Simplicity Amidst Grandeur





The Comboni Missionary Sisters have been in Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), since 1977. In the last two decades, however, the city became a symbol of grandiosity and extravaganza with its colossal and fanciful buildings. The discovery of oil in 1966, led to a massive influx of foreign workers, quickly expanding the city by 300% and bringing in international oil interests. Although Dubai’s economy was built on the oil industry, today its main revenues are from tourism, real estate, and financial services.

Visitors are mostly impressed by its construction boom. The city’s skyline is dominated by skyscrapers and cranes. About 30,000, or 24% of the world’s 125,000 construction cranes, are currently operating in Dubai. Some areas of the thriving city seem to be a building yard. The expatriate workforce outnumbers the Emiratis. They are the ones sweating to put up the fanciful towers. But, Dubai’s ostentatious investments have so high a price. At the end of last year, the city’s property market experienced a major hiccup as a result of the worldwide economic downturn and it had to be helped by neighboring Abu Dhabi with $10 billion to pay off its debts. 


Cultural and linguistic Babel

The Sisters’ primary activity is in the sole city’s parish, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, served by Capuchin Fathers mainly from the Philippines, India and Lebanon. It caters to the spiritual needs of the many expatriates, especially from Asia. It is a sample of cultural and linguistic diversity. There are Masses and confessions in English, French, Arabic, Konkani, Malayalam, Malankara, Singhalese, Tamil, Tagalog and Urdu. The liturgical needs of all these national communities are sung by 28 choirs. 

Sister Luciana Zonta, 68, is the superior of the versatile Comboni community. She arrived in Dubai in October 2007, after having served in Ethiopia and Eritrea for 13 years. Together with Sr. Josephine Martin, she is in charge of the Christian adult formation, particularly, for those who wish to become Catholics or to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Sister Josephine Peroni and Sister Claudia coordinate the catechism office which supervises all the catechesis and the formation of catechists.

Every Friday – the weekly holiday in the Emirate and in all other Muslim countries – there are more than 4,000 children coming for catechism classes. More than 200 volunteer catechists are involved in such a daunting job of imparting Catholic instruction to the youth. As many as half a thousand children receive the First Communion and as many youth are confirmed yearly.

Around 30 adults are also baptized Catholic every year. They are mainly from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, China, Malaysia… and even from African countries who hail from religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism. All of them are foreign migrant workers. The law forbids the instruction and baptism of Muslims. 

Islam is the official state religion of the UAE. Therefore, Christian pastoral can only be conducted inside the parish compound which is surrounded by high walls. And discreetly! The church, which is not seen from the street, has neither a tower nor bells, nor is topped by the traditional cross – to avoid any sign that might irk Muslim sensibilities! A simple set up in blunt contrast to the huge nearby mosques, exhibiting outstanding minarets! 

In such a cosmopolitan and controversial context, no wonder that, among workers, there’s job insecurity, loneliness, stress and depression which affect the families and, sometimes, cause their breakdown. The Sisters, especially Sr. Magdalen Lonergan, 67, are attentive to such dramas. She worked in Kenya as a nurse and midwife for 16 years. As she was asked to shift to formation, she had the opportunity to train as a counselor. In her past 5 years in Dubai, she has been providing therapy to couples experiencing tensions. A sign of the importance of such a job is the remarkable decrease in the number of requests for matrimonial annulments in the Emirate. 


Prestigious school

Sister Anne Marie is the headmistress of St. Mary’s Catholic High School located on the church’s compound. It is attended by 2,100 children of over 40 nationalities and of different religions such as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Sikh. English is the medium of instruction, but Arabic is compulsory for everybody. Muslims must receive Muslim education. The school has been teaching Christianity since its inception in 1968, based on a non-written agreement. According to Sr. Anne Marie, it is the only school in the country allowed to do that. Sr. Anna Magdalena Kozuszek is the Bible teacher. Besides, she is involved in youth ministry both in the school and in the parish.

The owner of the school is the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia which, at the moment, is headed by a Swiss Capuchin bishop, Paul Hinder, who resides in Abu Dhabi. Even though the fees are very affordable to the working community, the school is very well-equipped. It has three science labs and two computer labs for senior and junior students.

Priority for admission is given to children who cannot afford enrolling in other private schools – often the children of single mothers and/or with illnesses in the family. Another criterion is to have a fair balance between countries and communities. The staff members – who should be approved by the Ministry of Education – represent different nationalities and must be role models in order to instill values in children. There’s academic and discipline seriousness. Sister Anne Marie is satisfied with the school’s achievements: “We have good results, a good reputation and a good standing with the Ministry.” The fact is that their graduates are easily admitted by the best universities of Canada, USA, England or Australia.


Two vocational fruits

The Dubai community has been instrumental in the vocational option of a few girls. Two of them became Comboni Sisters – Filipina Sister Anita C. Conception, 42, and Indian Sister Anns Thoompunkal James, 35. Both are working in Africa: Sister Anita in Uganda and Sister Anns in South Sudan. Sr. Anns, born in Abu Dhabi, was attracted by the Comboni way while frequenting St. Mary’s School. Sr. Anita, who was a migrant midwife in Ras Al Khaimah since she was 22, decided to join the Sisters after reading a book titled Mahadia, about the endeavors of the first Comboni Sisters in Sudan. She joined the congregation in 1999 and started her formation in Dubai; thereafter in Israel (Bethany), Italy (Rome and Brescia) and in the United States of America, where she trained as a nurse. Meanwhile, she worked for two years in Jordan and in the last two years, in Uganda (Matany, in Karamoja). On August 15, she made her Perpetual Religious Profession in Binmaley, Pangasinan.  

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