Journeying in Africa: crossing the river by boat

Journeying in Africa: crossing the river by boat

by Sr. Cecily Bourdillion (1941-2023)            Zimbabwe/Ireland                            10.06.2023

Editor’s Note:  In honour of Sr. Cecily’s recent passing to eternal life on June 8th, we honour her by republishing one of her early blogs from 2021.

When I hear Sister Justina Odunukwe’s name I think of an unforgettable journey in 1973.  Sister Justina is now the Area Leader of West Africa.

I was stationed in Ikot Ene, Nigeria. MMM had been running this rural hospital since 1959. Though only twelve miles from Calabar. Ikot Ene was remote. To reach it, there was a river to cross. This was done by canoe or on a pontoon if crossing with a vehicle. There was another road to Ikot Ene – 40 miles through primaeval forest- but that was a long and tortuous journey. Our nearest MMM neighbours were our Sisters in Anua. To get to Anua we had to cross the Cross River, an hour’s journey in a motor boat but a three-hour journey on the large ferry boat that had to sail in deep waters.

We received news that our dear Sister de Montfort had died in a London Hospital on October 7th. There would be a memorial Mass for her celebrated at Anua. At that time I was living with two young women, Justina and Celine, who had recently come to live with the Sisters and discern their calling to religious life. We were looking after the Health Centre. We decided that we would make the journey to Anua to attend the Mass.
We reached Anua safely and attended the Mass. There was much sadness as Sister de Montfort had ministered in Anua for many years and was a mother to all.

After the Mass we met up with John. John was working for Costains and doing construction work in the area. He had been a patient in Anua and was discharged. He would travel back with us. We reached the wharf to look for a means of getting back to Calabar. In the distance the large ferry was making its way towards us. I was disappointed for this was the larger vessel that would take three hours. At that moment a small engine boat came up looking for passengers. I was happy to see it and we, that is John the two postulants and myself, boarded the boat. It was around 4 pm and the sun was shining. I remember sitting back and saying that this would be a good voyage and we would soon reach Calabar. However, I was wrong!

Suddenly everything changed. A wind got up and clouds gathered and it became dark. The rain lashed down and the boat rocked. No lanterns could be lit as there were drums of petrol on board. We were in deep waters in darkness. Of course, those steering the vessel knew those waters like the back of their hands. But the darkness and deep waters all around us were fearsome. John looked at me and asked if I could swim. I said I could but I did not know about Justina and Celina. We prayed to our dear Sister de Montfort. We knew she was with God and now could take care of us. Were we not members of God’s immense family, the communion of saints?

I do not know how long we rocked through the storm but suddenly we saw the lights of Calabar shining in calm, serene waters. Soon we were on solid land making our way to the Holy Child Sisters where we knew we would always be welcomed. Indeed, we were. Mother St. Henry, who had ministered in Nigeria for many years, met us at the front door. She seemed amazed to see us. ” Where have you come from? We have just had the worst storm I have ever experienced.” I responded that we knew it was bad for we were in it!

With hearts full of gratitude to God and to Sister de Montfort. We knew she most certainly had come to our aid that day. We thanked God as we enjoyed the warm hospitality of the Sisters of the Holy Child that night.