Selfless: The Story of Sr. Theophane’s Missionary Life in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea, by Sr. Immolata Reida, SSpS

Selfless: The Story of Sr. Theophane's Missionary Life in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea

This time-capsule, written in 1946 and published for the first time in 2013, transports the reader to the first half of the twentieth century. The author recreates the language, values and simplicity common to that time. The reader observes as the “Greatest Generation Ever,” grows to maturity.

Inez Maier, born in 1906, the baby of the family, although innocence personified, loved mischief. She viewed each boundary as a challenge, whether it was the fence around her family’s property or the Pacific Ocean. Her parents, often the last to find out, struggled with her early explorations.  The focus of her life sharpened when a missionary sister visited Saint Michael’s School. Inez decided that she too would become a missionary sister. In preparation she collected money for the missions (including the pot from her father’s weekly poker game). Inez strengthened her soul, body and mind through prayer, especially a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; exhausting manual labor and diligent study, especially geography.

As a young girl, she favored horses, dogs, turtles and snakes over dolls. She cared little for fashions, but socialized, engaged in pranks, plays, practical jokes and proved an effective matchmaker. Never one to remain silent she challenged adults when she observed injustice or impropriety. Her academic and parish achievements earned her a New York State Regents Scholarship and an unsolicited Diocesan offer of a full scholarship to the Catholic University of America in hopes that she would later work for the Rochester Diocese. Instead, she completed a year of nursing school as she waited for admission to the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters. In an effort to keep busy following her high school graduation, she single-handedly conducted the census for a new parish, exposing her to the need for missionaries in her own town.

During her years of religious training, Inez enjoyed a more complete participation in the liturgical life of the church. Along the way she practiced patience, a virtue that would support her for the rest of her life. She took the religious habit and the name Sister Theophane, SSpS, in honor of a recently beatified Vietnamese martyr and dreamed of her eventual departure for the foreign missions. Patiently she accepted an assignment to teach in the American home missions. The classroom proved more difficult for her, than she or her superiors imagined. They assigned Sr. Theophane to the completion of her nursing training and eventually she was asked to pack for work in Papua New Guinea, arriving there in 1935.

The photographs added to the original manuscript by the editor, Gregory J. Maier, one of her nephews, demonstrates how Inez emphatically embraced her role as missionary. Back straight, clothed in the traditional habit and veil, she sat upon a spirited horse or the seat of an outrigger canoe. She traveled hours to and from mission stations in every kind of tropical weather imaginable. She was often soaked from rain, river crossings, rough seas or sweat. She loved it. If the horse was afraid to cross a swollen, crocodile infested river, Sr. Theophane dismounted and led him across. She then led him back and remounted. Now that she had taught him not to fear, they crossed together.

She found that despite ceaseless and difficult labor, progress in the missions often proved elusive. Local customs and traditions, including a brutal indifference to the suffering of neighbors and even family members, challenged the imagination. Sr. Theophane remained focused and joyful. She would rejoice if after a difficult and dangerous journey she could bring a soul to the Lord, in the minutes before his or her death.

She demonstrates her attitude toward her calling in her description of a mission building:

“It’s a load of fun to live in such a weird house. The whole thing shakes at every step you take; all sorts of insect life enjoy the hospitality of the bush material, and funny little animals fall out of the roof quite often…. This is the life!”

She had fallen deeply in love. She loved her congregation, accepting every difficult, dirty and inconvenient assignment. When her Sisters came to the end of a difficult day, she helped them finish their tasks. When people at the mission stations needed medical assistance in the middle of the night, she gave up her sleep to ride horse-back in the rain or paddled over miles of open sea to reach them in time. Even as a prisoner in stifling hot solitary confinement, she amazed her Japanese captors with her ability to sing joyfully.

“She had always given herself entirely.” As she matured spiritually, “Her laugh was even more joyous…. Her strong soul had become mellow under the anvil of suffering. The beautiful work of the Lord, which she had tried so hard and successfully to hide, was shining through. Sister Theophane could no longer conceal the fact that she was constantly in communion with God.” Sister Theophane never grew old. She died in 1944, a victim of “friendly fire.” Her last words quoted the apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” spoken as she reached toward the wound in her chest.

Through “Selfless,” the reader listens to Sister Theophane, often through quotations from her many letters and the testimony of her confreres within the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.  You might say that she was just an ordinary nun. She founded no order, started no movement nor did she perform miraculous deeds. What made her so special was that she gave herself joyfully and completely through her love for God and for her neighbors, giving herself especially to those who had no previous opportunity to hear the gospel and see the good news in action. This book resonates with happiness, love and innocence. It might appeal to mature young adults looking for their mission in life and to persons of every age who seek happiness through collaboration with the Holy Spirit. An understanding of the mystery of Sr. Theophane’s devotion to her Lord and her God require prayer and reflection. I have been blessed to have received the opportunity to read “Selfless” and begin the process of internalizing its message. I recommend it to all.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)