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Life together: Sisters’ mission stories connect past to present

posted in: Bangladesh, Holy Cross
Snapshot of Sister M. Francelia (Magee) taken Bangladesh, 1968
Sister M. Francelia (Magee) pictured above in 1968, and Sister M. Bruno (Beiro) shared in ministry and friendship during their mission work in Bangladesh.

By Sister M. Bruno (Beiro)

Editors note: In honor of the 175th anniversary of the founding of the women of Holy Cross, some of our sisters submitted personal stories and reflections from their various 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 first in the series.

Learning and building community

M. Francelia (Magee) and I were great friends and cared a great deal about one another. Francelia was elder in age and an experienced missionary who taught me many things during our ministry together from 1967 to 1981. I recall even asking her to teach me what to say when we went on home visitations and to village schools to instruct the teachers.

Our first mission together was in the parish in Jalchatra. At that time there was no place to stay so we lived in a leprosarium not far from the future parish center in former East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, with the Marianites of Holy Cross until our convent was built. It was constructed of blocks fashioned from mud from the rice fields in the mission compound. In our work, we taught children whose families were living with leprosy, provided instruction at a local school and visited the villages of the parish.

I was never afraid when I was with Francelia. Four years into our mission together, the Bangladesh Liberation War erupted, with East Pakistan fighting for its independence from West Pakistan, which had enacted the gruesome Bangladesh genocide. During the conflict, we hid more than 90 Hindu women in the convent with us. When we ran out of water in the parish center we moved to one of the leprosarium wards, not far from the convent. This place was a better location, safer and with water. We were together in spirit those days, trying to keep everyone safe.

A worthy role model

Francelia’s hobby was reading mystery stories. We read by a kerosene lamp and she could be involved in a story deep into the night. Father Eugene E. Homrich, CSC, the pastor of Jalchatra Parish, also loved to read, so books were always available. Even so, several times I overheard the conversation:

“What are you reading?”

“Oh, I have nothing. I have started reading the phone directory!”

Creativity and commitment were among Sister Francelia’s many great gifts. She never had to speak about her gifts, but she surely gave witness to them. During the years we lived together in Jalchatra, then in East Pakistan’s Mymensingh District, then later in the nation of Bangladesh, we were able to manage anything. Francelia could improvise with ease when something was needed. By her dedication and her faithfulness in any undertaking we managed, and we were peaceful with one another and to all those who were with us in our efforts in Corpus Christi Parish.

She inspired others with her enthusiasm. When a silk making project to benefit the area’s poor got messy, she jumped in to take care of it. When she had a motorcycle for transportation and I had a bicycle, she’d tie our handlebars together. I remember laughing at the monkeys jumping in the trees as we sped along together from one village to another. She always felt sorry that I had to ride a bike while she had a motorcycle and wanted to give me the advantages that she possessed with a motor!

Religious and laity working together

I learned Bangla, the local language, which Sister Francelia already knew. We laughed at what we said with each other and with the people. Francelia was fun and easy to be with and also very sensitive to the suffering of others.

She was always highly motivated and taught the teachers in the village schools with an energy which we both knew was God’s. In those days we also visited all the homes in the area’s 72 villages and shared with the families whatever they had to offer us in terms of drink or food.

Before leaving early in the mornings for the villages, we would check with the two priests of the parish to see if anything important was needed in the places we were visiting. Sometimes an ill individual needed to be brought to the hospital— tied on the back of the motorcycle or to me on the bike—or sometimes there were problems in the school or within marriages that we needed to help sort out. We, priests and sisters, shared this practice and through it we accomplished much.

We worked together in everything. We had meetings together and conducted parish planning together. In a diversity of areas—distributing medicine, organizing accounts, canning beans, smoking bacon, running goat and chicken cooperatives, ministering to people who came to us at the mission—we shared our expertise with one another.

Every day we would go out, Francelia on a motorcycle on the main roads and I on a bike on the jungle roads. We would try to be home by night to pray together and share our experiences from the day. If we had trouble with the bike or motorcycle as we were coming or going, we would send someone for help. And a priest would come with a torch light through the jungle to guide us home. Before we left each morning we would tell them the routes we were taking that day. If we were not home by dark someone came to find us. Never did we have to worry…the care was always there for us.

Training benefits present, future

In Jalchatra, most families were part of a matrilineal tribe, which meant the women inherited family property and assets. This made it “easy” to do things with the women. As farmers they needed help doing ordinary things for the family. With them, we planned and began cooperative work. There was jungle land for “jhum,” or shifting cultivation, lowland for rice, and hilly land for growing fruit, mostly pineapple.I had received training in community-based development and leadership education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, and locally in Kotbari, Comilla. I also had learned the Paulo Freire method for problem solving, and I applied these tools as we worked with the community to create cooperatives. The group work encouraged the local women to find ways of helping themselves and one another. Through small projects they brought in income that helped their families manage a little better and allowed them to send their children to school every day. Group by group we trained them. The late Father Charles Young, CSC, and Father Alex Rabanal, CSC, who at that time was a lay missionary from the Philippines, worked with the men on using new rice seeds that would produce greater yields on a smaller plot of land in a shorter time. The increased harvests allowed the men to save money in a growing local credit union. In time, the women joined the men’s training, accounting and cooperative management sessions. This gave husbands and wives the know-how to work together to stand on their own feet.

The first project that was done was braiding the available white jute, a specialty of the area. They sold the braided jute, which was used for making macramé objects, in Dhaka. Every time a member sold a ball of braided white jute, they would give a small amount of the earnings to their village general fund. Small amounts of money also were saved by sacrificing the common habit of chewing betel nut.

Their efforts grew, and in time the women bought sewing machines with foot pedals. The savings they gained by sewing their own clothes allowed them to rent plots of land together to grow pineapples. When they had built up enough savings, they purchased cement and other materials to build latrine slabs and houses, and eventually bought tin roofs for their homes.

Working in community, we accomplished many good things, bound together in Christ and in friendship.