An American Missionary in Africa Speaks, Part I

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Every few years we have the joy of welcoming home Sr. Anne Christopher Wright, RA. Sr. Anne has been in mission in Africa since 1975. The story of her journey from her childhood in Long Island, NY to the Assumption school in Miami, FL to her life now as Principal of ITC-Assomption, a co-ed Technical High School in Sokode, Togo is too rich to keep to ourselves.

Sr. Therese Margaret of our Lansdale community interviewed Sr. Anne Christopher recently. We share that interview with you here below:

Sr. Anne, did you always want to be a missionary ? Was it a clear cut call or something gradual ?

I first went to Tanzania in East Africa 26 years ago, in August 1975. When I entered the Assumption in 1963 I was not thinking about a missionary vocation even though I knew that the Assumption was an international congregation with houses in the Third World. It was something that fascinated me though and I remember being very interested in seeing sisters or AMAs who passed through from Latin America, Philippines, etc. so I guess you can say that my ending up in Africa was something more like a gradual unfolding of what our Rule of Life calls a "special call from God which some of the sisters have received, to leave country, family and land to love and serve the Church among other people." (RL N86). My initial vocation then was not missionary. I was rather attracted to the contemplative dimension of our charism with a strong desire to live poverty in a very real and concrete way -- I loved everything about St. Francis of Assisi. But it wasn't until the 1970s, after final vows, university studies and 8 years of apostolate in our High Schools at Philadelphia and Miami, that conditions began coming together that led to the emergence of a vocation to live my Assumption religious life in Africa. Against the background of my growing dissatisfaction with a life style that didn't much correspond with my desire to live poverty in a concrete and real way, was a growing awareness of the Third World and of the injustices of the world economic order. The Church and the Congregation were talking about the option for the poor... and so as late as somewhere in 1974 after I had written about all that to Sr. Clare Teresa who was then General Counsellor, she answered something to the effect that what I was saying sounded like a missionary vocation and that the congregation was in fact putting out a call for sisters to go to English speaking provinces in the Third World. And that was -- it the call went right in and I started reading up on Tanzania in particular and I fell in love with it.

You spent your childhood on Long Island, NY and then you attended Assumption Academy in Miami, Florida. Was there some incident in your growing up years which influenced your decision to become a Sister ?

Yes, I was born and grew up in a small town Wantagh, NY on Long Island. I can't think of anything explicit that might have influenced my vocation to religious life other than that I had a very happy and healthy childhood and adolescence in a small town and somewhat countrified setting. My father was a non-practicing Episcopalian and my mother, who was Catholic, raised us to be very discreet about our religious practices so that, other than Sunday Mass, there wasn't much at home. However, I do remember a CCD talk that struck me when the layman who was presenting religious life said it was for those who wanted to give themselves completely to God. That struck me and for about a month I was thinking about becoming a nun. But it wasn't until I went to the Assumption at Miami that my religious vocation declared itself more or less as a conversion experience. My mother, who had gone to the Assumption school in Belgium (La Val), had always wanted to put me in school at the Assumption. I had always resisted, not wanting to have anything to do with a girls school -- "how would I ever get married ?" -- but she finally succeeded when my father retired and we moved to Florida. I was sixteen. What was funny was that after about a week of homesickness I just fit right in, loved it and by Christmas I was talking about becoming an Assumption Sister. I had been completely fascinated by the sisters, especially their prayer life. I used to watch them at prayer when we came into the chapel about 10 minutes before Mass or Vespers. I wondered what was going on and like that I discovered Jesus Christ and the interior life. The step to going to pray myself just unfolded very naturally, followed by reading the Gospels, the New Testament and other books.

Was Africa the land where you wanted to serve or was it less specific ?

Yes, I think my vocation is to live and work with Africans. I can begin by saying that I don't consider myself a missionary in the traditional sense of someone who takes Christ or anything else to a people who don't have what you are bringing. In East Africa where I spent my first 5 years and was therefore broken-in, we didn't use the word 'missionary' but 'expatriate' or 'European' -- a term which nobody realized excluded me. Eighty percent of the sisters in the province were African and I was teaching in a Minor Seminary (high school for future priests) with a totally African priest staff. So my vocation has always been to be WITH and I discovered that this was the deepest meaning of the poverty I was called to live the Kenosis of Jesus Christ who emptied Himself. "This call involves separations and the acceptance of the loneliness and misunderstanding that apostles may meet. However they will experience at the same time, an abundance of joy. Becoming part of a new people and culture, they will appreciate the friendship of those God gives them and rejoice in the rich diversity of nations." (RL N86)

Please tell us something about your first years in Africa.

I spent 5 years in the Province of East Africa, half in Tanzania teaching History in the junior seminary at Moshi and then as Principal of Kambaa Girls High School in Kereita, Kenya. In 1980 I spent a year at our Motherhouse in Paris and then was sent to the Province of West Africa which is French speaking. After a first year of looking around and learning more French, I was sent to teach English in our high school at Daloa, Ivory Coast. I was there for 10 years and then spent 3 years as Principal of our high school at Koudougou, Burkina Faso. Finally in 1995 I arrived at Sokode in the north of Togo as Principal of the ITC Assomption which is a co-ed Technical High School specialising in business studies: accounting and administration secretarial studies.


Read on...Part II of the Interview