Last July, Dorothy Okuma was one of six reverend sisters who marked 25 years committing to a lifetime of chastity, poverty and obedience. But her journey has not been without bumps, writes Solomon Elusoji
“It is all a miracle,” was all Dorothy Okuma could muster at the occasion of her silver jubilee celebration. “God has been awesome and faithful.”
Okuma hails from Umudike, the smallest village in Ihiala, a city situated in southern Anambra. And while she was growing, she noticed the devotion of her townsmen to the welfare of priests who hailed from the other villages. “So I kept wondering and started to nurture in my heart the desire to make my people proud, to at least prove to them that God did not desert them, that they are also one of God’s chosen race,” she said.
These puerile thoughts would go on to blossom into spiritual conviction, but not after Okuma had to abandon the desires of the flesh. During her secondary school days, she moved with a raucous group consisting mostly of boys, attending parties and spending incredible amounts of time together. “In those days, when I got a love letter, I would bring it to the group and they would be the one to reply it,” she said. “We were really protective of each other.”
But there was this neighbour of hers who had found a way into her heart, as a trusted friend and confidant. When she completed her secondary school education, he proposed marriage to her. “But I told him I wanted to go into religious life,” she said, “I told him that he if I don’t go to serve God, I would forever regret it. The desire was so strong within me.”
But it was not an easy decision to take. One, she liked her suitor. Two, she was the Ada of the family, the first daughter (and child) of her parents, with six other siblings. So there was a cloud of expectations hovering over her. “I was torn on the decision,” she said.
At a point, she visited some congregations and about two gave her admission to proceed to camp and begin a lifetime walk with God. She conferred with her Parish Priest, went on a retreat for nine days, at the end of which she drew lots. The decision to proceed to convent prevailed. In 1989, she travelled to Ogbomosho to start her spiritual journey, together with five other sisters.
After one year at Ogbomosho, the group of six were moved to the Novitiate at Ilesha. But after about six months at the Novitiate, Okuma witnessed the dismissal of a trainee nun, one Philomena who she was very close to. “I felt sad and our Mistress of Reformation noticed it,” she said. “I told her who are we to determine for God who should serve Him. Right there, I made a secret promise to myself: if anyone else is to go, God let it be me. So I made a vow not to report anybody, because nobody would not be able to fulfil her dream because of me.”
Fortunately, no one else was dismissed and in December 1991, Okuma’s group was asked to make its first commitment. “It was a big joy,” she said. “I was full of praise to God. That night, I looked through my window and saw the moon with a heavy cross and a woman carrying a baby. It was a blessed night.” In March 1992, she made her first vow in Ilesa and six years later, in 1998, she made her final vow.
After her first vow, she went on to live in several communities: in Ipetumodu, Osun State, in Lantoro, Ogun State, where she attended Sacred Hearts School of Nursing, and northern Cameroon, where she spent almost 12 years.
“It has been joy, trials, pain, sorrow, but in all, God has been faithful,” she said. “At some points, I would be like damn it, why am I suffering myself. Why don’t I just live this life. But that is the shallow aspect of me. Deep down in me, I can’t. I continue to hear a voice that says ‘God has a purpose for you, this is your life and you have no other life’. That inner voice has always been my strength. When I was told we were to mark 25 years, I couldn’t believe it. It was something I never expected. I was always very sick, asthmatic. I never knew I would live to see the day.”
The parental struggle
Okuma’s father was a factory worker during his heydays (at the latter end of his life, he worked with the church as a sacristan) while her mother, who is still alive, trades. She told this reporter that convincing them to become a nun was not easy.
“In Igboland, you know that the first child, especially the first daughter, is very important,” she explained. “The mother will want to go for Omugwo, the father would want to have a son-in-law. It was a struggle. My parents were not too happy. But I kept telling them I would not disappoint them. Whatever the responsibility of an Ada, I would do it. Not necessarily through finance – money is not everything – but that I would always be there for my family and siblings through my counselling and prayers.
“Sometimes, the fear of parents is they don’t want you to go and come back, shame the family. But my father died being a happy man. He held me in high esteem. Right from the beginning, he prepared me as a leader of the family. He made sure my siblings confide in me. He came to accept it and was happy for me. Whenever I came for holidays, he would have saved some of his money to give to me. He would be there to accompany me to the bus stop.”
Daughters of the Holy Spirit
Okuma’s service to God is funnelled through a sect, the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, a 300-year-old international Roman Catholic Religious Congregation of women, founded in a small town in Brittany, France in 1706 by Marie Balavenne and Renee Burel, who committed themselves to live together and to devote their lives to the service of the poor, the sick and children, recognising in them the person of Jesus Christ.
Through three centuries, the Sisters have found ingenious ways of surviving revolution, persecution and the myriad changes which religious life has undergone since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Displaced by anti-clerical persecution in their homeland, some Daughters of the Holy Spirit arrived in the United States in 1902. Bishop Tierney of the diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, was the first to welcome the French-speaking refugees; but in a short time, Bishops in Rhode Island, Vermont, western Massachusetts and upper New York State had welcomed these devoted religious women to neighbourhoods and parishes impacted by the emigration of French Canadian labourers to the burgeoning textile mills. The Sisters educated countless children and walked countless miles of urban and rural streets, ministering to the sick. From the start, young American women joined these intrepid pioneers and the United States Province was born.
Gradually the ministry of the Sisters expanded to include a variety of pastoral and social services not only in the New England but also in Alabama, central California, Appalachia, the Delmarva Peninsula, extending across continents to countries such as China, Chile and Peru, Cameroon, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Romania.
“Most of the daughters are into nursing,” Okuma said. “Some are into social work. We have some of us that are psychologists, lawyers, teachers.” She, herself, is a trained nurse and a certified hospital manager.
Mission to Cameroon
Okuma’s most challenging period as a nun was her time in northern Cameroon, where she experienced a standard of living so low as to lead her into depression. “I was not really prepared for that mission,” she said. “I saw houses that I never knew existed in this world – mud-raffia houses. And I was seeing children running around naked with mud all over their body. There was no light or telephone. I was shocked for many months. I was withdrawn, weak and tired. I wasn’t moved to do much. Naturally, I am the type that makes friends easily and adapt, but I saw myself struggling.”
But one day, while brushing her teeth, she looked at herself in the mirror and remembered a strange dream that she had had many years ago. In the dream, which continued for three days, she was deceived into a prison-like existence and was only rescued after intense praying and fasting. “After that dream came back, I became lively and regained my normal self.”
Okuma’s advise to aspiring nuns is to “be very prayerful” and to “be focused”. Distractions, she noted, will come from every angle. “Men will not mind that you’ve consecrated your life,” she said. “They would come with all kinds of tricks. I’ve had several of such encounters. But when they see that this person knows what they believe, they will let you go. Each time I am able to conquer, I am happy. When we commit ourselves, we should not look back. God gives us the freedom, but within that freedom, he wants us to remember who we are. It’s easy to deceive everybody around us, but we cannot deceive ourselves.”
On August 18, Okuma turned 52, but she still feels so full of life. “I feel like I am just beginning life. I pray that God gives me the grace for each minute, for each hour. I believe that the only way I can preach the gospel is by being the gospel.
“I’m a kind of character that people don’t easily understand. I am easily being misinterpreted. I struggled with that for a while, because I love justice. And I hate maltreating people. So sometimes this brings conflict between me and the others. But after a while, I just realised I just have to live and withdrew into myself. Instead of being in the midst of people, gossiping and murdering people with your mouth, I choose to spend it with the Lord. After this life here, committing myself to God, no husband, no children, I don’t want to miss heaven.”