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)

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Nation by Terry Pratchett

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Nation by Terry Pratchett

My rating: A+ (Superlative!)

By way of introduction, let’s blame all of this on Julie Davis, the indefatigable contributor to the Catholic Writer’s Guild blog. Along the way, Julie described a Young Adult novel, Farmer in the Sky (1953) by Robert A. Heinlein that aroused my curiosity. Since then I’ve read other Heinlein books and began a discussion with the local librarian who just happens to love science fiction. She brought me to the dark corner, under the stairs where the sci-fi books, wrapped in brown paper, reside, carefully guarded by live snakes, spiders and the occasional gargoyle. Through her informed enthusiasm, she personally introduced me to the work of Terry Pratchett. I’m currently Pratchett-binging.

Pratchett’s Nation tightly weaves living “story” vines so every thought touch all the others. Maybe Nation is a romance novel? It’s certainly a love story and for sure a deeply spiritual adventure. It may not answer the universal spiritual questions, but powerfully asks them: Does God exist? How can God permit evil? What is God like? What is the purpose and efficacy of prayer?

Terry Pratchett’s Young Adult novel introduces numbers 139 and 140 in line of succession to the British throne. The drama intensifies as numbers 1-138 quickly meet their untimely deaths. Fortunately, 139 and 140 are relatively safe if you ignore the mutiny, tsunami, shipwreck, abandonment on a devastated island, cannibals and an upbringing that prevents 140 (Daphne) from doing anything practical, although she’s quite the student of 19th Century Science and sees it as the preferred alternative to religion. You might say she’s a proper nob lass with a ton of baggage, not the least of which was the earlier loss of her mother and newborn brother and the domination of herself and her father (139) by her paternal grandmother. Daphne’s propriety extends to her wearing both pantaloons and unmentionables beneath her grass skirt, and of course the cleanest blouse she could manage under the circumstances.

Mau, the Pacific Islander, like Daphne, loses his entire family and community while they await the completion of his coming of age mission. Trapped with neither a boy’s nor a man’s soul, Locaha, the god of death, worshiped by the head-hunting cannibals, chases after Mau. The ghosts of Mau’s Grandfathers haunt the incomplete and untrained Mau, urging him to restore spiritual order. He’s angry with his nagging ancestors and the divine power that allowed such destruction. Fate brings Mau, the clever survivor together with the “ghost girl” (Daphne). They soon save each other’s lives, find ways of communicating and deepening their mutual affection. Daphne is sensitive to the ghostly voices of Mau’s Grandmothers, who share a message totally different from that of Mau’s Grandfathers. The question arises: Can the successor to the British Crown find happiness with a “primitive” islander? In reality, Mau is no less a royal than Daphne. He is the Nation.

Mau and Daphne grow as other survivors arrive along with their problems. Mau finds milk for a starving infant on an island with none of the usual sources of milk, and lives to tell about it. Daphne delivers babies. Following directions in the wrecked ship’s medical manual she saws off a man’s shattered leg below the knee and dips the stump into a bucket of hot tar. Mau asks, “Didn’t that hurt?” Daphne shrugged, “Not if you lift the bucket by the handle.” Mercifully, Mrs. Gurgle, a balding, wrinkled, toothless elder crouching in a dark corner is well versed in herbal pharmacology and anesthesiology.

The thrilling climax features the wonders of pharmacological dark magic, the strategy of David versus Goliath, “honor among cannibals,” if not Europeans, the revelation of the primacy of the Nation and a diplomatic coup that allows the Nation to dodge assimilation while enjoying an affiliation with the British Empire. Daphne graciously accepts a compliment from a cannibal under-chief. He told her she is so bright that he’d love to eat her brain. Mau and Daphne face painful decisions that test their mutual love, growth, maturity and sense of duty.

Nation succeeds as a Young Adult novel while reaching out to the older audience. Young adults Mau and Daphne grow through confrontation with real-life problems. They maintain remarkable focus, honesty, generosity and most importantly, self-sacrifice for the good of the Nation. Members of every generation should stand as tall. The reader learns with them as Terry Pratchett weaves in references to history, literature, astronomy, geography, geology, anthropology and especially biology. The antics of a sea-captain’s iconoclastic parrot and such exotic species as the beer-drinking, upchucking pantaloon bird and the legendary tree octopus (not to be confused with the North American species (Octopus aborishoaxiensis) continue to amaze, chapter after chapter.