This is a story about Sisters Martha and Breda in the Sundays River Valley, (Eastern Cape) as told to Natasha Joseph
Just one year after Catherine McAuley founded a religious congregation for women called the Sisters of Mercy, her home city of Dublin, Ireland, was devastated by a cholera outbreak. Many fled the city, but McAuley and a team of Sisters set up a makeshift hospital to care for the sick. In this, she was living the words she once wrote to another Sister of Mercy: “The poor need help today, not next week.”
Catherine would have been horrified to hear herself called a hero. Nearly 200 years on and more than 14 000 kilometres away Sisters Martha O’Connor and Breda Ryan, who live by her words, are equally unwilling to admit that they are two extremely special people. They are merely doing what they can, with what they have, to help people – today, not next week.
In the 14 years since they arrived from England in Addo in the Eastern Cape, invited by the then Catholic Bishop of Port Elizabeth, Michael Coleman, the two have distributed 100 000 food parcels across the Sundays River Valley. They’ve set up computer classes for children and adults; worked at uplifting the condition of schools across the valley – and, rather than assuming they know what is needed, “allowed ourselves to be led” to areas of need. From schools, “the children led us to their homes”, Sister Martha explains over a temperamental cell phone line during a rare lull in their schedules. Sister Breda is beside her, leaning in occasionally to add her thoughts and reflections. In those children’s homes, the two discovered how many in the valley didn’t have birth certificates, and how many parents lacked ID cards. Without these documents, families had no access to social grants. The Sisters, working as part of local NPO the Place of Mercy and Hope (both are directors of the organisation, a collaboration between the Marist Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and ordinary people across the valley), set out to help people unsnarl the red tape keeping them from accessing these crucial grants.
But now, there is a new need: COVID-19 has amplified the many challenges the generally poor residents of the Sundays River Valley face. “The biggest need is the hunger,” says Sister Martha. Food security has always been a concern, but the virus has brought tourism to a standstill and hamstrung the local citrus growing industry. Now, more than ever, people don’t know how to put food on their tables. That’s where the Sisters come in – though they insist none of their efforts are down to the power of just two committed people. Instead, this is a community effort: local farmers, businesspeople, former volunteers from Germany and ordinary residents have all pulled together to get the Sisters what they need to package up and distribute about 400 food parcels a week, at a cost of R45 000 a week. Each parcel must feed the approximately eight to ten people who live in an average household. The local Women’s Institute has also been supplying soup and bread to bolster the staples like rice, mealie mal, samp and beans, teabags, sugar and salt that are placed in each parcel. Since handwashing and good hygiene are key to keeping COVID-19 under control, the parcels also include soap. Local community workers and home-based carers help to identify the neediest households and to distribute the parcels.
When we get to discussing hands – and, specifically, the absence of touch in their daily lives now that they can’t hug children or reach out to comfort worried parents – some sadness seeps along the crackling phone line
“A real poverty is the dearth of touch,” Sister Martha says softly. Two of the people in their community have recently lost loved ones (not to COVID-19), and the two have longed to embrace the mourners. They know that they cannot: social distancing is important, and given that two are both “older than 65” they know they’re in a high-risk group for potential infection. So why not stop, I ask? Surely it would be all right to take a break?
The sadness disappears. Now, the phone line is clear and their voices are strong: “We take precautions and try to keep a distance. We trust in God. And, this is our calling – our vocation.”