by Sr. Cecily Bourdillon, MMM, Ireland 05/10/2021
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.
At the time, I was stationed in Ikot Ene in southeastern Nigeria; the MMMs had established the rural hospital there in 1959. Though only 12 miles from Calabar, Ikot Ene was remote, for to reach it there was a river to cross in a canoe or a pontoon for vehicles. The alternative route to Ikot Ene was by road, detouring 40 miles through dense rain forest; a long and tortuous journey. Our nearest MMM neighbours were our community in Anua. To reach Anua we would cross the estuary formed by the Calabar and Cross rivers – an hour’s journey in a motor boat but a three-hour extended journey on the large ferry boat that had to navigate through 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 she was regarded as a mother to all. After the Mass we met up with John. John was working on construction projects in the area for Costains. He had been a patient in Anua and, having been discharged, was travelling back to Ikot Ene with us.
We reached Oran Wharf waiting for a means to cross the waterway to Calabar. In the distance we saw the large ferry looming and making its way towards us. I was disappointed because this was the larger vessel that would take three-hours to make the crossing. At that moment a small boat with an outboard-engine appeared in search of paying passengers. I was delighted to see it as the means for a quicker journey home. John, the two postulants and I boarded the boat. It was around 4 pm and the sun was shining. I remember sitting back and sharing my happy anticipation of a good and quick voyage across the waters to Calabar. How wrong I was!
Suddenly everything changed. A wind got up and clouds gathered ominously; darkness descended. The rain lashed down and the boat rolled dramatically as the swell grew relentlessly. No lanterns could be lit as there were drums of petrol on board. We were in deep waters in darkness. Of course, the boat crew knew those waters like the back of their hands – but the sudden storm had taken them by surprise. We, the passengers, feared the darkness, the storm and the deep waters all around us. John looked at me and asked if I could swim. I said I could but I could not speak for Justina or Celina! We prayed to our dear Sr. 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 traversed through the storm; it seemed interminable but suddenly we saw in the distance the lights of Calabar shining above calm, serene waters. Soon and relieved we found ourselves back on solid land, making our way to the Holy Child Sisters where we knew we would always be welcomed … and we were. Mother Sr. 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?” she asked, commenting “We have just had the worst storm I have ever experienced”. I responded that we had appreciated first hand the severity of the storm!
With hearts full of gratitude to God and to Sister de Montfort who we knew most certainly had come to our aid, we enjoyed the warm hospitality of the Sisters of the Holy Child that night.
The MMM constitutions say “You are called to an extraordinary adventure”. This is but one of many of my recollections that illustrate the truly “extraordinary adventure” which has been my life in Africa as an MMM!