In the garden level of a nondescript modest Alaska house, three African nuns joyously sing upbeat, soulful praise. Their white habits swish as they sway and shake maracas. The altar and tabernacle are flanked by statues depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. An assortment of blessed rosaries, medals and chaplets are displayed in the entry as gifts for visitors.
Every day from dawn to darkness, the three Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus (EHJ) devote hours to prayer, with daily Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, eucharistic adoration, rosaries and spiritual reading. Their cozy chapel radiates Catholicism.
Outside the door is the secular world. The three nuns are missionaries in a post-Christian nation — the United States. Their mission territory is Anchorage.
NEW MISSION TERRITORY
Sister Genevieve Osayame prefers the term un-catechized, over post-Christian.
“That is the context in which I see myself as a missionary,” she said. “Our faith has been very much tarnished by the culture of the day. The culture determines your Christianity, when it should be the alternative.”
Pursuing the vision of the EHJ sisters to be a great missionary power, Sister Genevieve identified Alaska as a ripe mission territory when she visited in 2007. She returned in 2010 to establish a community in Anchorage. In 2013 then-Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz formally approved the EHJ mission in the archdiocese, and Sisters Angela Maris Omoareghan and Mary John Oworu joined Sister Genevieve in Alaska.
“There was a great need for our presence here,” Sister Genevieve said, recounting strong support and encouragement from the late Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, who advised them to start in Anchorage. “His assuring words for the need for our presence in this part of the world was like the light in the darkness.”
The focus of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus is in the medical, educational, social and pastoral fields. The sisters in Anchorage serve at various Providence Health facilities.
However, “What we do [jobs] is secondary to the witnessing,” Sister Genevieve explained. “Our community presence here is more about witnessing than doing.”
BEING IN HABIT
The EHJ sisters’ charism is to share the spirit of Christ when he presented the Eucharist: love, thanksgiving, praise and sacrifice to God.
Interacting with Alaskans while wearing their traditional white or blue habits is a novel tool for evangelization in this area, they said. Many religious orders in the U.S. wear more non-descript modest clothing. Outside the monastery of the cloistered Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Anchorage, few habited nuns live in Alaska.
Sister Genevieve was astonished by the reactions she observed during her first visit to Alaska. In gas stations and groceries stores, wherever she went, “People would literally stop me and say, ‘Oh, are you a Catholic nun? Wow, a Catholic nun!’”
Sister Angela Maris, a nun for half of her 49 years, said that in her five years in Anchorage she has become accustomed to passersby making remarks like, “Are you a real nun? God brought me here to see you. I’ve never seen a real nun.”
“This is a mission territory,” Sister Genevieve said. “The presence of nuns in habit makes a great impact … You see people make the sign of the cross because they saw you. It’s humbling.”
SURRENDERING TO GOD
In Lagos, Nigeria, where the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus was founded in 1943, fully habited nuns are commonplace. Today 219 EHJ sisters operate missions in South Africa, Italy and Canada, as well as Anchorage, Boston and Nebraska. In all locations the sisters follow a regimented daily routine from 5:15 a.m. to 10 p.m., centered on prayer and apostolic work.
Last November the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus made world news when six sisters were abducted from their community in Nigeria. Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne, who occasionally says Mass in the sisters’ home chapel in South Anchorage, dispatched a request for prayers through the churches and social media. The three EHJ nuns in Alaska were starting their six-day annual retreat when they were notified of the abduction.
“That [news] made it difficult to concentrate, to surrender,” Sister Genevieve said. “What the Lord gave me for my retreat was divine abandonment — a resignation to God’s will, not to question why or imagine what could be happening to them. It’s not passive, but active in totally surrendering to God.”
“For me it was traumatic,” Sister Angela Maris said. Initially “I was calling on the mercy of Jesus to rain on the sisters and my religious congregation.”
After the EHJ mother general talked with the congregation, she ultimately decided not to pay the ransom. The sisters committed to “talk less, pray more.”
“We just turned it into singing praises to the Lord,” Sister Angela Maris said. “I just resigned to that.”
On the Feast of the Epiphany, the captors released one sister and the other five escaped. They reported they were unharmed and had even witnessed to their captors about Christ.
With prayers answered, the EHJ sisters returned to their serene life of prayer, ministering and pastoral work. In addition to spontaneous evangelization opportunities sparked by their habits, the three sisters in Anchorage occasionally speak about their vocation and the mission at archdiocesan events like the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference. They are planning a public celebration later this year for the 75th anniversary of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus.
AT HOME IN WILDERNESS
In their cozy chapel so very far from their community in Nigeria, the sisters seem at home in this mission territory. Sister Genevieve recalled her uncertainty while flying to Anchorage for the first time to assess the feasibility of a mission. When she glimpsed the majestic mountains, she saw the glory of God in the raw beauty of Alaska. A verse from Sacred Scripture (Hosea 2:14) came to mind and filled her with peace and assurance: “I will lead her into the wilderness and speak to her heart.”