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Catherine and Abebech: Women Who Served our Broken World

A statue of Catherine McAuley at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.
A statue of Catherine McAuley at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.
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By Adelaida Eduvala, a Mercy Associate and teacher at Mercy Heights Catholic Nursey and Kindergarten in Perezville-Tamuning, Guam

Venerable Catherine McAuley herself designed the original Mercy Cross—a dark background with a white cross in the middle. Catherine chose this to be the symbol of the Sisters of Mercy because of her deep love for the crucified Jesus. The cross does not contain the figure of Jesus because Catherine believed that each Sister of Mercy places herself on the cross to be like Jesus.

Catherine was a humble woman with a deep love of God and her neighbors who used her gifts for God. It is no coincidence that I was attracted to the charism of the Sisters of Mercy. I love being a teacher and Mercy Associate because, like Venerable Catherine McAuley, it gives me an opportunity to use the gifts God has given me to love and serve God’s people through the children I teach, the future leaders of our island. I teach them essential skills and concepts, nurture curiosity and a sense of wonder, cultivate abilities and interests, and give them a sense of identity and purpose. Teaching students about the Catholic faith has strengthened my knowledge and relationship with God. I am able to practice and live my faith daily through prayer and by example.

Catherine’s story reminds me of another woman who used her God-given gifts to serve the least among us and whose life inspires me as a teacher of children.

This past July, Abebech Gobena died of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. Though she was not well known in the Western world, she was famous throughout Africa for her charitable work. In fact, she had such a profound effect on people that she is called the Mother Teresa of Africa. Her story of faith is fascinating.

It all began when she took a pilgrimage to a holy site in Ethiopia called Gishen Mariam, where a piece of the true cross is venerated. During that time, Ethiopia was in the middle of a devastating civil war that resulted in widespread famine. Many people died. On her way back from the pilgrimage, Abebech saw people on the side of the road, starving to death. All she had was two loaves of bread and several liters of holy water, which she shared with them.

There was one sight, in particular, that touched her heart deeply and changed her life forever. It was that of a baby lying on the ground, still nursing at the breast of her mother, who was dead. Moved by this, Abebech knew she could not just walk by. She picked the baby up and brought her home to raise her as her own.

Knowing how much suffering was taking place all around her, Abebech was not satisfied saving just one child. Later, she went back to the countryside to help more people. While on her way, she met a man who asked her to take his infant son, whom he could no longer care for. As she had done before, she brought the baby to her home.

In time, she brought 21 children to live with her. It required many sacrifices to raise these children; she sold all of her possessions and even tore up her dresses to make clothes for them. Still, she wanted to help even more children, so she founded an orphanage called AGOHELMA, which has provided housing and education for more than 12,000 children.

Abebech Gobena credited her faith in God for allowing her to help so many people. It is no accident that her work with orphaned children began after she visited a shrine dedicated to the cross of Jesus Christ, where she contemplated the great love that Jesus showed on the cross and his willingness to suffer for sinners.

The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas continue to follow in the footsteps of Venerable Catherine McAuley. I stand with all the sisters as I strive to witness to the love of God made whole in our broken world.