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 her people?
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 Dominican sisters.
“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 Anne explains.
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