Saints for Our Times: Blessed Maria Clémentine was martyred in the Congo
By Mary Lou Gibson
The killing of Congolese Sister Maria Clémentine Anuarite Nengapeta in 1964 was a brutal example of the atrocities many people suffered during the civil war that had devastated the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the end of the Second World War. She was a teacher in the Holy Family School in Bafwabaka when guerilla fighters known as the Simbas (Lions) invaded the compound. All of the Holy Family nuns were herded into a truck to be driven to Isiro where the Simbas had their headquarters. The Simbas told them not to be afraid. They were taking them to a place where they would be safe from the Americans.
The country was in a civil war that was a continuation of the transfer of power from the European colonial powers that dominated Africa in the second half of the 19th century. Kathleen Jones writes in “Women Saints” that Britain and France invested much effort to secure peaceful handovers and relatively stable governments. The transfer of power was especially catastrophic in the Congo.
There were many small French and Belgian Catholic missions in the country which had set up hospitals and schools. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that although the missions were largely staffed by Congolese converts, the Simbas regarded these as traitors to the cause of Africa and attacked many of the missions.
As the journey continued for the sisters, it became a nightmare. Burns writes that the increasingly drunken soldiers stopped in villages along the way looting everything and terrorizing the inhabitants.
On the second day of the journey, they were stopped by a Simba colonel who was infuriated when he saw one sister saying the rosary. He ordered all the devotional articles to be thrown into the bush. The sisters were told to go back to Bafwabaka and dress like “proper African women.”
But instead, the sisters were driven to Isiro. All were taken into a house except for Sister Maria Clémentine who was the youngest. She was kept back to spend the night with the officers. Maria Clémentine protested and clung to her superior, Mother Kasima, saying she would rather die than submit to such a sin. Mother Kasima acted to protect Maria Clémentine telling the officer that it was not possible for the girl to go with him; her vows could not be violated.
Jones writes that this further infuriated the officers and one of them began to beat the women with his revolver. Maria Clémentine was beaten to the ground and the officer called to the watching Simbas to kill her shouting that she had attacked him. Two of the guerillas rushed up and stabbed her repeatedly. Then the officer shot her through the heart.
Her body was taken back into the house and after a few days of threats of rape or death by the Simbas, the rest of the community was rescued by government troops. But this was not the end of the story for Sister Maria Clémentine. Years later in 1980, her body was exhumed from its burial place and reburied in Isiro Cathedral. In that year St. John Paul II made his first visit to Zaire and approved Maria Clémentine’s cause. The story of this young sister and her acceptance of martyrdom lived on as an outstanding example of courage and fidelity.
Maria Clémentine was born on Dec. 29, 1939, in Matali, Wamba in Upper Zaire and received the name Anuarite Nengapeta. Her family was not Christian, but in time her mother and sister were attracted to the faith. Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that all of them took instruction at their local mission and were baptized in 1945. Anuarite was a very devout child and soon realized that she had a religious vocation. She entered the Holy Family Sisters at Bafwabaka at age 15 and was professed into the religious life in 1959 and took the name Maria Clémentine.
Jones writes that the story of Sister Maria Clémentine Anuarite Nengapeta was a message to Africans that Christianity is not merely a European faith, to be discarded with political independence. The Catholic Church in Central Africa was strengthened by her witness according to Jones.
St. John Paul II beatified Maria Clémentine on Aug. 15, 1985, in Kinshasa, the capital. Zaire subsequently became the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is revered as a martyr for purity and her remembrance day is Dec. 1.