oblates in the Congo and the beginnings of their orphange?

FB: In 1929 the Assumptionists arrived in the Belgian Congo, in the Vicariate of Butembo-Beni in the eastern part of the country. Soon thereafter, they felt the need for sisters to collaborate with them especially for an effective promotion of women. Fr, Henri Piérard, the superior of the Assumptionist mission, asked Mother Berthe-Marie Paré, the superior general at the time, to send some Oblates to help out.  Immediately, three sisters began preparing for the mission --- Sisters Marie-Laurentine and Philomène (Belgians) and Sister Marie (French). On board the ship that would take them from the Belgian port of Antwerp to the Congo, they spent their time learning Kiswahili, the local language. They arrived in Beni-Paida on December 23, 1935. Two days later, On Christmas day, a baby orphan was brought to them. That is the humble beginning of the orphanage.  From the earliest days the sisters have continually welcomed between sixty and eighty children.  For lack of means that number has diminished in recent years to between twenty-five and thirty-five.

Meal-time at the orphanageZV: Could you describe what the children are like?

FB: Often-times we receive the youngest of infants, sometimes just after they’ve been born. Often-times the mother is dead. Sometimes it is a question of young unwed mothers who cannot keep their children or women with psychological or material issues. We do not discriminate in which children come ---- Pygmies, Muslims, etc. At the orphanage we assure that all the children are well-fed and well cared for, something that isn’t always possible with their families. We will usually keep them till they turn five, but because of the recent troubles, we keep them till they’re six or seven sometimes. Recently we have opened a nursery school to begin to give then an education.

ZV: What happens then?

FB:  Then their extended families usually take them --- an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. Sometimes they worry about coming to claim them because they fear we’ll charge them for having cared for these children for so many years.  But, of course, we don’t ask them for anything. If there are no relatives, we try to find a family that will welcome them. In rare cases, adoptions to foreigners have been arranged (Italy, Sweden), but we try to avoid such situations so as not to uproot the children.

ZV: Concretely, how is the orphanage able to operate (finances, personnel, administration, food and clothing, etc.)?

FB: As for food, we have a large garden and we also raise chickens, rabbits, and goats. Generous friends, mostly Christians from local parishes, bring us gifts in kind to feed the children …. a sack of rice, clusters of bananas, and bags of beans . It’s true that what costs the most is feeding the babies because we need formula milk. Sometimes we run out… We often have a hard time making ends meet. We rely a lot on the Congregation and the international help they provide --- Christmas bazaars, Lenten “rice bowls” in our schools in France, a group of benefactors in Chingsford (London), another in Plomelin (Brittany). We thank them from the bottom of our hearts.

Nap-time at the orphanageIn terms of oversight, we have two sisters on duty 24/7, one of which is a nurse.  They are assisted by a group of salaried young women, aged 16-18. They usually work there from one to three years, which gives them an opportunity to save enough to cover their college expenses or begin little businesses. All of the sisters in the Province lend a hand at some time or rather --- spending time at the orphanage so that the sisters in residence can get a break.  The older children go to school part of the day. If a child falls sick, one of the sisters accompanies him/her to the hospital and, if necessary, spends the night. One of our sisters, a doctor at a local hospital, visits the orphanage regularly.

ZV: What is the impact of the current war and insecurity on the orphanage?

FB: Whenever tensions flare up and armed conflict threatens the region, the first question we ask is: “How are we going to protect the children?” At the orphanage we have, unfortunately, had to live through several wars. The first took place in 1964 with the Mulele uprising. At that time our European sisters had to pack up the children and flee. In 1998 with the most recent outbreak of war, the sisters fled by foot to one of an Assumptionist parish some 30 miles away and then by car to one of our hospitals in Musienene. There we remained ‘in exile’ for almost 17 years, until last year, because of the massacres that took place in the Beni-Paida region. During this time we could not provide classes for the children; food was often scarce. We were only able to return to the orphanage this past September.

ZV: What are you able to provide these children educationally and spiritually?

FB:  The orphanage is like a big family. The children call the sisters, “Mom” --- “Mom Clémence,” “Mom Françoise, “ etc. We try to teach them basic Christian values -- to share, a sense of respect and gratitude. Every day we pray before meals and before going to bed. They go to Mass on Sunday and once a week a priest comes to pray with them.  Many of them are baptized. We try to make sure that Jesus Christ is alive in their lives.

ZV: In conclusion, on this 80th anniversary of the orphanage, what do you see for the future?

FB:  I am not sure what to say in this regard because, for me, this is God’s work and he has been the one who has watched over it these past 80 years.  Hundreds of children have passed through this “community of angels.” Some have become grandmothers; a number of them have organized a little “alumni association” and return regularly to help their “younger sisters.” We never stop thanking God for all he has done for these little ones and for all those who have come to their aid of these neediest of His children because there is nothing more tragic than losing a parent at an early age.  We Oblates Sisters try to do our best to help these little angels to have an ordinary children experience. It’s a work that remains ever young because it is constantly rejuvenated by the presence of these little ones. Let me say a word of thanks to all those who lend us a hand, who allow us the joy and privilege of holding these children in our arms and offering them a human touch …

Since civil war broke out in the DRC in 1997 the United Nations estimates that some 6 million people have died as a result of the violence, malnutrition, and disease. One of the worst affected regions has been the Province of North Kivu where the orphanage and the vast number of Oblate and Assumptionist religious are located.  Since three Assumptionist priests were kidnapped just north of Beni in October 2012, the rise in armed conflict in the region has led to many brutal deaths, a marked rise in insecurity, and, unfortunately, an increase in the number of orphans.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 February 2016 09:52
 
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