Sr. Redemista Nognyani, receiving doctorate of canon law

inWords Archive


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Doctor Sister from Tanzania

By Gail Wood

To appreciate what she’s done — graduated from Saint Martin’s University, received her master’s degree in Belgium and recently finished her doctorate in theology in Kenya — you first have to know where she came from: a small, poverty-torn village in Tanzania.

When Sister Redemista Ngonyani, O.S.B., was a little girl, she wanted to one day go to college. In a country where the literacy rate is 73 percent and education is compulsory for only seven years, until a child is 15 years old, her goals were unique.

“She had a dream that one day she’d go to school,” explains Sister Sharon McDonald, O.S.B., of Saint Placid Priory in Lacey, who worked with Sister Redemista when she attended Saint Martin’s. “But there were no doors opened for her. So, for her to come to America, it was a dream come true.”

Sister Redemista is now the third woman in all of East Africa to hold a doctorate in canon law.

Communication with Sister Redemista is a challenge, given her current location in Tanzania, but she recently conveyed a message to Saint Martin’s via Sister Sharon:

This is what is in my head and in my heart: I will use my Ph.D. to help the Church and its workers to work harmoniously. This will help to smoothly spread the Good News to all humankind and to the global family. This is going to be done through seminars, workshops and teaching to different groups in the Catholic Church, especially to institutes of consecrated life and to schools that prepare young men for the priesthood. People are already looking to me with hope and full of expectations. With God at my side, I shall do His will.”

“I’d say she’s always known she was to be a change agent,” Sister Sharon says. “Because she just recently finished her doctorate, her role is beginning to unfold.”

Sister Redemista’s coming to America and to Saint Martin’s was put into motion when, while in Rome, she met Sister Laura Swan, O.S.B., of Saint Placid.

The Tanzanian nun asked for help educating herself and several other sisters.

“Laura said we could help,” Sister Sharon recalls.

David Spangler, Ph.D., then the president of Saint Martin’s, approved a tuition waiver. Saint Placid Priory fundraised to cover the cost of travel and housing. Without that financial support, Sister Redemista’s dream of an education would have remained a dream.

Kind. Positive. Industrious. Friendly. Generous. Appreciative. Joyful. Leader. Those are the words used repeatedly to describe this nun, who, according to Spangler, never took anything for granted.

“She was willing to work as much as possible,” says Spangler. “I think when she saw something new, she appreciated the chance to learn about it.”

“She knew from the very beginning that education was her ticket to be able to provide some leadership for that area.”

And, remembers Spangler, Sister Redemista fit seamlessly into campus life.

“I was always impressed with the fact that she blended in very well with our other students. She was willing to be part of the community.”

Sister Redemista has made the most of an open door, a door opened by the helping hand of Saint Martin’s. At Saint Martin’s, she majored in religious studies and graduated in 2004. She continued her education at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, completing a master’s thesis on “The Authority of the Diocese According to the 1983 Code.” She then returned to Tanzania to work for her community, exploring the possibilities of forming a federation of English-speaking Benedictine monasteries of women.

She earned her Doctor of Philosophy in theology with specialization in canon law and successfully defended her doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi. On Oct. 7, 2011, she became “Doctor Sister Redemista.”

Sister Redemista did what she dreamed as a child of doing. Her education, her degrees are achievements she’ll now use to open doors for others.

Sister Laura remains inspired by Redemista’s journey from poverty in a rural African village to America and back to her country.

“I am in awe that a woman from rural Tanzania ventured to the Pacific Northwest, knowing no one and with shaky English, and successfully negotiated her way through undergraduate studies,” she remarks. “Not only did Saint Placid Priory, Saint Martin’s Abbey and Saint Martin's University each make her education possible, it was a broad community of friends who supported and encouraged her in myriad ways.”

“Sister Redemista is a woman of great courage, worthy of present international students emulating,” Sister Laura says. “She’s a shining light for Saint Martin’s.”

“This is an example of what Saint Martin’s is doing. Everyone can celebrate that bridge.”

Closes Sister Redemista in her message to Sister Sharon:

With God at my side, I shall do His will. It all started with Saint Martin’s University in collaboration with Saint Placid Priory. May God bless you now and always.”