Not forgotten

St. Cecilia’s parishioner completes mission in Sudan

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Margot Grobsmith’s wish has finally been granted. When she joined the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, she did so with the intention of serving on foreign missions. She never got that opportunity before she left the community 22 years ago.

Her goal was realized when Grobsmith, an art therapist and a parishioner at St. Cecilia Church in Solvay, served on a mission in southern Sudan Sept. 2-27.

Sister Mairead O’Reardon, MFIC and Sister Jeanette Gaudet, MFIC, asked Grobsmith to accompany them to war-ravaged Sudan to provide spiritual renewal to 22 religious through several seven-day retreats. “I felt totally overwhelmed when they asked me,” said Grobsmith. “I knew I didn’t have enough money to travel to Sudan. I didn’t want to leave the two Hospice patients I was caring for and there wasn’t enough room in the convent for me to stay. But, every obstacle was eventually eliminated, so I was able to go.”

March 2006, a six-member international delegation of religious communities from the Union of Superiors General, explored the ways in which they might help the people in Sudan after Bishop Joseph Gasi addressed the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation meeting in Rome, Italy. Bishop Gasi said that the Sudanese were suffering and he asked for help. The bishop wanted someone to teach them how to help themselves.

“The Sudanese people are gentle and proud and are not looking for handouts,” said Grobsmith. “They only request that the communities and laity would come for short periods of time to do intensive teaching so that they, themselves, can employ the techniques to (assist in the) rebuild the infrastructures which have been so damaged by more than 40 years of war.”

Grobsmith explained that because professionals and western missionaries have been expelled from Sudan, they have a very limited base of educated and experienced people upon whom they can depend. The general population’s education level reaches only through the sixth grade. A few of the Sudanese were fortunate enough to escape to Uganda, where they were able to continue their education.

A document prepared by the Congress of Consecrated Religious explored a new paradigm for collaboration between religious congregations and laity.

Southern Sudan was selected because of its unique opportunities for transformation. Because northern and southern Sudan had been engaged in a civil war for the last 40 years in addition to tribal warfare and invasions from other countries, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 between the government and the People’s Liberation Army Movement.

The Sisters of the Sacred Heart, an indigenous community in Juba which is the interim capital of southern Sudan, had specifically requested spiritual renewal due to the affects of 40 years of war on their physical, emotional and spiritual well being. After arriving in Juba, Sister Mairead and Sister Jeanette provided individual spiritual direction and Grobsmith utilized art therapy techniques to guide  meditation sessions during the retreats.

Following the seven-day retreats, the trio offered alternative to violence workshops, which Sister Mairead had initiated in Australia, to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and also to the Sudanese school children. “It’s the most amazing thing,” said Grobsmith. “It was developed in the New York State prison system by the Quakers. It’s very intense — it teaches one the importance of respecting and listening to one another and also to think before reacting to things.”

Grobsmith said that she also helped out by working to get a recently-opened school ready for the Sudanese children. Because there was a shortage of books, the reading material was fastened to the walls in the school. Grobsmith used her artistic ability to facilitate the children’s learning by painting numbers and the letters of the alphabet on the walls outside the school. Next to each letter, Grobsmith painted a picture and a word that began with that letter.

In addition to teaching the children how to read and how to identify numbers, the students in the upper grades are in the process of forming a debate team.

Grobsmith said that because there is a great deal of  corruption in their government, it is difficult for the natives to trust their leaders. There are many tribal differences that come into play. “They’re being educated as to how to make good decisions and to think things through,” said Grobsmith.

The Solidarity Project, founded by the Union of Superiors General, hope that other religious communities and laity will continue to send missionaries such as Grobsmith, Sister Mairead and Sister Jeanette to teach the Sudanese how to combat the education and health issues they face. Grobsmith said the project is consistently gaining interest among religious communities. “Major Superiors have decided to contribute what they can,” said Grobsmith. “Each month, a different community sends someone to teach.”

A training school for nurses is now being established in Wau, Sudan to address the non-existence of nurses in the hospitals. “It’s a very exciting project,” said Grobsmith. “Sister Patricia Cordwell, MFIC, who is from Australia, is joining six other sisters from different religious communities to set up the school. It’ll be headed by two Comboni Missionary Sisters from Italy. They are amazing women.

“It was an honor to be part of this adventure and demonstrate to the Sacred Heart Sisters that they are no longer forgotten by the international community and other religious. It was a privilege to be part of this return to our roots of Christian community where each person did what they could to live out the message of Jesus — to love one another, bringing peace on earth and good will to all.”

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