Faraway mission

Two Detroit nuns find their calling in spreading faith in Nigeria

Nigeria 2007

By Ronald Dzwonkowski

June 10, 2009

ABUJA, Nigeria -- The needs are relentless. The crises are constant and often genuine matters of life and death. It's always hot, and the daily risks range from crime to malaria. But for two Roman Catholic nuns from Detroit, the rewards of working in impoverished, corruption-riddled Nigeria have been worth it all and then some.

Here, their church is growing. Young people are embracing religious vocations. The sisters are part of something that millions of people depend on and consider vital in their lives.

"They are wonderful people. Very helpful to one another," said Sister Elizabeth Harris, whose work includes delivering results to people who have been tested for AIDS. "And once you develop a level of trust, you can be very helpful to them."

Sisters Harris, 69, and Barbara Dakoske, 67, took on the challenges of Our Lady of Nigeria Parish about six years ago, at a time when most people their age would be thinking about winding things down. This spring, they will each mark their 50th year with the Detroit-based order of Sisters, Home Visitors of Mary, and use their jubilee event to launch a drive to raise $300,000 to build a new home on the parish grounds for members of the order and aspirants.

"Yes, there is more than enough to do in Detroit," Dakoske said in an interview last month at the parish. "But we'd had young women from Nigeria in correspondence with our community for some years. ... We had an extensive dialogue about it, and we decided we should go. Vocations are strong here. There is growth here. The faith is really at an important stage."

The unspoken contrast is with a church in the United States that has been beset by scandals, faces a severe shortage of nuns and priests, and, in places such as Detroit, has lately been more about contraction than expansion. Our Lady of Nigeria has about 11,000 member families, a busy clinic with a few hospital beds and a delivery room, a day care center, job-training programs, an active women's group that is instrumental in parish operations, and, soon, an Internet café.

"The church is relatively young and alive, and the people are very filled with faith," said Dakoske. "For daily Mass, the church is packed. For sacraments, there will be 150-200 people lined up to receive, nothing like we used to see in Detroit."

I met the nuns while traveling through Nigeria on a Gatekeeper Editors Fellowship from the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Our group of a dozen editors was on a fact-finding tour in advance of the critical elections coming up in Africa's most populous country.

The sisters' evangelical order has grown to about a dozen in Nigeria, and the nuns from Detroit also supervise another dozen or so bright, cheery young women who are studying for the sisterhood. Seeing them learn and grow in their faith has been the most rewarding aspect of the mission to Nigeria, Dakoske said.

And the worst days? Well, Harris had a bout with malaria, but she said the most difficult times have been when the government, on hours' notice, bulldozes a slum that had been home to hundreds of people. This is Nigeria's idea of urban renewal around the city, which became its capital in the 1970s and today is a weird mix of imposing government buildings, giant churches and mosques, walled-off neighborhoods, and endless miles of dirt-road slums without water or regular electricity.

"The experience after a demolition, the pain and anguish of the people, those can be bad days," Harris said. "One day, we have a communion service there; the next day, the bulldozers come and people have to find new places to live. Our driver spent three days taking people to new places. Some of them have had to find refuge here."

And then, in a country where life expectancy is about 50, partly because AIDS afflicts more than 5% of the adult population, there is the endless task of urging people to be tested and counseling those who have the virus. On a recent Sunday, of 268 people tested, 13 were positive.

"They will say that somebody put a curse on them," Harris said. "And they have to find somebody else to un-curse them."