A Pilgrimage to Remember

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IN OCTOBER 1992, FIVE ADORERS OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST (ASC) SISTERS LOST THEIR LIVES IN A TRAGIC EVENT WHILE WORKING IN LIBERIA

Now known as the Five Martyrs of Charity, Sisters Mary Joel Kolmer, Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller and Barbara Ann Muttra were killed during a civil war in the West African nation.

In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Five Martyrs of Charity, two Newman University students, Khoi Nguyen and Erin Schueller, joined ASC members on a pilgrimage to Liberia.

Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Rosemary Niedens reached out to ASC Scholars Nguyen and Schueller about the trip, which took place from May 11-20. Each student received a letter that stated they were selected as a candidate for the trip, then submitted their own letters explaining why they wanted to go on the pilgrimage.

The students received their acceptance letters a few months before the trip took place. They scrambled to complete their final papers and exams when the semester drew to a close and headed for Liberia soon after. The students flew to Atlanta and met up with a few other travelers before traveling to Liberia.

“I tried not to have too many expectations before going,” Schueller said. “I knew we’d learn more about the sisters, the people they healed and taught and the effect they had on the country, but I did not expect much else. I think this was because it didn’t seem real that I would be going to a different continent.

“There was not a whole lot of time to process, but I am glad I didn’t have many expectations before going because it made everything a little surprise.”

Janet McCann, ASC, said, “It was a huge deal. They got a chance to meet people who knew our sisters. One of the big things we want to focus on for the 25th anniversary is to highlight the continued relationship between the Adorers and people of Liberia. So that was a big thing to travel there.”

Khoi Nguyen poses with Patience in the village of Dixville.

While in Liberia, Nguyen and Schueller were accompanied by ASC Sisters Raphael Ann Drone, Rachel Lawler and Therese Wetta, along with Associates Donna Luetters and Juanita Mason-Fegley. The women participated in daily Mass and ended each night with a collective prayer. They visited the places where the Five Martyrs of Charity worked, lived and were killed, as well as the clinics and schools named after them.

“We felt (the sisters’) presence while we traveled across Liberia,” Schueller said. “The people were still hurting from the war but you could see the impact the sisters had on them. One thing that stuck with me was something we heard at church one morning: ‘The sisters may not be here living anymore but their blood and presence can never be washed out of the earth.’”

The small group of women had lunch with the Archbishop of Monrovia in the capital city of Liberia, visited two parishes and even participated in a radio show for a Catholic radio station.

“Nobody knew that Khoi and Erin would be participating in the radio show before we got there,” Wetta said. “The priest who was our host and driver also happened to be a radio show host. His show focuses on justice and peace, and he was interested in hearing their input on Khoi’s Partnership for Global Justice experience that took place last June.

“Khoi and Erin were real troopers. I was impressed with their adaptability and exibility with the circumstances they were in, and that they were continuously trying to learn more about Liberia’s history and the story of the ASC sisters. They definitely made us proud, and I think the people they met were impressed to see two college students who truly wanted to learn and be a part of the experience.”

While the trip was a wonderful opportunity, it had its fair share of challenges, Nguyen said. The women had to be extremely careful with what they ate and drank and they brushed their teeth with bottled water since the water could be contaminated.

Associate Juanita Mason-Fegley poses with children from the village.

“The weather was hot and humid, which a effected my health a little bit — I should have hydrated more,” Nguyen said. “I also think we had quite an intense schedule.”

Each day began at 7:30 a.m. and some days the women would not get home until 7 p.m. Nguyen said that communicating with family and close friends also was a problem at times because they did not have access to the internet very often.

“The first night, I experienced waves of homesickness,” Nguyen said. “I realized that I was sitting alone in silence, I was on another continent and didn’t have any means of communication. Although I was afraid, I was excited because I was about to have an amazing time with Erin, the ASC sisters and the two associates.”

Nguyen said she was also thankful to have gotten to know Schueller better over the course of the pilgrimage. The two overcame stomachaches, shared bug spray and shared the back seat of Father Firmin’s car together.

“I also learned a great deal about the culture thanks to Sister Raphael Ann and Sister Rachel, who are very knowledgeable about Liberia since they spent a number of years there,” Nguyen said. “Sister Raphael Ann has a special sense of humor and always cheered me up when I felt tired. Donna and Juanita inspired me with their desire to learn about the Martyrs of Charity and Catholicism.

“Donna said that she had observed that life in Liberia was ‘simple.’ She told me that, ‘Perhaps our lives are complicated because we have made them complicated — we have made the unnecessary our necessities.’ What she said stuck with me. I have learned to appreciate all that I have. I have also told myself to stop complaining about not having the things that I don’t really need.”

Schueller said that she, too, is more grateful for simple luxuries, such as clean running water, constant electricity and a variety of foods.

A mother and daughter from the village.

“This trip not only taught me about the sisters and their hardships 25 years ago but it also taught me about the country’s hardships today so long after the war,” Schueller said. “People are still struggling just to make ends meet. We need to appreciate the small things that we have and thank God for them every day because we truly do not understand how good we have it here in the United States.”

In Liberia, Schueller explained, beef is considered a rich man’s food because cows are too expensive to raise. Water is scarce and mainly comes from unclean wells so when people brush their teeth, they have to use bottled water. To take a shower, they must fill a bucket. Electricity is not readily available and if there is some it comes from a generator which runs on gasoline, so it is not turned on often.

Schueller also explained that roads that should take a few minutes to drive on take more than 20 minutes due to potholes, which can be as deep as the vehicle itself and have very sharp drops. This, in turn, ruins vehicles in half the time and many do not get repaired because it is simply too expensive.

“But despite all of this,” Schueller said, “people of Liberia are so content with their lives and the simplicity of it. We got to see how the five sisters touched each person’s life and sadly how they were taken too soon from them. Talking about their memories almost brought tears to their eyes, yet they knew life got better and things were simple.

Two men from the village doing laundry.

“Small things that we take for granted every day are a luxury for these countries. After this trip, I have learned to appreciate these little things and to give thanks to the people that surround me.”

Nguyen and Schueller said that the people they met were genuinely welcoming to them and the sisters, and that they were constantly greeted with smiles.

“We could feel the love they had for everyone,” Nguyen said. “Two boys told me that they wanted to become priests, and two other children told me that they wanted to be pilots and study in America. The children were full of hope and aspirations, and that made me happy.”

Nguyen and Schueller also met with Liberia Coordinating Mechanism Vice Chair Sister Barbara Brilliant, who is involved with eradicating HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Liberia. Nguyen hopes to one day work in the field of public health.

“(Sister Barbara) truly inspires me to continue to have faith in and pursue my dreams,” Nguyen said. “I would like to see where great opportunities could take me. If and when another amazing opportunity comes along, I will definitely take it into consideration.”

Erin Schueller poses with parish ushers in Liberia

Schueller said that, even though life is hard in Liberia, it was an eye-opening and inspiring experience for her to be a part of.

“Instead of always rushing around and hurrying to do things, the people of Liberia have time to enjoy life, their families and their friends,” Schueller said. “Everyone enjoys meals together, and their time is the sun — when it rises, they rise, when it sets, they sit. Life is hard yet simple. These people were content with the simple things and this is what I hope to really apply in my life and others’ around me.”

Sister Terese with Patience from the village.

Wetta said that the trip was both a blessing and a challenge and that her takeaway was seeing the gratitude and awe that people had for the Five Martyrs of Charity.

“They were so welcoming and grateful to have us there,” said Wetta. “It was incredible to see that the people who don’t have much are the ones who are so generous to share what little they have. I think the Newman community will be very impressed when Khoi and Erin give a presentation of their experiences in the fall.”

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