When Sister Emily Wureh, S.H.F., was a young girl growing up in Liberia she remembers a missionary sister who had a life-altering impact on her. Sister Leonora Tucker, S.S.N.D., of the School Sisters of Notre Dame was the supervisor of a Catholic elementary school she attended. Her most vivid memories about Sister Leonora were what any fourth- or fifth-grade kid would remember, that she was a fount of all kinds of delicious sugary confections.
Sister Emily visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the first time for a Mass on World Mission Sunday, Oct. 20. The first several rows in the cathedral were filled with missioners from many religious congregations. She is in the United States to continue her graduate studies at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morris Township, N.J.
“She was so nice to the kids. She always gave us sweets and lots of goodies,” Sister Emily recalled. “I told my parents when I grow up, I would like to be like this lady. She was the one that really inspired me. She has been my role model since I was a kid.”
Not long after that, Sister Emily’s childhood was shattered. In 1989, war broke out in Liberia, the first of two civil wars, bifurcated by a short, troubled “peace,” that would last 14 years. Sister Emily was only nine when war came. Most horrifying were that the two wars, 1989-1997 and 1999-2003, were largely fought by children not much older than her. The Guardian newspaper has estimated that 200,000 people died in the 14 years of fighting.
Forced into internal and then external exile, her family was scattered and her parents would go missing. During that time, Sister Emily made a promise to God that was far more profound than the sugar dreams of a little girl.
“The Liberian war became so severe we had to flee to the Ivory Coast. I was malnourished,” she said. “My parents were captured by the rebels. We thought they were dead. But I kept praying to God, ‘Lord, if you end this war, I’m going to serve you. If you bring back my parents, I’m going to serve you all through my life.’ And one fine morning I saw them coming. It was like a family reunion. We cried and I kept the faith. And I kept praying. I knew God would bring the war to an end.”
By then, she had lost contact with the School Sisters of Notre Dame but a new order, organized in Liberia, had been founded in 1979 and dedicated to promoting the values of strong families. Sister Emily attended a vocations discussion at her school and though she was a little shy at first, she approached the sister who had led the discussion and said she would like to join.
She said visiting the United States has inspired a new prayer. And she’s very good at prayer.
“It is very good for missionaries when you hear other missionaries talk and share their stories,” she said. “My coming here to the United States has given me a kind of idea. I wish people here would go to Africa and experience it because things are so totally different. In Liberia, there are so many poor families and children don’t have much privilege like the children do here. So I have been praying to God to help our missionary work and send some generous people to the Sisters of the Holy Family. It’s a blessing that I can be part of this Mission Mass today.”
The power of prayer and the need to be persistent at it was a big part of the homily delivered by Cardinal Dolan on World Mission Sunday.
“Here’s what’s interesting about missions,” the cardinal said. “Probably the most successful missionary ever was a young nun who never left her convent and devoted her life to constant prayer for the missions. She died in an agonizing way to tuberculosis at 24; St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus...If you go anywhere in missions, people will tell you it’s the prayers of the Little Flower that have given success to the missions. Some serve missions by going. All serve the missions by praying. St. Therese, the Little Flower, did that very well.”
Pope Francis has proclaimed October as “Extraordinary Mission Month.” The theme he selected for the celebration is “Baptized and Sent.”
“What Pope Francis is saying now is that being on mission, seeing yourself as sent outside of yourself should really be a work of the spirit that brings about peace,” Father Andrew Small, O.M.I., director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, explained after Mass.
“I think Pope Francis is saying going beyond your boundaries, not building walls but building bridges between peoples. That’s the work of mission that can guarantee peace in a very troubled world.”