Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America
Worlds collided as Irena Sendler and Sr. Kevin began their ministry in the Twentieth Century. Despite the fact that theses two women worked almost 4,000 miles away, they each ministered to the vulnerable and those on the margins of life. For Mother Kevin (known also as Mama Kevina), it was ministry to blind students, vulnerable women girls, and gutter children, referring to children who were disregarded by their families. Irena Sendler rescued over 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. The compassion that poured out of each of their hearts continues to inspire many today to help and care for those on the margins of life.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto in all of Nazi-Occupied Europe and was described as unbearable. In November 1940, the ghetto construction was completed and 400,000 Jews were forced to live in the walls of the slums. Among the 400,000 Jews were men, women, and children, living in disease, starvation, and poverty. During this time, Jews were described as “parasitic vermin worthy of eradication” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). The ghetto itself was sealed off by bricks and barbed wire, and was guarded by many German soldiers. Many social workers, as a result of the invasion of Poland and establishment of the ghetto, shifted all their available attention to aid Jews that were treated like herds and cattle. In the midst of all these brave individuals was a woman, Irena Sendler. From hiding Jewish children in her own house to smuggling them out of the ghetto, Sendler was a hero that saved over 2,500 children from the clutches of the Nazis. Her bravery and faith in God allowed her to freely fight this injustice through rescuing innocent lives with compassion and creativity.
Working as the head of the Department of Social Service of Warsaw, Irena Sendler was a dedicated, well rounded individual who was raised on Christian morals. Her father once taught her that, “if you see a man drowning, you must save him, even if you do not know how to swim” (The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler). The lessons from her father remained close to her heart and motivated her to do good, building a strong foundation for the work she would later do. As a social worker, she was in charge of many who helped with the well being and care of Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. Upon hearing about the ghetto and its inhumane conditions, Sendler made the bold move top focus all aid to the Jews inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Decrees by the Nazis were issued, preventing the right to aid Jews; social welfare benefits for Jews were forbidden. These decrees issued made it illegal to assist Jews, which added another complex obstacle to Sendler’s mission. Despite the fact that it was illegal, Sendler still helped through the Department of Social Service of Warsaw. Because of the danger involved, many social workers left their positions, leaving only the individual who were passionate about helping.
Using false identification papers to pose as a nurse, Sendler entered the ghetto everyday. Seeing all the children living in poverty with disease motivated Sendler to take action. With very few options, Sendler knew that the only way to rescue children was to smuggle them out of the ghetto. Since aiding any Jew was illegal, she had to be swift and adept with every move she made. Sendler was friends with many who lived in the ghetto. Knows as Jolanta, Sendler visited them everyday and brought them food and necessities that were accessible before the war, including vaccinations for polio, cholera, and typhoid. Everyday, sometimes with the help of other social workers, Sendler would walk the streets of the ghetto and pick up starving, moribund children. She then would give them false identification cards, such as baptismal records, and then proceed to sneak them out. Sendler and her colleagues created over 3,000 false documents to aid Jewish families before she joined Zegota, the underground resistance (irenasendler.org).
As the number of Jewish children increased within the ghetto as the war progressed, the sanitation conditions grew progressively worse. Numbers grew practically overnight and the ghetto was getting quickly overpopulated. If any child wanted to survive, they had to escape; it was the only way. As Sendler perfected the skill of smuggling children to safety, she planned to help children escape in large numbers. Using the Warsaw Courthouse on Leszno Street, Sendler walked children through, disguised as Polish Catholics. This main route was limited and uncertain because different types of people worked there; some from the Zegota and others were Nazis. Sendler met Stefan, a member of the Zegota Resistance, who introduced her to multiple routes. He himself smuggled food into the ghetto using blind spots that the Germans overlooked. With this vital information, Sendler began using an alternate route to smuggle children out by using the sewers of Warsaw. The sewers were extremely useful and advantageous when sneaking out children. When brought into the sewers, children could travel to any part of Warsaw. One method included a truck pulling up to a sewer cap and then sneaking the children into a truck. Inside the truck, members of the resistance clothed the children and gave them a new name and form of identification.
What was happening was a harsh reality. Jews caught trying to escape were immediately shot on sight. Sendler, as well as everyone else who helped the children, risked their lives everyday. Still continuing with these dangers, Sendler used many items to smuggle out children, including her truck, potato sacks, and even tool boxes. These creative methods were common to Sendler, as she herself smuggled out over 400 children. Babies were easier to transport because they were small and quiet, due to the fact that Sendler drugged them to prevent crying. Children, on the contrary, had to speak for themselves and prove who they were. They had to speak Polish, as opposed to Yiddish or Hebrew, and had to be able to recite Catholic prayers.
Many adults wanted their children to survive, yet survival inside the ghetto was impossible. Sendler begged mothers to give up their children so they could survive. A hindrance was brought up by the Jewish elders inside the ghetto. They only way children could survive was if they spoke Polish and were Catholic. These requirements were frowned upon by Jewish citizens because they feared that children would forget about the rich Jewish history. This struggle was very difficult, but decisions had to be made. Many agreed since this was dealing with live and death. After a child learned Catholic prayers, Sendler smuggled them out and hid them with Catholic families in Warsaw. She then would document all the children and keep this record; Irena Sendler is also known as the “Female Schindler.”
In 1943, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Irena Sendler. Unfortunately, she was caught and lived in solitary confinement and was torchered at the infamous Piakiak Prison. She resided their along with twenty other women who were arrested. They all looked up to her and admired her because of the courageous acts she had done. As a result of telling SS Officers nothing about the resistance, her legs and feet were broken. Even though Sendler was broken, both mentally and physically, she remained compassionate and cared for the women in her holding cell. Sendler was issued a death sentence, along with the other social workers that were found contributing to the aid of Jews, which was against the law. A member of Zegota bribed a German official who let her escape, saving her life. Sendler was the only one who survived, unlike her friends who were killed by a firing squad. With broken feet and broken legs, Irena Sendler crawled to safety. She then went under a fake name, yet her work did not end there. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Sendler hid five Jews in a hospital until Warsaw was liberated.
After the liberation of Poland. Sendler began searching for the children she saved, along with their parents. According to The New York Times, 98% of the parents of the children were killed in Treblinka, a death camp just miles from the Warsaw Ghetto. She still sought out children to tell them of their past and true genealogy, as she promised the Jewish elders when she first started her mission of rescuing children.
Irena Sendler exemplifies the true definition of ministry to the vulnerable population, as she put her life in danger to rescue those in need. Her life was also a perfect model of protecting the vulnerable, living out a socially just life. As Catholics, we can learn from the courageous life of Irena Sendler, as she broke the laws of society to protect and save innocent lives.
4,000 miles south, Mother Kevin takes us from the Warsaw Ghetto to the streets of Kampala, Uganda. Born on April 27, 1875 in Arklow, Ireland, Teresa Kearny started live without her father; he died three months before her birth. She was raised, both physically and spiritually, by her Grammy Grennell after her mother passed away when she was just ten years old. It was in these difficult times where Kearny was introduced to the Catholic faith, largely inspired by her grandmother. This large influence on her spiritual life was the foundation for something beautiful, the foundation of a saint. Sr. Kevin was known as Mama Kevina among the locals in Uganda.
In 1895, after her grandmother passed away, she felt a serious calling to religious life. After praying and discerning, she applied and was accepted to the Franciscan Sisters at St. Mary’s Abbey in London. After joining and professing vows, she worked closely with British Africans, mostly impoverished, who lived in London. With the initiative to be a missionary in the United States of America, she waited for three years for a new assignment. The call did not come from the United States, rather it came from East Africa.
Bishop Hanlo of the Mill Hill Fathers sent six Franciscan sisters to Central Uganda in 1902. The main incentives for these sisters was to care for women and girls, in addition to evangelize during the peak of colonization. The Mill Hill Fathers were granted land in East Africa to maintain parishes and help with ministry among the people. The sisters departed for Uganda and it took about three months to get there. “Love is the Answer” is a novel composed of journal entries from Sister Kevin, along with some of the other sisters. An entry records, “At that dates the permanent track went far as Nairobi. Beyond that you took your chance. A trial train from Nairobi to Kisumu [border of Kenya and Uganda], had rolled down the Mau Summit. The week after our arrival at Mombasa, another trial train was the travel on this contemporary track. The Bishop was offered free tickets for us if we cared to take the risk. The offer was too good to be missed.”
After the long, draining, and inspiring month-long journey to Central Uganda, the six sisters were greeted warmly by the Mill Hill Fathers. Once there, the sisters got to work and began working with children, women, and the larger community. It was here that Sister Kevin saw the great needs for help in Africa, especially with vulnerable women and orphaned children. In 1906, she opened the first clinic under a mango tree to take care of some of the diseases and illness within the community, such as malaria, smallpox, and dysentery. In 1910, her superior, Mother Paul was sent back to Britain due to fragile health; she asked Sr. Kevin to direct the mission work in Uganda and oversee the sisters and their tasks. With this new responsibility, Mother Kevin took charge and began the foundation for improving Uganda, ranging from education to orphanages.
Mother Kevin continued her work and knew she wanted to improve living conditions and the poverty. With a strong focus on female education, which was rare in Uganda at the time, Mother Kevin founded the Little Sisters of St. Francis (LSOSF). The main focus of the order was (and is today) to teach and nurse, a mission that Mother Kevin had been focusing on in Uganda since her arrival. Her order started with just 8 local school girls. Today, the Little Sisters of St. Francis operate in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. There are over 600 professeed sisters who continue to follow Mother Kevin’s mission of helping various vulnerable populations in East Africa.
One of the tasks that Mother Kevin, in addition to the new order, focused on was lowering the infant mortality rate: midwifery. When she began this, there was some pushback from the Vatican, since this field was forbidden for religious brothers and sisters. The bishop of her town in Ireland forbade her from helping with this field. Despite this, Mother Kevin traveled to Alsace, France to study Obstetrics. A year after founding the Little Sisters of St. Francis, she launched the Catholic Nurse Training School in Nsambya, Uganda with Dr. Evelyn Connolly from Ireland. The mission of the schools was to train nurses and promote education in Uganda. Here, they trained Ugandans in the underlooked and underappreciated field of midwifery. The training school is still in operation today and has grown immensely; it ranges from Radiology to Home Care and has around 550,000 deliveries annually. Their motto is “Love and Service.” I hope to visit this hospital this upcoming summer when I travel to Uganda.
Mother Kevin traveled back to England in 1929 to establish a novitiate for women in the United Kingdom to help in Africa. The novitiate opened in 1929 in Yorkshire, England; women came from Ireland, England, and Scotland to help with her missions in Uganda. This created a problem: Mother Kevin was not in Uganda and neither were her sisters, causing a shortage for the Mill Hill Fathers, who drew sisters from Kevin’s community. In addition, the constitution of the order of from St. Mary’s Abbey, of Franciscan Sisters, was contemplative and monastic; this did not allow for the sisters in Africa to live a life of service to the poor and was not suitable for the lifestyle. Seeing this as a problem, Mother Kevin split from the Mill Hill Fathers to pursue this mission. After thinking and praying with this new focus of incorporating the Irish and English, Mother Kevin founded the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa. She was appointed the first superior general of the order. Over the following years, Mother Kevin expanded this order to Kenya, Zambia, the United States, Scotland, and South Africa. Their mission statement: “The Vocation of a Franciscan Missionary Sister for Africa is to be a woman of faith, consecrated to God in a community of love, joy and simplicity. Impelled by the love of Christ, she is ready to be sent on Mission. She responds with courage and zeal to the real needs of God’s people in Africa and wherever we are on mission. She approaches the people of God with reverence so that together we may grow in the fullness of the Gospel.” The house in the United States opened in 1954, just a few years before the death of Mother Kevin.
In addition to women and children, Mother Kevin focused on other vulnerable populations including lepers, gutter children, and the blind. In 1923, Mother Kevin opened a Leprosarium in Nyenga, Uganda (Buikwe District) near the Source of the Nile, then another in Buluba, Uganda. This was radical, considering lepers were social outcasts and regarded as nothing. Her goal was to change the surrounding stigmas of leprosy and blindness by showing compassion and understanding. What made her so revolutionary was the fact that she wanted to make her projects and advances within Uganda self reliable, which is essential for long term aid. Two schools for the blind and visually impaired were opened in Soroti, Uganda. These two schools are still operational today and have over 200 students enrolled. Most are orphans and are unwanted by society, yet that does not change the love and compassion show by the sisters. I personally know teachers, students, and the sisters within this school. They are extremely talented with their choir and band. They work on growing confidence each day. The faculty and staff help boost the confidence of the students, since many are discouraged and live in fear. The sisters encourage them as well, just as Mother Kevin did, almost 70 years ago. Gutter children is a term that is still used in Uganda today. It is used for any child that is literally “thrown out” by their parents into rubbish pits throughout the streets. This problem exists and is something the sisters in Uganda aim to help by taking in children, mostly babies, to save them. Mother Kevin and Irena Sendler did similar work, especially with saving vulnerable children, infants, and babies.
Mother Kevin retired in 1955 at the age of 80 and returned to Ireland. She traveled the world, specifically the United States, fundraising and speaking on behalf of the sisters in Uganda. She died on October 17, 1957 in Brighton, Massachusetts. Initially, she was to be buried in Ireland, but the Ugandans begged for her to be buried there; she spent 52 years of her life in Africa. Granting the request of numerous Ugandans, she rests at Nkokonjeru, Uganda with fellow sisters who have joined her cause. In Luganda, a popular language of Uganda, the word ‘kevina’ means ‘hospital’ or ‘charitable institute’. Her life impacted Uganda and the Catholic Church by showing new and radical ways to mission work. In 1955, she was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pius XI for her mission work in Uganda. Perhaps one of her greatest achievements postmortem was when Pope Francis declared her a Servant of God in 2016.
The life of Mother Kevin has inspired many people to mission work and helping vulnerable populations. Her work is still being done across the continent of Africa and in the developed world. Because of her trust in God and radical compassion, she changed society and prejudices by her love and determination. She has inspired me to continue to serve in Uganda by bringing missionaries every year. She has directly impacted my life by her example. I plan on visiting her grave this summer to pay homage to the inspiring life she lived. Because of her, there are hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of children and vulnerable populations across Africa being helped.
A single person can possible not make a big impact, yet they have a ripple effect that can touch and inspire the entire world. Mother Kevin and Irena Sendler are perfect examples of this. By their unfiltered love and compassion, they helped various vulnerable populations in dangerous territories. The world has been strongly affected by each and the work done by each is still happening today. Mission Madera, a nonprofit organization I founded, works closely with the Little Sisters of St. Francis in Soroti, Uganda, exactly where Mother Kevin lived and worked. “Personally, I wanted to be able to make a difference in other people’s lives especially African women who are imprisoned by the traditional African cultures.” This is a quote from Sr. Cecilia Akol, LSOSF. She inspired me to travel to Africa two years ago. If Mother Kevin did not continue her work in Uganda, we would have never met. Irena Sendler has saved thousands of children who are alive today who have generations of families; they would not be alive if it weren’t for her. After researching these two women of God, I am inspired and will continue to work, even if I cannot see the larger picture. By reaching out to those on the margins of live, the vulnerable, amazing things can happen (and do happen!). Merely by their radical examples can we learn that human beings are deserving of love and care, even if society has deemed them unworthy.
Servant of God Mother Kevin Kearny (Mama Kevina)
“Cause of Beatification of Mother Kevin Kearney OSF (1875–1957).” Archdiocese of Armagh, 5 Jan. 2018, www.armagharchdiocese.org/beatification-mother-kevin-kearney-osf-1875-1957/.
“History of The Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa .” FRANCISCAN MISSIONARY SISTERS FOR AFRICA, www.fmsa.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17&Itemid=16.
“Mother Kevin, a Prophetic Woman.” Catholicireland.net, 19 Oct. 2012, www.catholicireland.net/mother-kevin-a-prophetic-woman/.
-Visit Catholic Nurse Training School: http://www.nsambyahospital.or.ug/about-us/
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. John Kent Harrison.:n.p.,n.d. Film
Mayer, Jack. Ocalenie Ireny Sendler (Life in a Jar Project). Warsawa: AMF Plus Group, 2013 print
“Irena Sendler.” Life in a Jar. Mayers N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Ap. 2019.
“Irena Sendler.” Irena Sendler. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Ap. 2019.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. Web. 02. Ap. 2019. <https://www.ushmm.org//>