The Comboni Missionary Sisters reach out to the world's neediest communities, often where many wouldn't dare to go. Celebrating 50 years of service in Richmond, they explain why their ministry keeps pushing boundaries. 

Pilgrims' Progress

A group of 4-year-olds sits on a rug knee-to-knee in a semicircle playing Color Bingo. Black, white and brown little fingers slide dots the size of quarters into place on score cards as the teacher calls out the names of colors. The classroom door opens, and dozens of eyes and mouths widen before a cacophonic "HELLO, Sister!" halts the game.

Here, at the Holy Angels Day Care Center on Lakeside Avenue, it's the most natural thing in the world to be interrupted by a nun.

Across the yard from the day care, a quaint chapel silently arches toward heaven. Red begonias brighten its brick steps. To the left, a stately provincial house, with reception rooms and an office, greets guests at the driveway. And behind it, a sturdy two-story residence is as full of grace as it is of windows. It's home to 16 Comboni Missionary Sisters who have come from Italy, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil, Latin America and Peru to spend years, decades even, in Richmond.

While it seems remarkable that they end up here, the sisters say it's simply their mission to serve the communities that need them most. Our city is no exception. Whether spreading the gospel in Lusaka, Zambia or crossing racial lines in Richmond, Va., their missionary work remains. Always, there are new communities to bridge and new journeys to begin. This October, the Comboni Missionary Sisters celebrate 50 years of ministry to the Richmond community.

In 1950 the first Comboni Missionary Sisters arrived at the request of American Catholic bishops who hoped the sisters could help lead the way for integration. They fed the hungry, cared for the sick and educated the poor in Church Hill, Fulton and Swansboro.

They started the Lakeside Avenue day-care center in 1958 in the basement of the provincial house, and later Sister Juliana opened the nearby parochial school, Our Lady of Lourdes.

"Our doors are always open," they say. It's quiet here, and when Sister Angela fetches the mail in her crisp white habit and dress, she glides down the paved driveway like a sail in the wind. The sisters' handshakes pull people in for hugs. They relish communal living. But unlike orders where sisters take vows of silence, these women love to talk, especially when Sister Yolanda prepares her coffee and cannoli. It's an easy place to unburden the soul.

These sisters, who have worked amid war and famine on other continents, have unloaded their share of burdens, too. "There are moments when we've been afraid," says Sister Maria Teresa, who serves as provincial superior for CMS's North American missions, active now in six U.S. states and Canada. Its worldwide mission extends to 33 countries, with nearly 1,800 Comboni sisters joined by 2,200 priests, brothers and lay missionaries.

Both Sister Maria Teresa and Sister Alzira have spent years in war-torn Uganda. Sister Maria Teresa witnessed three wars in nine years. Once, for three months, she kept a small bag packed and ready, and her shoes next to her as she slept on the ground. She was prepared to flee at a moment's notice. "Every night I left the shoes out and I was afraid. Yet, at the same time, there was such a peace inside. I had grown so close to people. We go where other people find it difficult to go."

"We go to the causes that prevent people from being what they're supposed to be, like hunger, freedom [from oppression] and poverty," says Sister Alzira. "It's not just a mission to go in there, but to go in there with hope: Jesus has come to set us free." This promise of freedom, of salvation, is what roots the Comboni Missionary Sisters in faith and inspires their desire to spread the gospel to anyone who'll listen. It's what they call their charism.

The dining room in the residence is bright and airy, and although sparse, it feels complete. Already at 3 p.m. the tables are set for dinner. This is where they invite guests to take a seat, sip, nibble and share - a kind of daily communion taken with friends, however new.

"The only normal thing about our day is that we start it together in prayer at 6:20 a.m. and finish it together at 6 p.m.," laughs Sister Maria Teresa.

Bishop Daniel Comboni of Verona, Italy, founded the order of priests, brothers and sisters in 1872 in an effort to spread the gospel and Catholicism throughout Africa. He preached widely against the slave trade at a time when others not only accepted it, but also profited from it. Bishop Comboni's mission work also was revolutionary in that he hoped to evangelize Africa, not through traditional witnessing by European clergy who often left after a few years, but by building African Catholic communities where the people would want to continue the mission on their own.

Richmond, the sisters say, has come a long way since 1950, despite a racial divisiveness that persists.

"Being missionaries and coming from the outside, we didn't have those discriminations that many people have," says Sister Maria Teresa. She and Sister Yolanda remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and how Richmond responded. People — mostly African-Americans — gathered downtown at the Capitol to mourn and offer support to one another. The sisters couldn't understand why whites didn't gather with them. "Surely, we went and shared the pain of the people who lost their leader," recalls Sister Maria Teresa, her voice still rich with Italian accent. "That was us from the very beginning."

At a time when fewer women choose a missionary life, many Catholic orders have eased some traditions in hopes of attracting new sisters. Many orders have dropped habits for regular clothes. Some women make final vows at ages well past 30. There are a few orders that now allow previously married or widowed women to become sisters. Not the Combonis.

"Missionary life is very particular," says Sister Maria Teresa. In her 33 years as a Comboni, Sister Maria Teresa has spanned continents, trained as a nurse to help the sick. "It is specific calling and all of us must leave our country." The unending vocation and leaving home are why she believes there are few Comboni sisters from the United States. "The young women from America are not likely to make a commitment for life."

"Today, we are here," reminds Sister Alzira. "Tomorrow, we could be in Africa or Portugal - wherever." Sisters may be sent on new missions, especially the younger ones who have come to the United States to learn English. But even after 50 years the Comboni Missionary Sisters continue to fulfill their calling.

The visitor who walks in on the preschool class feels a bit like Gulliver stumbling into a forgotten world. It's humbling, if not inspiring, to see kids being kids. But when the Comboni Missionary Sisters look at the 44 preschoolers, they see more. Their eyes are watching God.

It's their charism, their spiritual core, that enables the Comboni Missionary Sisters to see God always and everywhere.

"We started and remain missionaries," says Sister Maria Teresa. "Our world is much larger than our country."

The Comboni Missionary Sisters celebrate 50 years in Richmond with a series of events scheduled Oct. 7 and 8, including a special mass Oct. 7 at 5:15 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart with Bishop Walter Sullivan as celebrant. For more information, call 744-4003.


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