CNEWA
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God • World • Human Family • Church

Heroes in Habits

Young Ethiopian women answer the call to religious life

with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

“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?”

However, the Ethiopian context offered little room to live fully her vocation of the contemplative in action. Here, the monastic tradition has no real presence among the Catholic community; religious congregations for women are usually active, and its members are missionaries. This is astonishing in a predominantly Orthodox country, where “Christianity is dominated by monastic life,” she says.

But the many needs of an impoverished country have made Catholic religious life here fundamentally active, with apostolates carried out for decades through Catholic schools, child care programs, clinics and dispensaries.

“The Ethiopian Catholic Church lacks a monastic, contemplative life,” the sister says. “If we get there, we will spread something.

“It’s a call to the church itself: It is necessary in a country that there be monasteries, places where contemplatives dedicate their lives to prayer, voicing the silent prayers and fears of believers to God!”

Indeed, even without a finished facility, the efforts of Emahoy Haregawin have already made a mark, inspiring others to consider a life of loving service and continuous prayer in God’s name.

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.

However, the road has been fraught with difficulties, as one of her grandmothers found it difficult to understand how the child she had reared had decided to walk this path. She wistfully remembers when the young Ms. Gebre would help her around the house with chores, a stark contrast to the young woman’s quiet, prayerful life today. 

Even if it takes time to convince the relatives, Emahoy Haregawin says, “they feel very happy to give their child to the church eventually.”

She adds another note many parents consider: “There is also the idea that if she becomes a religious person, she will be educated.”

Even if Ms. Gebre misses the parish activities and more time with her friends and family, she says formation has only made her stronger. “I don’t regret anything,” she says. “It was my decision to be in a community in a daily prayer life. I’m now looking for more.”

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.

“When you feel the call of God, you can give your life at any time.”

“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.

“They give me courage,” Emahoy Haregawin says, smiling. “They tell me, ‘we are about to pray, but continue to work, we will pray for you.’”

“The foundress is everything to this place,” says Ms. Gebre, speaking of the monastic founder. “When she is out of the compound, we have to take on more responsibilities. We sometimes make mistakes, often because we are so few.”

Sisters are few because of a crisis of vocations to religious life — albeit in a different way than in many other parts of the world.

“Urbanization and rapid economic and political changes can limit vocations in our culture,” explains Emahoy Haregawin. Young woman feel their options have expanded, and their curiosity pushes them to test everything. This can lead to a widening gap with older generations.

“In Ethiopia, a girl [is expected] to be raised with her parents; if she decides to start her life, she has to get married. It’s even more serious in a religious life: The girls think that if they have had relationships with men, they cannot have a religious life.” The sister says she works hard to dispel such notions.

“When you feel the call of God, you can give your life at any time.”

Other obstacles, still, stand before vocations — poverty, for example. In Addis Ababa, Consolata Missionary Sister Getenesh has been involved in the formation of sisters for 16 years. She confirms that poverty is a big challenge in a country where about a third of its inhabitants live below the poverty line.

“The sisters give themselves to Jesus, without any financial return, so their family doesn’t get anything out of it, despite expectations,” she explains.

Because most rural people send their children to school in order to get help, they see their children as “economic assets for the family,” says Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director in Ethiopia. The acceptance of having a child who would only help their family through prayer takes some time.

Another obstacle is peer influence, he adds, especially because most Ethiopian girls in the rural areas are expected to marry and build their own families.

“The reaction of my family was a big challenge for me,” confides one novice, 28-year-old Ejigayehu Addise, who is in her third year of theological studies. “They didn’t accept my decision. Some wanted me to work as an accountant, some wanted me to get married and have children. But the call remained in my heart. I prayed a lot to convince them and join the congregation.”

They still remain puzzled by her choice. “They don’t understand why we waste our time without getting married; they consider it useless,” she says.

“Girls around my age, if they are not married and have a family, they are not accepted,” says Birtukan Midju, another novice. “People discourage you. My parents think I’m doing wrong. But I gave priority to my feelings. It’s my decision; it’s my life. However, if you are not very strong in your choice, you get easily discouraged.”

So, inevitably, some decide to ignore this call, a decision that saddens Sister Getenesh, who takes the time to talk to these girls to help determine if their decision is strong enough to overcome the way other people look at them.

“It’s challenging, but something inside is stronger than their doubts,” Ms. Addise says.

“It takes time, presence and patience.”

In Ethiopia, family reactions tend to be different among Orthodox believers, who appreciate the consecrated life, but view it in extremely stark terms.

“My family encouraged me to follow this kind of life, but told me not to come back,” says Sister Weletemariam Moges, 35, who, covered in a medical coat, helps at the dispensary of the convent.

It took her nine years to make her final vows at the Getesemani Monastery, an Orthodox community of 85 women established in Sebeta, 15 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, in 1961. This was two years longer than the maximum time required to complete her formation, called wetane, which typically takes three to seven years. But she wanted to strengthen herself, to be ready and well-prepared for vows.

Originally the palace of Empress Menen, wife of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, the monastery provides not just a home to sisters, but also offers health care services, child care and farming assistance.

“I have not visited my family in nine years,” she says. “It was my decision to give my life. Sometimes, we talk over the phone. They came once, after a gap of three or four years. I was happy not only that they came to visit me but also that they received blessings from the convent.”

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. 

“All of them could have been sisters already. We keep them long, sometimes ten years. They need time to discern and prepare,” she adds. Afterward, they are sent to Italy for two years of novitiate.

According to the sister, this process is also defined by generational changes.

“It’s a ‘dot-com’ generation, a Facebook generation, so their faith needs to be strengthened. This new generation needs this kind of training.”

The way to go is long, she says, before giving oneself entirely to God, and full of temptations and doubts.

It took Sister Ayeletch of the Daughters of St. Anne the courage to overcome the challenges that are inherent to religious formation. Originally from a poor and illiterate family living in Bonga, the 22-year-old woman has recently made her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

During her formation in Addis Ababa, however, she found her faith tested twice. Four sisters from her congregation died in a car accident. Then her father passed away. She had to be strong to vanquish the pain and doubts. Now, she is getting ready to serve the community in the St. Raphael School for Blind Children in northern Ethiopia.

Though she sometimes feels frustrated by her choice not to build her own family, she says she compares herself to her mother and her five children, and realizes she can reach many more people through the life she has chosen.

“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.”

Ms. Gebre expresses this very desire, wishing young people to be closer to the church. She prays for them at this time of uncertainty in Ethiopia, where ethnic and religious conflicts have taken the lives of many people.

“When the youngsters are closer to the church, they learn about their faith and identity, about who they are and their purpose. If I were not in this kind of relationship with the church, maybe I would not be where I am now.”

Through the prayer of the sisters, she hopes to help people to grow in their Christian values.

This is also what motivates Ms. Addise, who has always wanted to be a missionary.

“I was very happy when I joined the Consolata Missionary Sisters. They received us as a family. We also have what we need materially and spiritually to fulfill our journey,” she says.

And whenever she has doubts, she can rely on Sister Getenesh, who accompanies the young women on their religious path.

“We share our feelings and difficulties once or twice a week. It helps me improve how I behave as a sister, to mold my behavior and my character,” she adds. Although it is sometimes difficult to live in community, and to cope with one another’s habits, they make compromises and constantly learn about each other, fostering understanding and acceptance.

“We became blood sisters,” explains one postulant, Azeb Kotchito.

Sister Getenesh would like to welcome more young women into the community, but they do not have enough resources to accommodate additional aspirants, which is another obstacle in building religious life for women in Ethiopia.

Emahoy Haregawin hopes to send the postulants abroad for their novitiate — to Kenya or Uganda, perhaps — so they can evolve in their religious journey without having to wait for the monastery to be completed.

Yet even as the facilities are far from finished, she looks upon what they have with gratitude. Something wondrous, she believes, is being built.

“I see the hand of God, his grace in the foundation,” she says with a broad smile.

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

The CNEWA Connection

While Catholics make up a small minority in Ethiopia, the Catholic presence there is significant, with priests, brothers, religious sisters and a growing number of lay people serving as teachers and catechists across the country. CNEWA assists them and accompanies the church in its mission by helping to form vocations of all kinds.

Over the years, CNEWA has been instrumental in helping to educate and form generations of priests, religious sisters and university students. We have also helped grow the faith throughout the country, where Orthodox Christianity is dominant, by helping to further the education of Orthodox priests. We are also partnering with local churches to help build up Christian families and strengthen Christian marriages, supporting initiatives such as those at the Kidist Mariam Center in Meki, which works to form families with Christian values and ease financial strains through vocational training.

CNEWA also supports a particularly important program — a growing prison chaplaincy program, now active in 11 prisons. CNEWA is proud to help fund this initiative and form lay people to minister to incarcerated men and women.

To support and encourage all kinds of vocations in Ethiopia, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).

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