Sister’s mission to Africa provides enriching experiences

From an early age, Sister Eleanor Ewertz really wanted to be a missionary.

The idea took root when Sister Eleanor was in sixth grade. At that time, a group of Maryknoll sisters visited her school and spoke about their missionary experiences throughout the world, including Africa. Sister Eleanor was very inspired by what she heard. “The sisters asked us to fill out postcards if we were interested in following their missionary activities. I filled one out and until my senior year of high school I received the Maryknoll magazine that had articles about what the sisters were doing in the world,” she reflects. During her junior year of high school, Sister Eleanor looked into becoming a Maryknoll missionary.

However, Sister Eleanor had been taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) from kindergarten through grade 12 and was deeply connected with them. Even though she considered becoming a Maryknoll missionary, she entered SSND after graduating from Notre Dame High School in St. Louis. She professed her first vows in 1959 at Sancta Maria in Ripa, St. Louis.

Sister Eleanor Ewerts with two students having fun in Sierra Leone.

For the first 15 years, Sister Eleanor taught middle school students in Jefferson City, Missouri. The schools she taught in the Jefferson City Diocese were St. Peter, St. George and Immaculate Conception. She then served for three years in administration at St. Andrew, St. Louis. In 1979, she was called to serve as the superintendent of schools for the Jefferson City Diocese where she remained until 1986. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and drama from the former Notre Dame College, St. Louis, and dual master’s degrees in elementary education administration and reading from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas.

Starting in 1970, SSND were invited to minister in the African countries of Sierra Leone, Ghana, The Gambia, Nigeria and Kenya. The former St. Louis Province sisters were specifically asked to consider ministering in Sierra Leone. Toward the end of her time as superintendent of schools for the Jefferson City Diocese, Sister Eleanor saw an opportunity to make her dream a reality. In 1986, she volunteered to serve in Sierra Leone, starting a 25-year, life-changing adventure.

Sister Eleanor began her time in Sierra Leone as a teacher at the Women’s Teacher College from 1986-1989 then from1989-1990 at Yengema Secondary School. She also served as one of the administrators at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Mange Bureh from 1990-1995.

As parish administrator, Sister Eleanor was responsible for managing eight primary schools, some of which were in remote areas. One of the schools was located in a small village on an island. The only way to get to the school was by boat. Sister Eleanor describes the journey, “I had to travel downstream by motorboat to get to this school, and I had to make sure I was ready by 8 o’clock in the morning, as that was the only time the motorboat was traveling in that direction. Only 20 people could fit on the boat. Once I arrived on the island, I had to walk through the muddy river bank to reach the edge of the village. I would be met by a woman carrying water that I could use to wash my feet. After my feet were cleaned, I had to walk a mile to the school where I would spend the entire day and then walk the mile back to catch the motorboat heading upstream. On those days, I would not return home until 7 in the evening.”

Sister Eleanor recalls a time when she missed the motorboat heading to the island. “I saw an old man who had a canoe and asked him if he would be willing to take me to the island. He said, ‘Only if you’re willing to paddle.’ So I canoed to the island. Fortunately, I had earned a canoeing badge as a Girl Scout, so I had the needed skills to get to the island.”

To reach the other schools, Sister Eleanor had to drive a pickup truck. Due to the poor conditions of the roads, she would often incur flat tires during her journey. Sister Eleanor reflects, “Before going to Africa, my dad thought I should learn how to change a tire. I was grateful that he taught me. People would offer to help me but because they didn’t own or drive a vehicle, they really didn’t know how to change a tire.” While the people were willing to help, animals would sometimes make the job difficult. “Once, I had a flat tire, I had laid the lug nuts on the ground. A monkey climbed down from a tree and stole some of them. From what my dad taught me, I knew I couldn’t put a tire back on the truck without all of the nuts. I picked up a stone and threw it at the monkey. Fortunately for me, the monkey ended up throwing the nuts back at me, like it was a game. I learned from then on to put the nuts in the truck until I was ready to put the tire back on.”

Sister Eleanor enjoyed living in the small villages where she could get to know the people, she states, “I learned that people were more important than things.” There were challenges, too, like trying to understand the culture, learning tribal languages and letting go of long-held values in order to accept new ones. The greatest challenge Sister Eleanor faced began in 1991, when war broke out in Sierra Leone as conflict in neighboring Liberia spilled over the border. Tensions between tribes had always been a part of life in Sierra Leone, but the conflict exploited these tensions, creating a great deal of fear and unrest. Sister Eleanor remembers some of her students being taken against their will and presumably trained as child soldiers. She remembers civilians brutally harmed, some having their limbs cut off. The conflict increased in intensity as diamonds from Sierra Leone were used to fund the rebels’ war efforts. SSND urged sisters serving in Sierra Leone to leave the country, fearing sisters were putting their lives at risk by staying. So in 1997, Sister Eleanor left Sierra Leone by canoe and then flew to Ghana by way of Guinea.

Sister Eleanor Ewerts with the confirmation class at Notre Dame Secondary School, Sunyani, Ghana.

Sister Eleanor settled in Sunyani, Ghana, where she taught English at Notre Dame Secondary School for six years. She then served as vocation director and postulant director, working with young women who were called to religious life. The young women were inspired by sisters’ ministries and wanted to become teachers and nurses to serve others. In 1990, the first African woman became a School Sister of Notre Dame. Because of Sister Eleanor and other SSND, there are now 64 professed sisters from Africa, and in 2011 the Province of Africa was formed. Currently, there are 10 African novices in the novitiate in Rome and 12 postulants in the Kenya program.

In 2007, Sister Eleanor returned to Sierra Leone after two years in the United States. She taught at the Catholic University in Makeni through 2014. She worked with students who were former child soldiers during the civil war; some of the girls had returned from the war with one or two children of their own. Sister Eleanor remembers, “Families were very welcoming and accepted them back into the community.”

As she concluded her mission in Africa, she felt a need to reconnect with her family and friends, so she returned to the United States for good. Since then, Sister Eleanor has served in congregational services and spiritual direction in St. Louis and Jefferson City, Missouri, and currently lives at Sancta Maria in Ripa in St. Louis.

When Sister Eleanor is asked about her time in Africa, she says, “It was the happiest time of my life, and I believe I was enriched more than I enriched others. I was also surprised that I would love it so much. I admired the resiliency of the people to move on with their lives despite the difficulties they encountered. I loved how spontaneous they were and how whole villages would find reasons and take time to celebrate. If I were younger, I would definitely return to Africa.”

Sister Eleanor was called to be a missionary and because of her calling, she helped others grow to their fullest potential. However, Sister Eleanor would say her missions to Africa helped her grow to her fullest potential by teaching her what really matters in life. “We are all one family,” she says, “and we all search for happiness. We are all responsible for one another. God is so present in all people and has always been present despite trials and difficulties. God truly is the center of all life.”

Sisters in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia, are transforming the world through education. Learn more about the Province of Africa and the specific missions of sisters.

 
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