Abducted American Religious Sister a Former Leader of Her Congregation Whose Heart Turned to Missionary Work

Sister Tennyson was reportedly abducted by unidentified armed men on April 5 from the small home she shared with two other members of her congregation, the Marianites of Holy Cross.

Sister Suellen Tennyson, a member of the Congregation of the Marianites of Holy Cross, who was abducted in Burkina Faso April 4, 2022.
Sister Suellen Tennyson, a member of the Congregation of the Marianites of Holy Cross, who was abducted in Burkina Faso April 4, 2022. (photo: Courtesy photo / Diocese of Kaya.)

NEW ORLEANS — The American religious sister kidnapped in West Africa this week is a former international leader of her congregation, who was moved to start a missionary outpost in Burkina Faso after a 2011 visit to the country. 

Sister Suellen Tennyson, a New Orleans native, had served at a missionary outpost in northern Burkina Faso since 2014. She was reportedly abducted by unidentified armed men on April 5 from the small home she shared with two other members of her congregation, the Marianites of Holy Cross. 

Sister Tennyson, 83, was the only one of the sisters kidnapped during the assailants’ invasion of the home, said Sister Ann Lacour, the current Marianite congregational leader. Lacour said she believes the gunmen may have been looking for money and medicine. 

Sister Lacour told the Clarion Herald that she and other Marianites are “first and foremost praying for Sister Suellen’s safety and for her release from her captives.”

“Let us pray, too, for all impacted by the actions of this group, particularly our sisters who witnessed the vandalism and kidnapping,” Sister Lacour said. "We are in touch with governmental leaders who have pledged to keep us informed as they learn more.”

The Marianites of Holy Cross, founded in 1838 by Blessed Father Basil Moreau, claims about 140 members worldwide, about 40 of whom are based in and around New Orleans. Sister Tennyson was the order’s international leader until she stepped down in 2012. 

Sister Tennyson told the Clarion Herald that after she visited Burkina Faso as congregational leader, Bishop Thomas Kaboré of Kaya asked four Marianites to come to his diocese to help start a parish and build a medical center. Sister Tennyson joined the other sisters at the missionary outpost after stepping down as head of the congregation. 

“'You will come here, and God will take care of the rest,’” Sister Tennyson recalled the bishop saying to her. 

“I almost got this sense that Father Moreau [the founder of the Marianites] was speaking to us."

She told the paper in 2016 that she wanted to stay in Burkina Faso as long as her health and her religious community would allow, saying that she had “never felt so alive in my vocation.” The tiny parish church is vibrant, and according to one report, the clinic is so vital to the area that people walk 50 miles for treatment there. 

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans also called for prayers for Sister Tennyson. 

“For many years, Sister Suellen ministered to the people of the Archdiocese of New Orleans with great joy. Today, we express our sadness and shock at her abduction and offer our prayers for her safe return,” Archbishop Aymond said in a statement, adding that the archdiocese would provide updates as they became available. 

“Please join me in praying for Sister Suellen, the Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross, and all who know and love her during this difficult time.”

CNA was unable to reach Sister Lacour for additional information by press time. 

Burkina Faso, a nation of 21 million people in West Africa, has been a hotbed of Islamic terrorism and violence in recent years, especially since 2016. 

About 61% of Burkina Faso residents identify as Muslim and 23% identify as Christian. Several major Islamic terrorist groups, affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS, are active in the country. Insecurity in Burkina Faso had displaced 1.7 million people and led to significant jumps in humanitarian needs and food insecurity, the CIA World Factbook reports. 

Reports of attacks on Christians by gunmen are numerous. In mid-May 2019, a group of gunmen burned down a Catholic Church during Sunday Mass and killed at least six people, including a priest. Four more Catholics were shot and killed the very next day. A Catholic priest in Burkina Faso who went missing in January 2021 was later found dead in a forest. 

A military coup took place in the country in January 2022, and the new president has emphasized the importance of restoring security. But in February, at Saint Kisito de Bougui, a minor seminary, attackers burned two dormitories, a classroom, and a vehicle, and destroyed a crucifix.  

The U.S. State Department told CBS News that it is “aware of reports of a U.S. citizen missing in Burkina Faso,” adding that it is working to confirm the reports and is monitoring the situation.  

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