A grievous loss, an unexpected letter, and a family found
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 murdered in the sanctuary.
Gakirage didn't 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, 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 said 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, Gakirage says, he feels he died that day.
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, 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'd 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 Gakirage arrived on the Friday mail boat. He checked the name three times: his own. Then he set the letter on the table and stared at it - "to let it rest," he says, "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 frère,' " my brother.
Gakirage replied with thanks, promising to pray for her each morning also. He enclosed Psalm 141 (New English Bible).
Today he's surprised by the message he chose:
The evildoers appal 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 Diez Gonzalez says in Spanish.
Overcome, Gakirage cannot speak. "I'm stepping on holy ground," he thinks. "Is it true that I am here?"
It's July 8, 2004. 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 Jersey, learning of his longstanding 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," Gakirage calls at last through the bars that separate his spartan visitors' quarters from the convent.
Conversation through this grate is rare for the nuns, who usually communicate with outsiders by calling or passing notes through "the turn," a sort of Lazy Susan embedded in the wall. Letters, too, are comparatively rare: Gakirage hears from Marie Michelle twice a year, and another sister once each season, though he writes them and sends photos of his mission work more often.
Busy with midday prayer, Sister Marie Michelle cannot be here to welcome 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 - Gakirage's spiritual family - peering through the bars at the tall Rwandan.
"Mi hermano" (my brother), Sister Marie Michelle says.
She and 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 says, 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, Gakirage reads the morning's New Testament lesson from Luke: Jesus instructing a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself.
"And who is my neighbor?" the lawyer challenges.
"The one who showed him kindness," the orphan priest tells his sisters.
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 Gakirage's spiritual sister, she's fulfilled both dreams.
Her letters, meanwhile, have been a vital connection for Gakirage during the 10 years he's spent visiting remote Amazon villages. This month, he'll head to the Vatican for a new appointment to a team doing pastoral work with displaced people; he and Sister Marie Michelle intend to keep writing.
Through it all, the pair agree, their most important connection has been, and will be, through praying for one another.
"The union in prayer is the deepest thing," she says, "better than letters and pictures."
"Six thousand miles away, it is a communion of the spirit," he agrees. "I don't need to tell her, 'Sister, I love you,' because I tell it to Jesus and it is transmitted."
To love your neighbor as yourself is one of God's requirements, the lawyer acknowledges to Jesus.
"That is the right answer," Jesus replies. "Do that and you will live."
The others have scattered at the blare of the dinner bell; only Sister Marie Michelle stays to talk with Gakirage. A window in the wall of bars hangs open.
The pair are giddy: chatting, laughing, posing for photographs, showing off the stacks of Gakirage's letters she's collected over the years.
Suddenly Sister Marie Michelle says, a little stiffly, "The grate is open. This is an opportunity for me to give you a hug."
They embrace warmly. "Mi hermano," she says. "You are my sister," he replies - and she hurries off to help with dinner.
It is impossible, 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.
"It's like seeing, 'My God, I'm still in this world,' " he says. "This is like looking with the ears, with the eyes, and saying, 'I'm still alive.' I couldn't have imagined it."
Sister Marie Michelle dashes back into the room to close the curtains over the grate, now shut.
"This is my sister," Gakirage says 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.