There are missionaries and evangelists who take the words of Jesus seriously: “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, homeless, naked, in prison, a refugee, and you ministered to me” (Matthew 25: 35-46).
It is clear from their operations that they invest themselves and their resources, not in serving themselves only, but that they are other-centred. One such missionary was Sister Agonia Luise Radlmeier of the Catholic religious order of the Dominican Missionary Sisters. She took the words of Jesus regarding serving the needy quite literally.
This German-born philanthropist, educationist and missionary, who died last week aged 80, has served in several African countries, including then-Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia, respectively), since 1958.
Her service in southern Africa constitutes the first phase of her missionary endeavour. She was in the pioneering group of Dominican Missionary nuns that came to Kenya in 1984, beginning the second stage of her work of evangelisation.
In this country, she is well known because of her contribution to education, having been a lecturer in religious studies and methods of education at Kenyatta University and the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (Cuea).
SERVING THE LORD
It is in the area of serving the old, orphans, the homeless and refugees that she is best known and has made the biggest impact, not only in Kenya but throughout Eastern Africa. This forms the third part of her missionary efforts.
After working for about 25 years in Zambia and Zimbabwe, she returned to Europe to pursue a degree in religious studies and pedagogy at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. Upon completing her course, she was appointed to teach at Kenyatta University and later at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, in which institution she doubled up as university registrar.
Though she found her teaching and administrative work at the university fulfilling, Sr Agonia Luise continued to agonise because of the many homeless people and refugees, especially during the height of the war in South Sudan, who kept knocking on the convent doors seeking food, shelter and clothing. She decided to act to respond to this challenge.
This strong-willed woman with a soft spot for the needy resigned from her university appointment to focus on serving the poorest of the poor. She told this writer that it was like a new calling.
A talented organiser and resource mobiliser, she set up a network that involved local and international partners, her own Dominican Order, the Kenya Catholic bishops, the Catholic Secretariat and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help address the huge refugee challenge in Kenya and neighbouring countries.
Sr Luise earned the trust of development partners and the result of her work can be seen in the number of quality institutions she founded for the aged, orphans, the homeless and refugees, including Emmanuel Centre and St. Monica’s Orphanage in Kiambu County.
The work of Sr Luise will endure because she provided not just food, shelter and clothing, but her approach sought to empower recipients of her aid to help themselves.
An ardent believer in the saying that you should not just give people fish, but teach them how to fish, this missionary founded several technical and vocational institutions to train students in various trades. One thriving example is St Dominic’s Technical School in Juja Farm, Kiambu County.
Sr Luise has consistently encouraged those who have benefited from the goodness of others to give back to society. One of the touching aspects of her work with refugees is that she urged citizens of South Sudan who had been hosted and trained through her good offices in Kenya, Europe and the Americas to return home and help build their newly-independent nation.
Sr Agonia Luise Radlmeier was not just a philanthropist and educationist. Her vocation was that of a missionary driven by the words of her master and judge: “I was hungry and you gave me food …” From the same Lord, she will be able to hear the words: “Welcome, good and faithful servant, share your master’s joy” (Mt. 25:21). Fare thee well, Sr Luise!
Prof Njoroge is a priest of the Archdiocese of Nairobi who teaches Development Studies in JKUAT and served in St Augustine Parish Juja with Sr Agonia Luise Radlmeier