Remembering Sister Leonella’s legacy of education in Uganda
The seeds of Holy Cross were planted in Uganda in 1967, 12 years prior to the arrival of Sister M. Leonella (Moe), CSC. After serving more than 40 years in the United States, Sister Leonella accepted her first international assignment. As a young sister-teacher in California in the 1930s and 1940s, she had encountered a student body of diverse racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. This experience helped prepare her to transform teaching methods in Uganda to align with the vision of Holy Cross Founder Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau: “the mind must not be cultivated at the expense of the heart” (Circular Letter 36, 1849).
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Sister Leonella’s first assignment was teaching secondary English and literature at St. Maria Goretti School in Fort Portal, Uganda. While there she had the opportunity to introduce team teaching for instruction. This method expanded the British learning style of memorization of facts to allow for student-teacher discussion and development of relational skills.
Sister Eileen Dewsnup, CSC, remembers, “She was, par excellence, an educator after the heart of Moreau.” The team-teaching method, still used today, employs the talents and expertise of each teacher to strengthen student learning and interpersonal skills. Sister Leonella connected with the Ugandan people through kindness and love. “No matter where I was working, I didn’t think of barriers,” she reflected. “I would look at an individual and say, ‘This person is friendly. We will get along fine.’ Kindness disarms people.”
Sister believed that as teachers and students began to know, encounter and love one another, they could become imitators of Christ. Her perseverance and dedication to making God’s love known and felt drove her to address challenges head-on, reflects Sister Patricia Gantz, CSC. “She was a determined woman, and when she had an idea, she found the way and means to make it happen. She was full of the message of Scripture and Jesus.” Father Charles Oyo of the Diocese of Fort Portal says that even today, many fondly remember her as the “Sister of the Spirit,” reflecting her deep reliance on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
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Sister Leonella’s impact on Ugandan education was noticed by then-Bishop Serapio Bwemi Magambo of the Fort Portal Diocese. He invited her to supervise secondary religious education for the diocese, including revision of the religion curriculum. Sister organized workshops and conferences for teachers and procured funding for updated religious textbooks. When there were not enough books for students, Sister Alice Condon, CSC, says, Sister Leonella “got a group of teachers together, and they wrote a 12-chapter book on Christian doctrine, mimeographed it and circulated it.”
“The syllabus in use at that time lacked relevance to the experience of most students, especially in the villages,” adds Sister Mary Alice Bowler, CSC. The curriculum Sister Leonella developed honored Ugandan traditions and spoke to the realities of Ugandans’ daily life to bring them closer to God.
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Sister Leonella was active in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) movement, empowering and encouraging lay leadership at the parish level. Sister Eileen notes that “discipleship for a Sister of the Holy Cross meant forming new leadership to take over any work they had begun.”
Tibakanya Gertrude of Uganda was mentored by Sister Leonella both as an educator and through the charismatic prayer group. “It was important to her that we be able to unite as a team,” she says.
Current Diocese of Fort Portal Bishop Robert K. Muhiirwa recalls being invited by Sister Leonella to the CCR as a newly ordained priest: “She was always joyful, punctual, humble and gentle. Later, as I was writing my dissertation, she especially liked my work as it had to do with reconciliation in families and leadership formation.”
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In 1994 Sister Leonella returned to the United States and remained active until her death in 2008. Reflecting on her time in Uganda, she said, “They were 15 wonderful years. It was wonderful work and I know it will continue.”
The Holy Cross legacy lives on in Uganda, especially at Moreau Nursery and Primary School, the Congregation’s sponsored ministry in Kirinda. It also lives on across the diocese. Bishop Muhiirwa recalls a conversation with Sister Leonella when he was made bishop in 2003: “Her outstanding comment was, ‘You will have now an opportunity to put your dissertation in practice!’ Indeed, I see that being so in my ministry as the bishop of Fort Portal in the last 17 years.”