Experiencing the transformative impact of Catholic sisters in East Africa

Sarah DeMarais

March 17, 2020
Sarah with the film’s production coordinator, Esmeralda Blasi, in Tanzania
In 2019, Salt + Light Media agreed to partner with the Loyola Institute for Ministry, where I work, to create a documentary series highlighting the work of some amazing sisters in East Africa. The result is As I Have Done, which is now streaming for free during the season of Lent. I am so grateful that people around the world have this chance to discover how Catholic sisters are advancing peace, justice, and sustainable development in East Africa. (This is Loyola’s second collaboration with Salt + Light Media; the beautiful series Sisterhood featured the rich charisms and ministries of seven congregations around the world.)
As I Have Done is part of a project called “Catholic Sisters in Partnership for Sustainability,” funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. I manage this project at the Loyola Institute for Ministry, which offers degrees and certificates in theology and spirituality at Loyola University New Orleans. We support Catholic sisters with online theological education and help to spread the word about their transformative ministries.
I was thrilled when the Salt + Light Media film crew invited me to travel with them to East Africa! The trip was a blessing, affirming for me the inspiring and transformative impact of sisters’ lives and ministries.  This Lenten season inspired me to reflect back with gratitude on my involvement with producing the film last year, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of those experiences with you!
I learned a great deal on the trip. For every story featured in the final cut, we could have told 50 more! As I Have Done really brings to light the beauty of sisters’ lives, and I wanted to offer some behind-the-scenes glimpses to further illustrate their remarkable faith and leadership.
Here are three ways that the sisters featured in As I Have Done inspired me:
  • With profound gratitude

Sisters are deeply grateful to God. This faith and trust, nourished by communal prayer life, enables their courageous and creative service. Organizing for interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding, advocating for transformed cultures to end female genital mutilation, creating a sustainable community for families affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic – all of these powerful ministries are rooted in gratitude for God’s gifts.
I remember feeling moved by a sister’s daily morning prayer, which always included thanks to God “for waking us up today”. How often do I take for granted this profound reality – that every moment is a gift from God?
Sisters not only recall this truth with gratitude – they shape their lives to be gifts of thanks, given back to God.
The chapel at the Sacred Heart Centre with a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro
  • With genuine humility

Sisters are not self-promotional – all glory goes to God! This attitude is inspiring, but it can make efforts to highlight their successes challenging! Sometimes we had to do some investigating to understand the full story of projects we filmed or the full scope of sisters’ leadership.
For example, we were filming at the Grail Sisters' Neema Health Centre, which provides critically important maternal and infant healthcare. During a tea break with the community, I found myself chatting with Sr. Cecilia. I learned that she was the founder of Neema and had actually been one of the first female medical doctors in Tanzania – but she was not even on our radar for an interview! As she is now retired, she would have been perfectly content for a film to be made about the ministry she founded and led without being featured herself. Thankfully, we convinced her to contribute. The crew was able to quickly add her to the production schedule, and some of her inspiring words made the final cut in the episode “Sisters for Equality”.
Sr. Cecilia being interviewed about her trailblazing ministry to provide healthcare to the poor
The deep impact of sisters’ transformative leadership often gradually became clear as we spent time with the communities they serve. While filming, we were frequently approached by people who wanted to share with us how much they loved the sisters and how their ministries were changing lives. For example, the Mother Kevin Sustainable Farm empowers poor rural families with education for farming practices. Everyone in the village wanted to show off how Sr. Lydia’s project was helping their family! Visiting one home for filming turned into invitations all over the village, and as we soon learned, it is very difficult to respectfully decline these invitations! So we saw many, many gardens and pigpens that day. Sr. Lydia herself was not one to brag about her great work, but the pride of the villagers in their progress spoke for her.
The crew explores the Mother Kevin Sustainable Farm with Sr. Lydia, featured in the episode “Sisters for Sustainability”
  • With generous hospitality

Sisters opened their arms to us, visitors from the other side of the world. We were warmly invited into communities, to share meals and to pray alongside the sisters. The Little Sisters of St. Francis in Uganda even put one of their ministries, a program teaching sewing and tailoring skills to youth, to work for hospitality. When we visited the ministry, we were each gifted a handmade piece of clothing! Apparently, one sister had reported ahead with our approximate sizes so they could personalize a gift for each of us. Seeing us with the gifts, the sisters said, “Now you are Franciscans!”
Sarah and the Salt + Light Media crew wearing their Franciscan gifts, created by youth learning sewing skills
In addition to their generosity towards us as guests, we also witnessed hospitality in how sisters share their lives daily with the poor and marginalized. Inspired by the example of Jesus, sisters are radically open and present to those in need. This generous presence is key to what makes women religious such powerful leaders of sustainable development: they truly know and understand the needs and hopes of the poor and suffering, and are committed to responding with compassion to transform communities towards justice and peace.
Sr. Sylvia with Simon and John, residents of the Nkonkonjeru Providence Home, featured in the episode “Sisters for Sustainability”
I am deeply grateful to these sisters and communities for opening their lives to us, so that we could share their stories with the world. Thanks to Salt + Light Media for partnering with us to share about these inspiring women, and to Esmeralda, Charles, Jay, and David for welcoming me to accompany you on the adventure of filming!
Watch As I Have Done to be inspired by these leaders, as I have been.

As I Have Done is a new documentary series produced by Salt + Light Media.


Click here to watch all episodes

Sarah DeMarais is Associate Project Director at the Loyola Institute for Ministry. You can contact her about the project “Catholic Sisters in Partnership for Sustainability,” at scdemara@loyno.edu.