A View from Glen Hill: Looking back at Liberia

There is a remarkable institution here in Wilton that you, like me, have probably driven by many times on Belden Hill Road oblivious to what it really is and who its residents are.

The institution is the Wilton campus, called Villa Notre Dame, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND). Founded in 1833 in Europe and now with 2,800 sisters in 34 countries around the world, SSND is engaged in extraordinary work focused on the educational front with specific emphasis on serving those most in need around the world. Their simply stated but profound calling (their “charism”) is “to educate and serve the poor, especially girls and women, and to attend to needs not being met by others.”

Wilton’s Villa Notre Dame used to be the headquarters of an entire SSND province, but that province was merged more than a decade ago with other provinces spanning much of the eastern U.S. By 2012, that merged province, called the Atlantic-Midwest Province and headquartered in Baltimore, encompassed not only the eastern U.S. but also all of Canada and England as well. Earlier this summer, this newspaper reported on the installation of the province’s new head, Sister Charmaine Krohe, and new members of the Provincial Council in a very moving and uplifting service held in the Villa’s beautiful chapel with Bishop Frank Caggiano presiding.

The Villa is now a retirement community for approximately 100 SSND sisters from every part of the province. In addition to the very large main building with excellent facilities for independent living, the adjacent building, the Lourdes Health Care Center, provides round-the-clock nursing care. The Sisters are retired school teachers or administrators, and each has a remarkable story of her own loving and dedicated service often in very challenging circumstances here and abroad.

An example is found in a memoir published just last year entitled I Hold Your Foot — a saying in Liberian English that means “I plead with you.” Its author, Sister Leonora Tucker, focuses on her 27 years of educational service on the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa in Liberia and in refugee camps for Liberians in nearby Ghana. Her memoir covers the prolonged period of intensely violent Liberian civil war spanning the early 1990s all the way to 2005 when Nobel Peace Prizewinner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president — the first woman head of state of an African nation in modern times.

Of her experiences with Liberians, Sister Leonora writes, “I was constantly amazed. … Although I went to Liberia as a teacher, I quickly became a student learning never-to-be forgotten lessons from those I had come to serve: … the poor do not hoard because there is no surplus; … the poor are often the first to give and share because for them sharing is an everyday experience; … the poor are enormously grateful for simple things that we take for granted; … the poor learn to depend on a higher being and know that all blessings come from God.”

As part of her work conducting reconciliation and reconstruction workshops in post-civil-war Liberia, she helped those who had suffered so much to “move toward the achievement of peace and progress by healing their relationships with one another and uniting to rebuild and develop their country … letting go of blame and recrimination and working together for the good of all.” She documents that same spirit still exists among the extraordinarily courageous Liberians who joined with others from around the world in 2014 and 2015 to fight the Ebola virus and assist those suffering from its ravages.

Sister Leonora’s “retirement” today is very busy indeed! For example, she is one of the eight volunteer ESL instructors in Wi-ACT’s “Team Manal” teaching English to the widowed mother of five young children. She also organizes tutoring help for the children from among her retired fellow teachers, working with Villa Notre Dame’s community leader, Sister Virginia Muller, and with Sister Ethel Howley, a volunteer in the Province’s Peace and Justice Office.

The Sisters have seen some of the worst poverty and suffering in the world even as they have labored so hard to prevent it and to ameliorate its consequences. They are not “pie in the sky” visionaries, but they are definitely visionaries. They know the world as it is and hope, pray, and work for what it could be. Their work with our Syrian, now American, family is a reflection of that vision. It’s a vision that they know requires hard work, patience, intelligence, skill, perseverance, and hope. They bring all of that to their work right here in Wilton, and Wi-ACT and its family are very blessed as a result.