“Opportunity to be missionary”: Australian Nun on South Sudan Mission, 20 Years in Africa

Sr. Rita Grunke seated between two South Sudanese women during her farewell celebration at St. Josephine Bakhita Mapuordit Parish on 20 October 2023. Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

Sr. Rita Grunke, an Australian member of the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Sacred Heart (OLSH), who is leaving South Sudan for her native country after two decades of service in Africa looks back at her experience in the world’s newest nation with appreciation.

“Rumbek Diocese has offered me the opportunity to be a missionary really into the heart of the communities, women, and family life, and other services to the community,” 82-year-old Sr. Rita has told ACI Africa in an interview, recalling her 19-year apostolate in the South Sudanese Catholic Diocese.

Set to leave South Sudan for Nairobi on Wednesday, October 25 before proceeding to Australia a few days later, Sr. Rita joined members of her Religious Congregation at St. Josephine Bakhita Mapuordit Parish of the Catholic Diocese of Rumbek when she arrived in South Sudan in 2004. She joined late Sr. Mary Batchelor who had arrived in the South Sudanese Catholic mission in 1996. 

Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

Speaking to ACI Africa on Monday, October 23, after her farewell party over the weekend, Sr. Rita recalled her first encounter with “real suffering” when she arrived in Rumbek Diocese that was under the leadership of the late Bishop Caesar Mazzolari


“When I first came it was really the plight of the women that touched my heart because it was the first time I saw real suffering among the women,” the OLSH member said, and added, “Polygamy has severe effects on family life and mothers carry the weight of the family; they gather school fees and look after the children.” 

Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

She recalled the initiatives she had with various stakeholders in view of empowering women around St. Josephine Bakhita Mapuordit Parish.

“When I first came, we had groups; we had community meetings with mothers and government representatives,” Sr. Rita recalled, adding, “We tried in those meetings to bring families together in order to support the mothers.”

Over the years, she has facilitated the realization of “simple gardens”, having embarked on farming through irrigation as “the real empowerment”, the Australian Catholic Nun who has been known for facilitating the drilling of boreholes for local communities in Rumbek Diocese told ACI Africa, taking pride in the fact that through the initiative, “many different groups of women have gardens.”

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Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

“Women have got greens, tomatoes, pawpaw, and onions,” she further said, and added, “I have worked a lot through agriculture trying to support the mothers to support and look after their children in a healthier lifestyle.”

The OLSH member who said she “arrived in Africa at the end of 2003 and in South Sudan in January 2004” went on to describe her service in the world’s youngest nation as “a beautiful occasion” and the Diocese of Rumbek as “a beautiful place”.

Sr. Rita accompanying a bereaved widow in Papua New Guinea in 2001. Credit: OLSH

“I have really enjoyed this time in South Sudan,” she reiterated, and added, “It is a kind of mission that I really wanted to come to. I was impressed with the foundation OLSH members laid.”


Sr. Rita continued, “I had followed in the footsteps of the pioneering sisters; they were a source of inspiration and it is my joy to be part of them in the Diocese of Rumbek and in Mapuordit.”

OLSH pioneer members in Rumbek Diocese, she recalled, “talked about the people; they talked about poverty; they talked about so much that really appealed to me and I really wanted to be able to be part of that mission.”

Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

“I’m leaving Mapuordit; I’m going back to Australia because I am already at a certain age and health begins to diminish,” Sr. Rita told ACI Africa during the October 23 interview.

While in Australia, Sr. Rita said she would take up “simple things in a small rural parish.”

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“I hope to guide a rural Catholic Parish as a pastoral person, to do catechetics in schools,” the Australian OLSH member said.

Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

In his message on the occasion of the farewell of Sr. Rita at St. Josephine Bakhita Mapuordit Parish on October 20, Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek Diocese made reference to the farewell speech of St. Paul to Ephesus’ elders.

“I find so many connections between the experience of St Paul and the life witness of Sr. Rita,” Bishop Carlassare said, and explained, “In his last words, Paul did not remind people of any specific doctrine; he spoke about his way of life: the way he related to people.”

Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek Diocese. Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

He lauded Sr. Rita for her “concrete gestures of love” in her apostolate among the people of God, love that was “expressed in simplicity, in the daily work, in ordinary things”.

Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

“Paul did not have any personal ambition, or a special group of friends to please: he was there just to serve the Lord,” the Italian-born member of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus (MCCJ) said, hinting to the manner Sr. Rita conducted herself in the South Sudanese Diocese.

“Paul shows concern… for the people, the poor, the Church … St Paul did not withdraw … There is a consistency in his life witness … He was always the same person in love for Jesus, the Gospel and the Church, nothing else … St Paul walks toward Jerusalem like Jesus did. He looks to the good of the Christian community and fulfil it through love and self-giving. In conclusion, Paul looks into his future,” Bishop Carlassare said, adding, “This is the life witness of Sr. Rita. Thank you, Lord, for her life and vocation. Thank you, Sr. Rita, for your love and generosity.”

Credit: OLSH/Rumbek Diocese/South Sudan

“I heard that several people were rightly calling you ABUNA RITA (Arabic word for Priest); they did so because of your strength and spiritual guidance offered to the communities,” the Catholic Bishop, who has ministered in South Sudan since 2005 said.

Bishop Carlassare implored, “May the Lord call religious sisters like you among our girls. May girls respond generously, and their parents, after your example.”

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