Forming Leaders: Answering God’s Call

While Catholics make up a small minority in Ethiopia, the Catholic presence there is significant, with religious sisters, priests, brothers and a growing number of lay people serving as teachers and catechists across the country. Read about young Ethiopian women who answered the call to religious life in this excerpt from “Heroes in Habits” was first published in the December 2019 edition of ONE magazine.

“Here, there will be a church,” says Emahoy Haregawin. (Emahoy is the title granted to religious sisters in the Ethiopic tradition.) “And further,” pointing to an empty space, “our monastery.”

It may take a bit of imagination to visualize what this vast lot will look like when the work is completed, but her enthusiasm leaves no doubt about the project’s realization.

Here, in Holeta, a village 20 miles northwest of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, cattle mill about in the barn; girls prepare spices; others pick vegetables in the garden. Emahoy Haregawin is putting all her energy into the founding of the first Catholic monastery for women in Ethiopia, where Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population.

She is determined to carry out the construction of a home where she and other women can observe the Rule of St. Benedict — a lifestyle combining contemplation and action, as summed up in the motto, “Ora et labora” (prayer and work). It is a dream long ensconced in her head and heart.

Once a member of another congregation for 17 years — the Little Sisters of Jesus, whose vocation is that of a contemplative life among people in small communities — Emahoy Haregawin says she knew she was not totally fulfilled. She discerned a different call.

“It was in me,” she says. “I discovered it little by little. But it takes time to answer the inner call.

“I had a calling within a calling: Why not live a monastic life in Ethiopia?” …

The unfinished monastery already attracts vocations. Four young women live here, determined to embrace this religious life, despite the challenges.

“They are young girls who go to church, who were raised in believing families,” she says, noting that not all come from Catholic roots. “They want to serve and give themselves to God.”

Among those seeking to join in the life of this monastery is Bayush Gebre, a 22-year-old girl from Mendida, about 60 miles northeast of the capital. With braided hair framing her shy smile, Ms. Gebre serves as the conductor of the community. She sings the psalms with vigor while playing a keyboard in the small chapel, guiding the other sisters in prayer.

She has been here just over a year. It takes five years to complete formation, concluding with final vows.

When she was a child, Ms. Gebre was attracted by the activities of the priests and sisters of her parish. She taught catechetical classes to children.

“This desire that I had when I was a kid grew in me. Today, I’m happy and I have the vocation to develop it through prayer,” she says. …

But to be part of the founding of a monastery is not without its difficulties.

According to Emahoy Haregawin, one of the challenges is the background of most postulants to religious life. …

“In Ethiopia, a girl has to fetch water and wood, milk the cow, care for sheep, walk two hours to go to school,” adding that the girls are born into a rural and patriarchal culture and reared to serve at home.

“We must teach them everything: catechesis, cleaning, reading. We really need an available sister who will examine their ongoing formation carefully.” Emahoy Haregawin says she sometimes feels overwhelmed by such a mountain of tasks and responsibilities.

The sisters milk cows, take care of the hens, make charcoal from wood, make jams and, above all, prepare the eucharistic breads for the closest parish where they go every Sunday, bringing along vegetables, eggs and even the candles and rosaries to sell.

“When we do not have electricity during the day, the young girls sometimes stay up all night to prepare the bread,” says the sister, whose means are too limited to purchase a generator. However, such challenges merely highlight that these young women have an immense desire to learn.

“It takes time, presence and patience,” she says, adding she can depend on the girls’ good will.

The young candidate Ms. Gebre understands establishing a new convent is challenging. “Through prayer, we can overcome it,” she says simply. …

In Addis Ababa, Sister Getenesh is hopeful: The number of girls who have decided to join the congregation has increased to 14, including six candidates or postulants who study in an environment of faith, and help the community through activities in schools, orphanages, and also at the church. “They are sisters without the veil,” Emahoy Getenesh jokes.

She prefers that these young women spend as much time in formation as they need. …

“When I consider myself I may think that I’m nothing, and that I cannot make a significant change,” she says. “But God through me may do something different. My vocation is to help people.

“What does the community need? Love. I want to share the love of Christ to the youngsters.”

“It is a worthy sacrifice: The sisters are called for a greater cause,” comments Emahoy Haregawin in Holeta. “Our religious presence in the environment manifests itself in prayer and the desire to share our faith with others.”

Interested in sponsoring the formation of a priest or religious sister? Click here

Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa. There, she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other places.

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