- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

ELLISVILLE, Mo. — When the killing began in 1994, Jean Bosco Gakirage was on his way home to Rwanda to be ordained in his childhood church.

At a stopover in Rome, he got a message from his parish priest: Do not come home. Your parents, and the whole congregation, have been killed in the sanctuary.

Mr. Gakirage did not believe it. Defying church leaders, he traveled to the Uganda-Rwanda border and found a bishop willing to ordain him on June 26, eight days before the genocide ceased. From there he sneaked into Rwanda, hurrying, in mortal danger, to his parents’ church in the rural town of Musha. The building was sealed, parishioners’ corpses inside.

At a loss, Father Gakirage asked a girl, the only family friend he could find alive, to gather the remaining locals outside the church. She returned with six children. Under a tree, standing feet from his parents’ bodies, Father Gakirage celebrated his first Mass for them.

“Children,” he said, “we usually talk about the Resurrection, but this is not just a question of the words of a priest. Now, it is a reality. We are the Resurrection.”

It sounded good. He wanted to believe it. But coming from a culture in which only family members are considered full participants in community life, Father Gakirage said, he feels he died that day.

Half a world away, Joanne Dziubela was 4 years old when her mother slapped her hand away from a sister’s veil in their church, hissing, “Don’t touch the nun. She’s married to Jesus.”

Thirty-nine years later, Joanne is Sister Marie Michelle of the Most Sorrowful Passion of Jesus, a cloistered nun in Ellisville, Mo., half an hour’s drive west of St. Louis. She and nine other Passionist sisters live there in seclusion and near-silence. Without television, radio, the Internet, or secular newspapers, they pray for a world they learn about through church publications, phone calls, prayer requests, and the occasional visitor.

Ten years ago, a photograph in a missionary magazine caught Sister Marie Michelle’s eye. It showed the ordination of a Rwandan priest who came from a big family like hers, but who had lost his parents and six siblings in the genocide.

Some nuns, she knew, make a commitment to pray for a certain person daily for the rest of their lives. Sister Marie Michelle, who had just taken her first vows, asked her mother superior for permission to write the young priest.

After his ordination, Father Gakirage’s order of Comboni Missionaries sent him to do community-building work in Esmeraldas, Ecuador. One of his jobs at the mission was mail delivery.

As he handed out letters to the other priests, they would joke with him: “Where’s yours?”

“Mine will come next week,” he’d say, knowing there was no one left to write him.

Then, in October 1994, an envelope for Father Gakirage arrived on the Friday mail boat. He checked the name three times: it was his own. Then he set the letter on the table and stared at it — “to let it rest,” he said, “because it had come far.”

“I will pray for you every day,” Sister Marie Michelle had written. “From now on you can think of me as your sister, and I will call you not ‘Father Jean Bosco’ but ‘mon frere,’” or my brother.

Today, he is surprised by the message he chose: “The evildoers appall me; … But my eyes are fixed on thee, O Lord God; thou art my refuge; leave me not unprotected. … Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst I pass in safety, all alone.”

Brocade curtains open on a small, fluorescent-lit room. “Father Jean Bosco, you are welcome,” Mother Superior Ana Maria Diaz Gonzalez said in Spanish.

Overcome, Father Gakirage cannot speak.

“I’m stepping on holy ground,” he thinks. “Is it true that I am here?”

It’s July 8, 2004. Father Gakirage has been sent by his order to New Jersey to rest for a few months before heading to a challenging new post in Rome. New acquaintances in New Jersey, learning of his long-standing correspondence with Sister Marie Michelle, have sponsored him to pay the Passionist sisters a visit.

“I have been looking forward to this visit for many years,” Father Gakirage calls at last through the bars that separate his spartan visitors’ quarters from the convent.

Busy with midday prayer, Sister Marie Michelle cannot be here to welcome Father Gakirage. The nuns’ days are regulated by a system of loud buzzers directing them from prayer to prayer. Each day, they spend all but two waking hours chanting, singing, reading, working silently, or in silent conversation with God.

Late in the afternoon, though, the curtains part again to reveal all 10 sisters — Father Gakirage’s spiritual family — peering through the bars at the tall Rwandan.

“Mi hermano,” Sister Marie Michelle said, Spanish for “my brother.”

She and Father Gakirage have waited a decade for this meeting. Neither thought it would happen this side of the grave, though both believed they would find each other eventually.

“I thought I’d have to wait for heaven to see him,” she said, flushing.

Through the altar window, the nuns appear buffeted by winds, dark habits whipping in a whir of ceiling fans.

On the other side of the altar, in striking green robes, Father Gakirage reads the morning’s New Testament lesson from Luke: Jesus instructing a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself.

Sister Marie Michelle beams through the window. When a young woman, she nearly joined a missionary order working in Africa and South America herself. She’s always wished one of her five brothers would become a priest. Becoming Father Gakirage’s spiritual sister, she’s fulfilled both dreams.

The others have scattered at the blare of the dinner bell. Only Sister Marie Michelle stays to talk with Father Gakirage. A window in the wall of bars hangs open.

The pair are giddy: chatting, laughing, posing for photographs, showing off the stacks of Father Gakirage’s letters she’s collected over the years.

Suddenly, Sister Marie Michelle said, a little stiffly, “The grate is open. This is an opportunity for me to give you a hug.” They embrace warmly. “Mi hermano,” she said. “You are my sister,” he replies — and she hurries off to help with dinner.

It is impossible, Father Gakirage reflects, to explain the weight of such a moment. He last received a hug like this from his mother, from his sisters before their deaths. As a priest, he never expected to feel familial love again.

Sister Marie Michelle dashes back into the room to close the curtains over the grate, now shut.

“This is my sister,” Father Gakirage said incredulously as she runs off again. “I’m happy to …” and he trails off, noticing a gap in the curtains, which he hurries to close.

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