Anne-Marie Welsh and Bill Murray

NORTHWEST PA — When Catholics think about missionaries visiting their parishes for a weekend of presentations,

Part of the ministry of Immaculate Heart of Mary
Sister Fides Nijimbere includes visiting parishes
around the world to talk about the important work her
community offers in Burundi.  Contributed photo
they likely expect visitors from places that are exotic, perhaps even dangerous. They also often think the singular purpose of these weekend visits is for the missionary to make a pitch for monetary support for their work. Bring your checkbook!

           Indira Suarez wants to change this perception.

            “I don’t like to use the word ‘collection,’” said Suarez, director of the Diocesan and International Mission Office for the Diocese of Erie. Visits from missionaries are meant to be an opportunity to learn about the work the church is doing and, as Suarez puts it, “the worthiness of people in the world we don’t think about very often. They bring the message of Jesus to places no one usually visits.” She says parishioners are often surprised to learn there are people in the world who still haven’t heard about Jesus, or that many who have, don’t have access to worship on a regular basis.

            “Sometimes in a small village, more likely in countries outside of the United States, people may only see a priest once every six months,” Suarez says. “A bigger town may have a church, but the people do not always have the transportation necessary for travel. So this is the kind of insight that a missionary can bring to our diocese, to help us learn about other cultures, about the universal church and about the diversity in our church.”

            The opportunity for missionaries to visit parishes in the diocese came to a halt due to travel restrictions put in place as a result of COVID-19, beginning in 2020. Now that restrictions have been lifted, the plan is for every parish in the diocese of Erie to have a missionary visitor this year.

            Such visits are one concrete way the bishops in the United States fulfill their canonical responsibility to support the Catholic Church’s evangelization outreach. The commitment is overseen by the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which falls under the Pontifical Mission Society. In other words, it is one of four direct outreach efforts of the Holy Father.  

            Missionaries visiting northwest Pennsylvania this year represent 18 countries ranging from Argentina to Zambia. Some also will highlight work being done not only in the United States, but also in the Diocese of Erie.

            Home mission groups visiting parishes in 2022 include members of the Alliance for International Monasticism, with Sister Theresa Zoky, OSB, former Mission Office director, serving as a speaker, and Catholic Rural Ministry, based in Oil City, represented by Sister Tina Geiger, RSM, who works closely with Sister Marian Wehler, OSB.

           Sister Tina spoke at St. Stanislaus and Holy Trinity parishes in Erie the weekend of July 9, and will speak at Blessed Sacrament the weekend of July 16. Her presentation inspires with stories that have emerged out of the assignment she and Sister Marian were given when they established their outreach: “Be women of hope and God’s compassion and love.” Catholic Rural Ministry in Oil City offers everything from retreats and other spiritual enrichment programs to emergency financial assistance for those facing unexpected or dire needs.            

           Proving one need not go far to find people who do not know Christ, Sister Tina tells the story of meeting with a group of 10 adolescent girls dealing with a variety of issues.

Sister Tina Geiger, RSM, listens as a woman who knocked on the
door of Catholic Rural Ministry in Oil City, shares her concern.
Photo/Anne-Marie Welsh

           “They had never heard the story of the Good Samaritan,” she said. “Their knowledge of God and faith was very, very rudimentary.” Yet through dialogue, Sister Tina was able to help them recognize moments in their own lives where they, like the Good Samaritan, had gone the extra mile to help those in need.

            Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Fides Nijimbere visited St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Sharon on Pentecost Sunday in June. A native of Burundi in Central East Africa, a landlocked country of 12 million people, she is one of about 400 Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters in Burundi.

            Roughly two-thirds of Burundians are Catholic, and seminaries and convents are full, reflecting a vibrant and growing faith, she said. Sister Fides comes from a deeply Catholic family, with a brother serving as a priest and her parents giving serious consideration to religious or priestly vocations in their youth, thus supporting their children’s discernment.

            The Catholic culture reflects the values of the people in Burundi, who are not as ruled by the clock as Americans tend to be.         

            “We take time,” she said of Sunday Mass in Burundi, which lasts at least two hours. Corpus Christi processions also are done in a leisurely fashion.

            Burundi has been very much impacted by troubles in the region, with the 1994 Rwandan genocide and spillover conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo leading to thousands of civilian deaths and refugee displacement.

            Sister Fides wears the blue habit of her order and has spoken in the dioceses of Erie and Scranton, in addition to the Archdiocese of Newark, about her order’s work in parishes, schools, hospitals and other environments in Burundi, helping orphans, street children, the elderly and other people in need of assistance.

            “We provide care for families and care for souls,” she said. 

            Sister Fides does have a project in need of support: her community is gathering funds to construct a new building to house 60 students for a girls’ school, to replace a building where cracks and other signs of wear and tear have grown over time. She also is assisting her order in raising money for a water tank for one apostolate, in addition to purchasing 20 sewing machines for a vocational program for women. 

            When it comes to missionaries from foreign lands, parishioners sometimes comment that their English can be difficult to understand.

            “This is part of the experience we can expect,” Suarez said, "part of the opportunity we receive. We learn to appreciate that many Catholics come from different cultures and have different ways of speaking. In the United States, things can be easy for us. So it's a challenge to work a little harder.” Suarez said her office usually sends information about missionaries and their work to parishes ahead of the visit, and she encourages people to inform themselves.

            She also appreciates it when parishes invite a missionary to stay beyond the weekend, so they can visit schools or faith formation programs.  

            “That used to be the norm, and it’s my dream that it would happen again. Then we really have the opportunity to welcome them, to engage with them and to learn from them,” Suarez said. “It’s an important way to inspire new generations to continue this work.”