Fugitive For God





My friend, Peter Loceng, is a stout young man, a teacher by profession with a degree from Birmingham University in England, happily married with children. He belongs to the Karimojon tribe of north-western Uganda and he is completely blind. In the early 1980s, Peter was an adolescent growing up in the savannah of Kotido, North Karamoja, when an accident made him completely blind. His family brought him to the school for the blind that a Comboni sister, Sr. Lucia Careddu, had opened in Kangole, South Karamoja, as an addition to her large Kangole Girls’ Primary School. 

Blindness became a blessing in disguise for Peter. Since he was very good in school and passed his High School Certificate with flying colors, Sr. Lucia took him to the bishop who took a liking at the bulky, blind but smart and cheerful young man. The bishop found some benefactors for Peter and sent him to study in England. When he came back from Birmingham with his degree, Bishop Paul Kalanda asked me to keep him as a teacher in Nadiket Seminary. Sr. Lucia was very proud of him: she was like a mother to him and his success was a single but meaningful reward for her life of utter dedication.


An unusual sunstroke

Lucia was born on November 16, 1923 at Sant’Antonio di Gallura, Sardinia, Italy. The second of eight children, she grew up serene, went to school, joined the lay apostolate of the Catholic Action. Her parents were very loving and ready to sacrifice everything so that their children could pursue their education. They were very proud of Lucia, their clever and vivacious daughter, who was very committed to her education and became soon a school teacher as it was her cherished dream.

One day, Lucia finds a copy of the biography of the great missionary, Daniel Comboni, and falls in love, at first sight, with his “Plan for the Regeneration of Africa.” “I want to be a missionary for Africa” she thinks, but when she discloses her project to her parents she finds them very much against it. “If you want to be a nun, it’s OK, but a missionary to Africa? No, never! Why risk your life in those wild regions?” they exclaim! Lucia, as the good daughter of her parents, shares their stubbornness: she doesn’t give up her dream, but decides to run away from home.

“Lucia got a sunstroke” whispered the inhabitants of Sant’Antonio di Gallura when, on May 16, 1948, it was discovered that Lucia has really disappeared from home and sailed to the “continent,” as they used to call Italy’s mainland. It was really a “sunstroke,” but it was the “Sun of God’s love” that urged her to abandon her home. In Verona, on September 29, 1950, she takes the First Vows and immediately afterwards, boards a ship and, after one month, reaches the coast of Africa. With the means available at that time, she travels towards the heart of the Black Continent in order to reach her destination, Southern Sudan. 

Torit, Palotaka, Omdurman, Kator, Juba, are all places that saw her, in differenvt times, active as a teacher and discovered and appreciated her talents as an organizer and administrator, her big heart as that of a generous mother and her far-sightedness pointing to the future. All this was nourished by long hours of prayer in the morning, when all creatures are still asleep, and at night when the darkness enwraps people and things, with the background company of the distant roaring of the lions, the coarse laughter of the hyena and the swishing of the bats’ wings.

Sister Lucia thinks of herself as a normal, ordinary religious Sister; she doesn’t know that she is observed secretly by the Muslim authorities who badly resent the work of the men and women missionaries, all the more if they are active and successful. It is in this way that, in January 1963, there comes for Sr. Lucia the decree of expulsion (“Out because unwanted”). A little more than one year after, on March 9, 1964, it was the general expulsion of all the missionaries from that country. I remember the images on television of the more than two hundred priests, Brothers and Sisters, disembarking from the plane that brought them, still wearing their soiled white cassocks or habits as they had been grabbed by the police in their isolated missions, with disheveled hairs and beards, disoriented at the glare of the lights at the airport… It was the largest expulsion of Christian missionaries in the whole of the 20th century.


Pioneer of women’s liberation

Back in Italy, Sr. Lucia deep down feels that her staying in Italy will be short… As a matter of fact, only two months later, she is already in Uganda. They assigned her to Karamoja, an arid area in the north-eastern part of the country, inhabited by the Karimojon, a tribe of nomadic pastoralists, notorious cattle rustlers, always at war with the neighboring tribes. Sr. Lucia is one of the pioneers who founded Kangole Mission, a settlement not far from Moroto, the head of the Karamoja District.

The continuous movements of the people, forever searching for pastures and water, do not make you think of opening a school and, least of all, a girls’ school. One needs courage, spirit of initiative, capacity for dialogue and conviction and… money in order to try such an enterprise. Sr. Lucia is bursting with talents, and, as for the money… our courageous missionary has already spread her contagious enthusiasm to her family members, relatives, parishioners, fellow citizen who are now ready and eager to give a hand. By means of a thick correspondence that steals her precious night hours, she has already involved so many benefactors who share in her projects and keep sending her financial help.

The experience done in the Sudan has taught Sr. Lucia that if she succeeds in convincing the elders about the usefulness of a project, she can be sure of the result. Therefore, she started an intense and respectful dialogue with the elders and got the green light about building the first classroom, with the help of the local community and using the material that the people were using in building their huts: timber, mud, cow dung, stones…

Little by little the first girls start arriving… Their number increases year after year until the 800 of the present time. The small hill where Kangole mission is located is little by little covered with buildings: classrooms, dormitories, kitchen and refectory, several offices because the dynamism of Sr. Lucia has shown that the place has possibilities of development even in agriculture. 

When I met her, she had already grown old, with her body twisted by arthritis. Only Sr. Lucia’s ingenuity and experience of decades of stubborn presence in the place had enabled the school to remain open and well-attended against all odds… I remember the long lines of Karimojon women waiting in front of the school with bundles of firewood, pleading Sr. Lucia to accept their firewood instead of cash as school fee.


A force of nature

Beside the girls’ school, Sr. Lucia’s motherly heart is struck by the realization of the many blind young people present in the area. Something must be done for them also and this is how she started a school for the blind according to the Braille method and added music and typing. Among the blind, some, like Peter Loceng, are distinguished by outstanding academic performance and Sr. Lucia does her best to see that they continue to the university and get degrees.

“Sr. Lucia is a real force of nature” declared the then Mother General of the Comboni Sisters, Sr. Federica Bettari. “Ten Sisters like her could well convert the whole nation and, in this way, make people re-own their human dignity, without depending on anybody else.” “This Sister is a bomb! When she speaks of her mission, she is so affectionate and irradiates such warmth that none can remain indifferent. We could spend hours listening to her talking, without getting tired” echoed the nurses and fellow patients who have known her during the time she was admitted to Negrar Hospital, in Verona, after she reluctantly had left Karamoja.

Notwithstanding her twisted body, the difficulty she had in breathing and the little mobility, Sr. Lucia kept her enthusiasm and indomitable faith. Leaving Verona for Erba, where she will depart for Heaven, she carried three dreams: to go back to Karamoja; to receive the news that Sr. Giovannina, a young Comboni sister also from Sardinia, who was her dear friend and very gravely sick, has recovered; and to witness the opening of a community of Comboni Sisters in her island, Sardinia….

But Heaven was calling and the dreams of this world must give way. On January 14, 2002, surrounded by her con-sisters and assisted by some family members, Sr. Lucia peacefully passed from this world to the next, to receive the reward of her extraordinary life. Sr. Giovannina had preceded her to Heaven three months before. There is still no Comboni Sisters’ community in Sardinia.

Thinking of her, I am reminded of the generous and gallant words that Comboni wrote about his women missionaries: “These Sisters are the true image of the ancient women of the Gospel, who, with the same facility with which they teach the alphabet to the orphans in Europe, cross deserts on camels, sleep in the open air under a tree, scold immoral men for their vices, claim justice from pagan courts for the oppressed, do not fear hyenas and a lion’s roaring, disastrous journeys and even death to win souls for the Church. They respond with miraculous weakness, their own force, to the Heart of Jesus who came to bring fire to the world. They are the shield, strength and guarantee of the ministry of the missionary priest.” 


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