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The Catherine of Siena House in Kisumu, Kenya, set up to minister to people suffering from incurable cancer, is the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne’s first such facility outside the United States. By Tucker Cordani.
BY TUCKER CORDANI
As he lay dying, the man appealed to Sister Irene Akumba to
relieve his suffering.
He had been stricken with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a fast-growing
cancer that spawns large, debilitating tumors. The Franciscan nun’s face was
the last he saw before drawing his final breath.
Distraught, Sister Akumba emerged from the man’s hut and
went for Father Martin Martiny, a Dominican missionary from the United States.
Was there anything he could do to help ease the affliction of
The lymphoma generally struck children in Kisumu, Kenya, an
equatorial city on the shore of Lake Victoria where the average life expectancy
is less than 40.
Father Martiny told Sister Akumba to contact the Dominican
Sisters of Hawthorne, a religious community in New York known for ministering
to people with incurable cancer. In fact, it was for this very work that the
order had been founded more than a century ago. The priest knew that the
Dominican sisters operated houses in Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Paul, New York
City and Hawthorne, N.Y., where they cared for men, women and children who
could not afford treatment for their cancer.
In 1900 Mother Mary Alphonsa — born Rose Hawthorne, the
daughter of 19th-century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne — established
the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer.
“Our main apostolate is to help those with incurable cancer,
any kind of cancer, so long as it’s incurable,” Dominican Sister Alma Marie
Borja, the community’s novice mistress, says. “It’s a miracle, it’s Providence,
it’s free care to those who can’t afford it.”
Convinced the Dominicans could and would help her, Sister
Akumba wrote a letter to the community in New York. The Dominicans replied
that, at the time, they were unable to help. The nuns staffed five houses and
could not spare the resources or personnel.
Sister Akumba would not give up. She wrote back, insisting
they visit Kenya. Father Martiny also lent support by appealing to his
“I wrote them reinforcing the thoughts of Sister Irene,” he
said in an e-mail interview from Africa. “Not only that, I visited the
Hawthorne community at its motherhouse to emphasize the need for them to help
in Kisumu. The sisters listened carefully to our arguments and eventually came
to Kisumu for a meeting.”
Father Martiny’s visit was a turning point: The Hawthorne
sisters identified with their fellow Dominican. Arrangements were made for an
exploratory tour of Africa.
Dominican Mother Anne Marie Holden, superior general of the
community, recalls the visit to Kenya and the sense of spiritual obligation
that led her and her sisters to be more open to Sister Akumba’s plea for help.
“Initially we could not do this,” Mother Anne says. “But
eventually we began to think that God was calling us to Kenya. We made the
exploratory visit in January of 2005 and came home deeply convinced that God
wanted us to come to Kenya.”
They began drafting plans to build a new house and started
raising money. The Catherine of Siena Home, their first outside the United
States, opened last July.
When it came to fundraising, the sisters had plenty of
precedent to follow, as Mother Alphonsa had proven an effective donor-maker in
her day. She appealed for financial help through the magazine she founded,
Christ’s Poor. And, in 1926 — on the night before she died — she wrote a letter
to the editor of The New York Times in which she explained the reason behind
her order’s mission and the faith its members had in the saving power of God.
“Many people know nothing of our work with the cancerous
poor, and if accosted by a person asking for a donation would give a sum out of
politeness, mentally asking, ‘What unheard of thing is this?’ We are practical
enough to want everyone to know what it is and to give a bit because our hearts
are touched, to help build this house of mercy.”
Today’s Hawthorne Sisters carry on with the work. It was
with donations, faith and an affirmation from God that they, along with Sister
Akumba’s order, the Franciscan Sisters of St. Anne, built the Kenya facility.
The pace of the project picked up once Father Martiny found a suitable site for
the house and helped build the facility’s water tower.
In November, Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth of Kisumu gave his
blessing to the Catherine of Siena Home.
The volunteers received the keys to their new home on the
Feast of the Sacred Heart, which they also took as further proof that theirs
was a mission from God.
“Our community has a devotion to the Sacred Heart,” Mother
All six hospices were established and are maintained by
donations. The group does not solicit money; people give generously when they
learn of the cause. At the Kisumu house, a doctor is on call 24 hours a day and
the medicine they receive to treat the patients comes from Nairobi.
“It is a miracle that we can run our homes without
government assistance or without charging the patients and their families,”
Mother Anne says. “All of our homes give free care and we try to take the
patients that are most in need of assistance.”
And because they are a community of faith, they are able to
meet the pastoral needs of their patients. “We are, first of all, spiritual
mothers to them,” Mother Anne explains. “The ministry is sharing the love of
Christ. We bring the Lord to the sick.”
“It’s a real satisfaction and consolation in knowing that we
have been able to make this person comfortable in their last days and ours,”
Mother Anne adds. “They see our face as the last ones on earth and the next
face they see is that of God.”
Tucker Cordani is a seminarian
at Blessed John XXIII
National Seminary in