Ruth Meyer is more than Maryknoll Father Daniel Ohmann’s niece. She and her husband Roy are his partners in mission.
“I have known Father Danny my whole life,” Ruth says. She and Roy became engaged in 1964, just as Father Ohmann, her godfather, received his first overseas assignment. Since he could not officiate at their wedding, Father Ohmann gave them a blessing ceremony shortly before leaving the country.
The missioner spent the next 52 years in Tanzania.
From Minnesota, Ruth and her large family — she is one of 14 siblings — kept abreast of Father Ohmann’s many mission projects through his newsletters.
When Ruth retired in 2004 after a career in education, the first item on her wish list was to visit Tanzania. “I wanted to experience what Father Danny had been writing about for decades,” Ruth says.
Other family members went, as well, but the trips were not a vacation! The missioner put his relatives to work. “We constructed a windmill, built furniture for a girls’ dormitory, converted a shipping container to a home for beehives and delivered bags of corn,” Roy recalls.
“The first few trips to Tanzania were to help with projects,” says Roy, who has gone there nine times with Ruth. “Now, I return to their country because I love the people.”
Father Ohmann served as pastor of Ndoleleji Catholic Church, a mission parish of 27 villages spread out over almost 1,400 square miles. He founded hospitals and clinics and supported small businesses and agricultural projects. The windmills he built there still bring clean water to local villages.
When a new pastor arrived, Father Ohmann was able to fulfill his dream of ministering directly to the Watatulu, an isolated tribal people in the Rift Valley.
“Father Danny lived the simple lifestyle of the Watatulu,” Ruth wrote in a self-published book about him, A Glimpse into the Soul of Africa. He learned their language, shared their food and customs and introduced them to Christianity.
Father Ohmann began helping a handful of Watatulu students to attend St. Leo the Great Primary School, a 600-student residential school located in Igunga. Ruth and Roy joined him in this work. “On our visits, the Watatulu did not ask us for things to better their living conditions,” Ruth says. “All they asked was that we educate their children.”
Father Ohmann formally established the Watatulu Education Fund, and when he returned to the States in 2016, he left the project in good hands. From their homes in Minnesota and Florida, Ruth and Roy work with Father Ohmann’s longtime assistants in Tanzania — Deo Gratias Seni Nicasius and Yohana Machejuda — to carry on his legacy. Currently, the fund supports 20 students at St. Leo’s and 17 students in various secondary schools.
Ruth and Roy witnessed the impact of the project during their most recent trip, joining Deo to transport students to St. Leo’s. “We drove for five hours in heavy rain over barely passable roads,” Ruth says. Yohana and Watatulu students from another area arrived by bus.
At St. Leo’s, the students received uniforms. Deo and Yohana then took the youth to a shoe store, where each student was fitted with a pair of black leather shoes. The fund also provided for a year’s worth of school supplies, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, lotion and laundry detergent.
At the request of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Ruth says, she and Roy have started a nonprofit organization “to continue Father Danny’s mission.” They registered the Watatulu Education Fund as a nonprofit corporation in Minnesota and filed an application with the Internal Revenue Service to obtain tax-exempt status.
“The program has been excellent for the Watatulu,” says Father Ohmann, 94. “Some of the former students now work in hospitals and schools, or have their own businesses.”
“God must be behind all this, the way everything has worked out,” the missioner adds. “I’m grateful to God for Ruth and Roy taking over.”
Featured Image: (From left) Maryknoll Father Daniel Ohmann is pictured in 2004 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with his niece Ruth Meyer, her husband Roy and her brother John. (Courtesy of Ruth Meyer/Tanzania)