ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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


A ‘Good Shepherd’ to Suffering Women

This spring, the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd — the Good Shepherd Sisters — suspended its work in Ethiopia, citing dwindling vocations.

For the last 40 years, the order has worked tirelessly to help the poor in that corner of the world. A woman at the forefront of that effort has been Sister Winifred Doherty. Sister Winifred spent 16 years in the country, helping women escape prostitution and trafficking, often through education and training programs that were in part supported by CNEWA.

Since 2008, Sister Winifred has been based in New York, serving her community as an NGO representative at the United Nations.

As the congregation was preparing to leave Ethiopia, Sister Winifred sat down with ONE to talk about her life, the work of the Good Shepherd Sisters and the struggles still facing women in the Horn of Africa.

ONE: Tell us a little about your background.

Sister Winifred: I’m Irish by nationality. I was born in a small town in County Westmeath. After finishing secondary school, I entered the Good Shepherd Sisters and lived among them until 1991, when I was invited to go to Ethiopia. From 1991 to 2007, I had the privilege of living and working with people there. In 2007, I was in a discernment process on whether to leave the mission or continue. As it happened, I was invited to take a position in New York to represent the congregation. I arrived in January of 2008 and I’ve been here ever since.

ONE: What attracted you to this order?

Sister Winifred: During a retreat when I was in school, I actually talked with a priest about a vocation. And he said to me: “You know, it’s Good Shepherd for you.” And he actually wrote the letter. He said he knew the provincial leader at the time. When I went home and was sharing this, I discovered that I had a grand aunt and a cousin who were Good Shepherd sisters, who many years previously had entered Good Shepherd and gone on a mission — my grand aunt to Sri Lanka and my cousin to India. And here was I, without really knowing anything about them, being led to Good Shepherd! I felt if they could do it, so could I.

What attracted me is that the work of the Good Shepherd congregation is about compassion and reconciliation. It is identifying and wanting to be close to and in solidarity with people who have been excluded — especially women and girls — and the most excluded groups are people living in poverty, women who have been forced into prostitution and, today, women and girls, boys and men, who have been trafficked. So I am energized by the work that we do.

ONE: What impressed you the most about your experience in Ethiopia?

Sister Winifred: The one thing that always stood out for me was the spirit of the people, their sense of hope in the midst of desperate situations. I often think of them. Even when I was there, I remarked on their richness of spirit. Despite dire circumstances — horrible poverty and often threatening environments — they continue to give freely, share rich relationships with one another and seek to live in peace. That always impressed me and, of course, that was informed by their faith in God and their great prayer lives. The women of Ethiopia are the most beautiful women I have ever met in my life. They are beautifully physically, and beautiful in character. And they have been an inspiration in my life.

ONE: What are some of the challenges women are facing in Ethiopia?

Sister Winifred: The biggest one is poverty. I think in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural areas, the situation of young girls is still critical. Lack of education, lack of opportunities for childhood, then being forced to deal with many negative cultural practices like female genital mutilation, kidnapping and forced marriage. These practices don’t help to empower and promote women. This cycle must be broken. The poverty, lack of education, lack of good economic environment — this still has deep influences on women and continues to keep them in poverty.

Having said that, I think we have to look at the more positive things that have happened, through our own services, through the help of CNEWA, and through NGOs and other religious organizations that continue to empower women. So I prefer to look at it from the positive aspect. Changes are happening and are continuing to happen.

ONE: What is your hope for Ethiopia?

Sister Winifred: My hope for Ethiopia would be the recognition of human rights and eradication of poverty. With both of those, the country can flourish and be a model to the whole world.

Greg Kandra is the executive editor of ONE. Erin Edwards is the magazine’s digital media editor.

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