The Joy of Coming Together with Sister Wanzagi
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Maryknoll Sister Susan Wanzagi from Tanzania shares blessings and is blessed serving in East Timor.

O ne morning when she was in the marketplace in East Timor, Maryknoll Sister Susan Wanzagi had an experience she was not prepared for.

“A woman came up to me and said, ‘Because I did not go to Mass, I want to kiss your hand to get a blessing,’ ” she recalls. Initially taken aback, Sister Wanzagi was moved by the woman’s respect for her religious vocation and obliged. 

“I have many blessings that I may share with others,” she says. 

Since 2018 she has been doing just that in the southeastern Asian nation of East Timor, where she serves in mission. 

Sister Wanzagi, who was born in Musoma, Tanzania, is one of five Maryknoll Sisters, all from different cultures, currently serving the people of Sts. Peter and Paul parish in the mountainous district of Aileu. There she uses her skills and experience as a teacher to do what she calls “informal education,” outside of a school setting. “I teach English to the children, youths, and professional people like doctors, firefighters and police,” she says.

Maryknoll Sisters Julia Shideler (left) and Susan Wanzagi (right) visit homes and listen to the concerns of their neighbors in Aileu. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

Maryknoll Sisters Julia Shideler (left) and Susan Wanzagi (right) visit homes and listen to the concerns of their neighbors in Aileu.
(Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

She also works with a youth club that aims to help deepen the faith of young Timorese through weekly Bible study, retreats, feast day celebrations and singing at their parish church. “These young people are learning that to be Christian means to reach out to help others who are needy, by visiting the sick and doing charitable works,” Sister Wanzagi says.

The parish, she adds, has a Divine Mercy group, which—like other such groups throughout the world—is committed to spreading the message of God’s love for all. This devotion was ignited by apparitions in the 1930s to Polish Sister Faustina Kowalska, now a saint, in which Jesus instructed her to make known God’s merciful love in a variety of ways. All Divine Mercy groups commit to saying special prayers each afternoon at 3 o’clock, the hour of the Crucifixion.

“In our group we pray the Divine Mercy prayers every day at 3 o’clock and visit people who are sick at home or in the hospital,” says Sister Wanzagi. “We also visit people who are needy, the elderly and disabled. We prepare and distribute packages of basic things like food, shampoo, oil and soap.” Sometimes, she says, the youth and Divine Mercy groups work together doing charitable works.

Sister Wanzagi sees her role in all these groups as advisory. “My ministries help me share the love of God with the Timorese and build relationships with them,” she says.

When Dominican friars first came to East Timor with Portuguese traders in the 16th century, they planted the seed of the Christian faith and the Catholic Church, which has helped the people to survive occupations by foreign nations and tremendous suffering, persecution and wars.

Catholics today make up about 85% of the inhabitants of the country, and Sister Wanzagi is inspired by their religiosity.

Sister Susan Wanzagi (white shirt) joins the women’s group in clearing their cornfield after they harvested the crop to feed their families and sold the surplus. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

Sister Susan Wanzagi (white shirt) joins the women’s group in clearing their cornfield after they harvested the crop to feed their families and sold the surplus. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

She also finds much in the Timorese culture that is similar to her own Tanzanian culture. “For example,” she says, “when visiting a family, they will prepare food for you, and if they do not have much food, they will prepare coffee or tea. This culture of generosity is the same as my Tanzanian culture and this makes me feel at home.”

East Timor has two official languages, Portuguese and Tetun, the dialect of the Timorese people. Already fluent in Swahili, English and the tribal dialects of her own country, Sister Wanzagi concentrated on learning the Tetun language shortly after arriving in East Timor by taking formal classes at the language school in the capital of Dili for two months. She is now fluent in Tetun, which enables her to be of service and to develop friendships with the many women, teenagers and children with whom she works. “I thank God that I now speak Tetun, and I really like the language,” she says.

Sister Wanzagi beams in the background as children she mentors show off their artwork. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

Sister Wanzagi beams in the background as children she mentors show off their artwork. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

The Democratic Republic of East Timor is one of the poorest nations in the world. According to the World Bank, 20% of the population is unemployed and 52.9% live on less than $1.25 a day. As a result, many struggle to feed their families, educate their children and care for their sick, all of which leads to domestic abuse and sometimes abandonment by husbands. Despair has led many men and women to commit suicide.     

Sister Wanzagi and Divine Mercy group visit an elderly neighbor. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

Sister Wanzagi and Divine Mercy group visit an elderly neighbor. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women who had a small business selling food or doughnuts had to close down and soon found themselves unable to feed their families. This included a women’s group that Sister Wanzagi accompanies. The group chose to look for a solution.

“We decided to have a women’s garden and we started cultivating vegetables, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and corn,” says Sister Wanzagi. “This has enabled the women to feed their children and family members as well as to build their agricultural skills.”

By growing enough food as a group, they are able to sell the surplus of what they grow, thus helping the project to be sustainable and a source of income.

“Another very positive and most important result,” Sister Wanzagi adds, “is that it has helped the women to build good relationships among themselves, and to experience that working together gives them strength.” This, she says, is a blessing for all.

Featured image: En route to deliver the supply package on her head, Sister Susan Wanzagi and youth pause for a selfie. (Courtesy of Susan Wanzagi/East Timor)

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About the author

Mary Ellen Manz, M.M.

Maryknoll Sister Mary Ellen Manz of Jamaica, New York, entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation in 1950 after having graduated from the Mary Louis Academy. She served in Chile, South Sudan and in different positions at the Maryknoll Sisters Center. She is also the Sisters’ liaison to Maryknoll Magazine and has written many articles about the Sisters for the publication.