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Hoping for a Better Future in Jamaica’s Empty Churches, Kenyan Nun Testifies

Sr. Agnes Mwongela serving at St. Croix Catholic Parish in Jamaica’s Diocese of Mandeville.

For two consecutive Sundays in October 2020, Sr. Agnes Mwongela, accompanied by the only Priest at St. Croix Catholic Parish in Jamaica’s Diocese of Mandeville went to one of the outstations of the parish and found no one there.

Each of the two Sundays, the Kenyan-born nun lingered at the Church compound for a while hoping that one or two Christians would show up for Holy Mass. With no one coming, she took the Priest’s briefcase back to the car and the two left.

It is an experience that Sr. Agnes who has been serving in Jamaica for the past 17 years has had to contend with.

“What would you do if you were in my position,” she tells ACI Africa when asked how travelling to an outstation and finding no one available for Holy Mass affects her.

She adds, “The situation used to get to me so bad in the initial days. I wondered why people would shun Church activities and Holy Mass when they have very beautiful Churches right at their doorsteps.”

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When Sr. Agnes first landed in Jamaica in February 2003, she was stunned at the beautiful architecture of Churches in the Island that is situated south of Florida, USA.

In the place of hard wooden benches that she was accustomed to in her native country, Jamaicans have fabric sofas to provide comfort to Church goers.

“I thought that since the Church was so beautiful with comfortable seats, it had many Christians coming to attend Mass. The Priest told me to wait for the truth the following Sunday,” she says, adding that to her astonishment that Sunday, only a handful of elderly Catholics turned up for Holy Mass at the Parish. There was no single youth among them.

“I had come to the Parish very energetic and eager to engage with the youth in activities that would see them grow in the Church. I was more shocked in the following days when I called for a meeting with the young people and found myself alone at the venue,” the 62-year-old nun says.

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At Christ the King Catholic outstation, which Sr. Agnes says was started by children, there are only eight adults and six children who sometimes show up for Mass.

“There has never been more than 10 Christians at a single Mass. Sometimes, they all disappear for several Sundays so that the Priest goes there and finds no one,” she says, adding that the situation has been aggravated by COVID-19 when Christians at the outstation disappeared completely, despite being allowed to attend physical Church services.

The member of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN) says she has done everything she could to get people to attend Holy Mass.

“There is a time we used to go to the outstation before we constructed a Church over there and brought the children in the parish car to attend Mass. Then we’d get them engaged in fun activities at the parish before ferrying them back home again. This was to try to get them to love the Church. But at some point, they just drop off,” she shares.

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The six Sisters at the Parish, all of them missionaries, would also help the children with their class assignments and engage them in all manner of fun activities. This, however, did very little to keep the children in Church.

“At 16, the children just stop going to Church. As adolescents, they perhaps don’t find Church appealing anymore,” she says.

The Kenyan-born nun says that people in Jamaica seem to love fun activities. They do not seem to have a keen interest in the deeper understanding of the Church. This, she says, is manifested in the way that they flock crusades that install loud sound systems out in the open, which engage people in singing and dancing.

During the December festivities when most Catholics participate in many church festivities, people in Jamaica flock the market to do shopping and to engage in other fun activities, Sr. Agnes says.

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With many church buildings located every few meters in the country, the ASN nun finds it baffling that they are mostly empty.

The number of religious vocations in the Diocese is also dwindling, according to the Catholic nun who expresses her concern over the future of the Church in the country.

Already, a seminary in the Diocese of Mandeville has had to be shut down following many years of not admitting a single student for formation. The youth, who address Sr. Agnes as Miss, have no interest for Religious Life, the nun says.

“I try to talk to many girls and young boys about joining Religious Life and they give me funny reasons why they aren’t attracted to our kind of life and laugh off my request,” she says.

Expressing her biggest worry, the nun says, “I don’t know what will happen if we all leave. All the Sisters here are missionaries and for the past 17 years, we have had people from this Diocese join religious life and leave. No one has stayed.”

Asked about what motivates her to wake up every day and to go about her social work activities, Sr. Agnes says, “I stopped worrying too much. I know that there isn’t anything that the Priest, the Sisters and I haven’t done to get people here to love the Church.”

She says that where Catholics are difficult to deal with in her ministry, she has found consolation in visiting and sharing the Word of God “with anyone who cares to listen,” regardless of their religious affiliations.

“I share the good news with anyone who cares to listen, be it Catholics or not. I visit the homes of everyone, pray with them and share the word of God with all. This is what keeps me going,” the native of Kenya’s Machakos Diocese says.

She adds, “Over the years, I learnt that to be truly happy as a missionary, one needs to build a home wherever they go. I am already home and none of the challenges I face can make me wish to leave.”

Urging her fellow Sisters to embrace missionary life especially to the peripheries, Sr. Agnes says, “It is the best experience. Venturing into the margins where there are lots of difficulties makes one appreciate the strong faith back at home.”

This story was first published by ACI Africa on 13 November 2020