IT WAS the Irish-American author, Frank McCourt, who said: “Everyone has a story to tell. All you have to do is write it. But it's not that easy.” When it comes to our missionary priests and sisters, he’s right in the sense that it’s not always easy to tell their stories because of their inherent humility, but he’s sadly mistaken if he thinks that they have just a solitary story to tell—they have many and they’re often extraordinary and inspiring.
Comboni Sister Mary Thomas aka Helen Johnston aka Sister Tommy to those who know her well, is no exception. Growing up in Glasgow of Irish immigrant stock—like so many Catholics in the city and indeed country—Sr Mary Thomas could probably never have imagined that the girl who wasn’t the biggest fan of school, would go on to get a university degree, become a teacher at a university and have a major impact on the educational lives of a large number of Eritreans. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.
God's plan Initially, given her love of music, Sr Mary Thomas wanted to become a professional musician. However, as happens with all who are called to the religious life, God had another plan for her and in her case, He chose Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall as the venue in which to help her discern her vocation.
“I went to the Kelvin Hall for the Exhibition of Religious Vocations, mainly because a friend of mine had put my name down to help out at one of the stands,” she said. “On the first night, I met the Sisters of Verona, as they were called at the time and I instantly felt I had to follow my vocation. My friend said to me: ‘Your vocation is the same as mine, get married and have kids,’ but my vocation stuck with me so much.”
Her excitement at discerning her vocation led her to contact a family friend who was a Sister of Charity. She encouraged Sr Mary Thomas to finish school—something she said she was trying to avoid—and then she should re-visit it, but the pull of religious life meant that the die was cast regardless.
“Vocation is a calling,” she explained. “It’s something that attracts without you being able to put your finger on why you feel like that. I felt that I had to try life as a missionary. Why on God’s earth? I don’t know! I learned later what I liked about our congregation is that we are kind of gung-ho. I liked that attitude.”
Something we may be aware of, to some extent, is the fact that missionaries often sacrifice a lot to put themselves at the service of others, but what we perhaps don’t realise is that the missionaries have had good examples of sacrifice among their families and in their own lives prior to going away on mission. Sr Mary Thomas’ mother and father both worked hard to ensure that she could attend a ‘good school,’ as she puts it, Notre Dame, and were open to her decision to become a Comboni Sister.
“I had a wee brother” Sr Mary Thomas said. “I was only 11 months old. He was born Tommy, Baptised by the doctor and then died. It ruined my mother for having any other children. So, that was me on my own. But the beautiful thing was, that when it came to saying to my family—to my mother and father—my father answered me: ‘If you have been chosen by God, we are privileged.’ I didn’t realise what a sacrifice it was that I was laying on their shoulders, but they accepted it.”
Education in Eritrea
After having made her profession, her whirlwind love affair with Eritrea began soon after. She arrived in the country in October 1964—in the midst of the country’s fight for its independence from Ethiopia—joined her fellow sisters and immediately went to work. On her arrival in Eritrea, she encountered people who were not only welcoming, but who were desperate for an education too.
“We were teaching mostly men, for every 10 men there would be one woman,” she said. “These older men were desperate for education. Things grew over time and we had younger men and more women coming too and it became a better place to study. A lot of the students were Catholics—but never exclusively so—because many of them were ex-seminarians, so they had an education and enough education to start thinking about college and university levels. But we had Catholics, we had Muslims, other Christians, Orthodox, some with no religion at all. There was always a good mix in the during my time there."
Working in a warzone
With regards to her own situation, as well as teaching at a lower grade at the University of Asmara, Sr Mary Thomas, the girl who ‘hated school’ was working towards getting her teaching degree from the University of Bologna. So how did this woman, who was living in a warzone and trying to get her head around both teaching and studying manage to keep calm and carry on her mission? Her answer was very succinct—through friendship.
“I draw strength from friendship,” she said. “I was very lucky and blessed, by having what the Irish call an ‘anam cara,’ a soul mate. It was one of our own sisters, who was Italian, called Sister Gabriela. When I arrived in Asmara and was sent to this community, she was teaching in one of the schools and she immediately befriended me. She helped me with my studies and a bond grew, but she was also always ready to do daft things to alleviate the tension. We see-sawed once, because the university was a building site, so we found this thing for flattening concrete and laid a plank across it and made a see-saw. We’d slide down the banister and get into trouble for tearing our pinafores! We would grab each other by the hand and run down the corridors. We even shared a drink or two from the house bottle of Vermouth! These were all just little ways of dealing with our situation and they worked. I loved knowing that I could rely on someone and be close to her and it was the same for her too. That friendship was key.”
Friendship may well have been a source of strength for Sr Mary Thomas, but it was often her own intestinal fortitude and determination—traits common in all our missionary priests and sisters—that she had to call upon with regards to the many challenges she faced during her time at the University of Asmara. Leaving aside the Ethiopians’ attempts to sabotage not only the erection of university building itself, but also the teaching of the students, the civil war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was making its mark on the university—literally. After two Ethiopian soldiers were killed, their army, convinced that the snipers had been located on the roof of the university surrounded and entered the building, which at that time housed not only Sr Mary Thomas and some of her fellow sisters and staff, but also some students afraid of getting caught in the crossfire. Despite having a gun to her head, Sr Mary Thomas didn’t flinch and even gave the soldiers a piece of her mind!
“The soldiers came in eventually and we were told that they would find the rebels in the building and when they found them, they would shoot us first,” she said. “So that was a comfort! They had us all, sisters and workers in the main foyer. Then the phone rang and me, being an idiot, picked it up, which I maybe shouldn’t have done, because I had a gun levelled at me at the time. It was one of the students who said they were phoning from the commercial bank. He asked if the exams would still be going ahead that day and I can’t remember saying this, but one of our sisters told me that I said: ‘The only examination that will be held at the University of Asmara today will be the examination of conscience.’ Then I put the phone down and was told to get down on my hands and knees. We did have undercover fighters attending the university, unbeknown to us at the time, and we also had mortars fired at our buildings too, so we went through some difficult times.”
Spreading the Good News
Despite having to live through warfare for a large period of time, Sr Mary Thomas prefers to focus on the many positives about being a missionary in Eritrea. She fondly recalled the time that her Guardian Angel—a person that she hadn’t seen before or in the media aftermath of the incident—helped her navigate her truck through a flooded river. She also spoke in glowing terms about the impact that the Comboni Sisters had on healthcare via the hospitals in Massawa and also their success in getting more girls into the education system—something that is often a problem in many countries in Africa. She attributes these successes to a willingness to be truly open to people and to engender a sense of community.
“Openness is key,” she said. "We can’t be afraid of the world as you find it. We need to be among the people and especially for missionaries, that is important. A missionary has to have that sense of community. Pope Francis is, for me, leading us very well in this direction. And mission means to go out. Our Lord implored everyone who accepted Him into their lives to go out and tell the others.”
That said, Sr Mary Thomas was keen to stress that despite the fact that not everyone has the chance to literally go out on mission, we can still be missionaries in our own individual ways, one of which, she feels is by supporting Missio Scotland.
“It's important that people support Missio Scotland because the majority of people don’t go out. If they do, they go out to see, to have an idea of the experience of the mission, or maybe they go out and are missionaries themselves here by helping the likes of the Wayside Club, foodbanks and so on. In doing so, they are being missionaries. Missio Scotland can help to solidify that. Missio Scotland is important because it’s our mission, our contribution to the big family. We have to get this into people’s heads.”
To listen to We Are Mission's podcast with Sr Mary Thomas, simply click the following link: https://youtu.be/9aS-Cht_Rvg Please also take the time to subscribe to the Missio Scotland YouTube channel
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