ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Good Shepherdesses in Addis Ababa

These dedicated sisters heal the sick, comfort the poor and educate the destitute in Ethiopia’s capital city.

Psalm 23 holds special meaning for the Good Shepherd Sisters of Ethiopia: It reminds these dedicated women that everyone should be able to receive the love of God, in whatever form.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd trace their origins to the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity, founded in France in 1641 by St. John Eudes. A zealous missionary priest, John Eudes was struck by the plight of unfortunate women in need of protection and guidance in their desire to lead a stable life.

It was this community of sisters that attracted Rose Virginie Pelletier in 1815. Given the name Sister Mary Euphrasia, she committed herself to the works of the congregation. Inspired by the vow of Zeal for the Salvation of Souls, which is the heart of their vocation, Mary Euphrasia was consumed with the compassion and zeal of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Following her election as superior of her community, she was filled with a need to extend this ministry of mercy to other parts of the world. In 1835, the Holy See approved the formation of the community. Her new congregation became known as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.

In her lifetime, Sister Euphrasia established 110 convents all over the world, peopled with sisters dedicated to bringing the love and compassion of the Good Shepherd to persons in need. In 1940, Pope Pius XII recognized her zeal and sanctity, canonizing her a saint. According to the order constitution, “Zeal, that precious part of our Eudist heritage, has been given a universal thrust by St. Mary Euphrasia – it must embrace the world.”

It was not until 1971 that the first Good Shepherd Sisters arrived in Ethiopia. Three years later, the Province of Ireland assumed support for the sisters, generously providing personnel and funds.

The first task of the three sisters who began the mission was to become familiar with the most deprived areas of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

“Everywhere we saw sad, downtrodden women – carrying water and firewood, caring for malnourished children, lining up outside hospitals and clinics,” Sister Mary Teresa Ryan recalls. “Equally visible were the city beggars, street children, handicapped persons and prostitutes.”

Following their constitution, the sisters resolved “to help bring about change in whatever condemns others to live a marginalized life.” Anxious to assist the women in helping themselves, the sisters explored possible income-generating activities with the goal of self-support for the women. There was an urgent need for teaching employable skills.

In answer to this need, the Bethlehem Training Center started in May 1976. It took only a few posters to draw a stream of young women to the compound, located in an area where there were great need and few services. The sisters spent weeks interviewing the women and visiting their homes. The numbers, the poverty, the lack of hope – all were overwhelming.

A group of women was selected to learn rug and carpet weaving in the traditional Ethiopian style; teenagers started needlework, basket-making and cotton-spinning classes. Literacy classes were also added, as many of the women had poor educational backgrounds and were anxious to improve themselves.

By 1982, the carpet-weaving project had become a full-fledged producer cooperative employing 70 women. The cooperative continued to function on the premises until 1991, when an explosion in a nearby munitions plant damaged the facilities.

Meanwhile a new site, acquired for the needlework project in 1980, opened as the new Bethlehem Training Center. About 80 girls were trained in various skills and produced high-quality goods. Four distinct departments emerged: Printing and Dyeing, Embroidery, Weaving and Clothes-making.

A woman named Etagene supervises the Weaving Department. She is proud that she worked with the sisters from the beginning, starting at the “old center” when she was only 14. Two years later she moved to the new center and became so adept and knowledgeable about weaving that she soon advanced to her present supervisory position. Etagene loves her work and the women in her department.

About 30 women are trained each year at Bethlehem. In order to provide employment after graduation, the sisters added a production unit to the compound in 1986. All 160 employees at Bethlehem Training Center receive a salary; approximately 2,000 persons depend on this income. This is vital in a society where it is a blessing if at least one family member holds a job.

Tsehay was one of the first employees at the new center. She runs the mini-store, where materials used to make the many fine articles are kept. This includes clothing, home furnishings, bags, tapestries, choir robes, holiday decorations, dolls and other products exhibiting the skills of these women. Tsehay is proud of the increase in production and attributes the organization success to the fact that each woman contributes her share in a team effort.

Good health care is hard to come by in Ethiopia; life can be very fragile, especially for children. In recent years, however, sufficient profits have allowed the center to purchase medical insurance for its employees. Squalid housing, poor sanitation, lack of running water and electricity – all these contribute to the high percentage of disease and death in the area.

Thanks to generous donors, the Good Shepherd Sisters initiated an educational fund in 1997 to benefit poor and needy persons in Ethiopia. Women at Bethlehem, as well as persons known to the sisters through their ministries, have taken full advantage of these opportunities. The interest and enthusiasm generated by this movement are tremendous. Job opportunities are limited, but the training offered will open doors for future development. Sewing skills, art, business, English, food preparation – these are just some of the areas the women have chosen to pursue. Others who never had a chance to complete elementary or secondary education have enrolled in night school.

Bethlehem Training Center is also fortunate to have a day-care program. In the past, mothers brought their toddlers to work; this soon turned dangerous because of plant machinery. As a result, day care, initiated for the children of trainees and workers, accommodates those between the ages of one and six. The youngsters are exposed to many stimulating experiences – theirs is truly a learning environment. Presently there are 110 children in the program, which includes not only the youngsters whose mothers work at the center but also very poor children from the surrounding community.

CNEWA is one of the principal sponsors of this program; its person-to-person sponsorship supports the youngsters in the nursery and preschool program. After graduation from kindergarten, CNEWA benefactors continue to care for the children while they attend government schools. With this funding, school fees are paid, uniforms are provided, medical expenses are covered and books are supplied.

Sahlemariam is sponsored by CNEWA and is in the fifth grade at a government-sponsored school. His family is very poor; they live in a mud shack next to Bethlehem. Alemitu, his mother, struggles to provide for her six children. Sahlemariam father died last year after a long illness. Sahlemariam enjoys playing with his friends, but he is always willing to help his mother. He feels lucky to be able to continue his education.

The Good Shepherd Sisters further support the people in their community with a day-care program at the Good Shepherd Sisters Center. CNEWA is a prime sponsor of this program as well.

Administered by Sister Eilish, the Good Shepherd Sisters Center exists as a community development and social services center. Just as at Bethlehem, the aim of the day-care program at Good Shepherd is to promote a better future for needy children through education, clothing, food, recreation and necessary medication.

In recent years a program for orphans developed from this day-care center. Most of these children parents have AIDS and are assisted with hospital visits, transportation and counseling during their illness. Children receive a food allowance as well as counseling; every effort is made to find an extended family member to care for the children once both parents have died.

In addition to supervising Good Shepherd Day Care, Sister Saba works with committees of residents in the surrounding area to better their living environments. First, the local kebele (unit of government) indicates areas most in need of sanitation system improvements. Next the residents clear the compound area where toilets will be constructed and the center provides engineering assistance and the necessary materials. Residents are responsible for all future maintenance. To date, 23 compounds with 380 families bring the total number of beneficiaries to approximately 3,000 persons.

“This project has given us new life,” says one resident named Lakech. “Previously, the area was polluted, and there was much sickness due to poor sanitation. Thanks be to God, we now have a clean compound.”

There are very few specialized services for the handicapped in Addis Ababa. Sister Goretti tackles this challenge with her program for handicapped persons whose ages range from 4 to 30 years old. Sister Goretti provides medical and personal hygiene; parents are encouraged to involve themselves with their children rehabilitation. The program goal is acceptance for these brave young people – in their own homes and in society.

Sister Goretti also supervises a program for the elderly. Her staff provides a welcoming environment for the aged; here the elderly have the opportunity to socialize and make friends. A highly qualified nurse assists them in their medical needs.

“I was living alone and feeling very lonely for a long time,” recalls Tewabech, a participant in the program.

“My son saw that I was poor and he disappeared. It is no exaggeration to say that each time I attend a meeting, it is like coming home. I have many friends here. When I am sick, I am taken to the hospital. Twice a week we get together and have tea, coffee, bread, bananas, eggs and milk. When I want to sing, I can sing, and when I want to cry, I can cry.”

Sister Myriam directs the Gulele Community Development Center, a project for women who run single-parent households. In the past year, the sisters rented and furnished a house for use as a center; here the women meet, engage in discussion and involve their children in daily programs. The women, involved in home-based income-generating projects, also learn credit and savings plans, home management, child care and environmental awareness. The women initiative and drive are so great and the center so successful that a second group has just formed.

The children of these women belong to two groups. Those in the older group, with ages ranging from 8 to 12 years old, have never been to school. They are taught basic subjects while Sister Myriam negotiates with local schools to have them accepted into the educational system. Younger children learn simple skills, such as reading, writing, singing and acting.

The mothers involved in this center know that the project service is free for the first year. This enables them to save money from their income-generating activities to pay the necessary fees when their children are admitted to government schools.

Community centers alone do not define the work of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Addis Ababa.

“While our ministry as Good Shepherd Sisters always had women in prostitution in mind,” says Sister Winifred, “we took a more direct approach in October 1994.

“The distresses of these women are many: poverty, depression, unwanted pregnancy, homelessness, the threat of AIDS, the distress of working on the streets – they face these things every day. But we listen to them and invite them into friendship.

“A novice and I used to venture out two nights a week to meet these women,” she continues. “I remember those nights when we walked the roads beside our house. There was some initial nervousness, but soon these feelings disappeared.

“I recall one woman who was out on the road only two nights after giving birth by Caesarean section. Immediately we drove this woman to her house outside the city where her little baby lay alone. The woman had no money for food, the rent was due and there were no social services available! Ongoing support for this woman meant teaching her rudimentary baby care, buying milk for the baby and providing financial support when she or the baby got sick or the rent was due. We were ready to help.

“My direct street ministry with these women only lasted seven months, but the friendships have continued. Today these women are involved in various training programs and income-generating activities such as card-making, cosmetology, catering, bamboo crafts, weaving and others.”

The Good Shepherd Sisters are a reliable, positive force for their people. With their tireless energy and devotion, they will continue God work, enriching the lives of people in need.

Sister Mary James Clines, R.G.S., is a member of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd Sisters of Addis Ababa.

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