Sisters’ mission stories connect past to present
by Sister Mary Louise Wahler
Editor’s note: In honor of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the women of Holy Cross, some of our sisters submitted personal reflections or stories about missions around the globe. The pieces, which offer unique glimpses into the Congregation’s history, will appear before the close of the anniversary year in January 2017. The following is the second in the series.
When I left Uganda for Tiberias, Israel, in 1977, I thought I would never see it again. We came to Uganda in 1967 to help begin and administer Saint Maria Goretti Senior Secondary School in Fort Portal. In 1976 one of the Banyatereza Sisters—whom we sponsored at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana—returned to Uganda and became the new headmistress. That gave Sister M. Olivette (Whalen) the opportunity to ask me to go to Tiberias. After two years of service there, I was asked to begin formation ministry in the United States.
God had other plans, though. In 1979 both of my parents died within six months of each other, which left me in a very depressed state. It was only at the time of the Congregation’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1991 at Saint Mary’s that things changed drastically. Sister Patricia Gantz approached me and asked if I had ever thought about returning to Uganda. “Have I!” I responded. “Many, many times!”
“We need you,” Sister Pat pleaded. “We need someone to live in the novitiate community and to supervise the construction of our new novitiate building.”
I had no knowledge about building, but I knew how to hammer a nail. Community was and is my love.
Returning to Uganda and new ministries
Thus began a new adventure in my life. On January 1, 1992, I returned to my beloved Uganda and traveled to Jinja where we would start a new mission in East Africa. Can you imagine moving a total household of beds, cupboards, desks, chairs, refrigerator, stove, etc., on a small truck plus a pick-up truck only to arrive at the destination and discover that the rented house was not ready? We had no choice but to move in. Day by day we shifted furniture and people until all of us were happily settled in our new abode.
After settling, what else could I do? I volunteered to teach in two schools and helped with community and the plans for a new novitiate. Imagine Sister Pat and I, who knew nothing about construction, were responsible for designing a 12-bedroom formation house! Truly God was with us.
One evening when we were enjoying supper with our Holy Cross brothers at our parish, Father Robert Hesse, CSC, and Brother Paul Kasande, CSC, shared their dream to begin a secondary school for the poor in our village of Wanyange. There were three boarding schools in our area which catered to the wealthy, but what about our poor? As they talked, I got more and more excited. The next thing I knew they were asking me to be the headmistress. “I know nothing about beginning a school,” I said. They did not take “no” for an answer and assured me of their support.
That evening Sister Pat and I talked about it, and she said, “Mary Lou, you always need a challenge. Go for it.” The rest is history!
Mobilizing community support to build and staff Lake View
Our brothers mobilized the villagers to each donate 100 Uganda shillings (about 10 cents in U.S. currency) and to contribute in-kind labor. Thus, one classroom and an office were ready for February 1992 when the school officially opened. The walls were brick with no plaster; the floor was hard core (a type of stone) and dirt. There were no windows or doors—just holes in the wall! I placed the school under the protection of Brother André Bessette and even put his medal in the foundation of the classroom.
When we had entrance interviews I told the students, “Look over there. That will be your school, Lake View Senior Secondary School”—even though the walls were not finished, nor any roof in sight. People believed in us, and 55 children joined together for our first class of Senior One.
What about teachers? I was told that people would help, so I began begging. The Catholic teachers in the parish met, and some volunteered to assist, even though they also were teaching in other schools. I managed to convince some of my own sisters, like Sisters Pat and Mary Alice Bowler, to help out. Sister Pat knew English, so teaching English was easy for her, but can you imagine Sister Mary Alice, a laboratory expert, teaching agriculture?
I knew nothing about administering a new school. How do you set up a budget? What would be the expenses? All I knew was that the only money we would receive was from the school fees of the students. The consoling thing was that the Holy Cross men would take care of the construction of classrooms; all I had to do was to administer it. They were true to their word, even though it was tiring continuously building year after year until we had sufficient classrooms.
I made friends with administrators of other secondary schools in the area who taught me so much. Parents and students had no idea how ignorant I was! My joy was to work with such dedicated teachers who were willing to help as much as they could. I told them, “I cannot pay you very much, but you can be assured that you will be paid on time. I ask you to be willing to ‘walk the extra mile’ even though I cannot pay you extra.” They did it!
Continuing the Holy Cross tradition of excellence in education
At the end of four years when the 36 students sat for the national examinations, I was told that Lake View was ranked 50th in the whole country. “There must be a mistake,” I responded. I never even dreamed that the students would be able to complete four years, and here they were among the best in the country, and among the best schools in the country.
How the school has expanded: from 55 day students then to over 800 boys and girls today, including day, boarding and Higher School. It is a joy to meet former students and parents who still ask, “How is our school?” It is not “my” school, but God’s, Brother Andre’s and theirs!