The end of an era for St John's Mission
How is this possible? How can three women, who gave more than 30 years of their lives to the betterment of the most vulnerable people in Mpumalanga, have quietly returned to their homes in America and Slovakia without any public expression of gratitude, recognition or even simple thanks? It seems angels come and go without fanfare or celebration.
The School Sisters of St Francis, trained teachers, came to St John’s Mission just outside Barberton in 1989, eagerly looking forward to working in this exciting but brutal land. The country was on high alert, the airport bristled with armed soldiers, the air full of anxiety and tension. And to their surprise they found themselves in charge of a farm that had gone back to veld, and the dilapidated mission station buildings occupied by schoolchildren attending the ‘coloured’ school in Barberton. They found their duties to be those of hostel managers, groundswomen, kitchen supervisors; their teaching limited to assistance with homework and spiritual guidance. They also had nowhere to stay, and so set about building their own little convent, which was completed two days before Christmas that year. Next came a new hostel building for the girl students, completed in 1991, and the boys’ building, a communal dining hall and kitchen were completed in the following two years. The buildings were designed and supervised by the sisters, all with funds raised overseas.
By 1998 things had changed. Mandela was president, schools were no longer segregated, and the new buildings were empty. The sisters recognised the single greatest need was caring for the victims of the AIDS pandemic, and set about educating themselves and their staff in every aspect of HIV/AIDS, its management and home-based care, and the empty hostel became St John’s Care Centre. By 2000, South Africa was the epicentre of the global pandemic. Three religious women, trained as school teachers, joined by a colleague from India, spent six years, day and night, caring for around 920 sufferers who had nowhere to go to die, many of them mothers with babies. Roughly 170 survived, among them a handful of infants, now orphans. In 2004 the ARV programme began at long last, and in 2005 the School Sisters of St Francis finally got to do what they had come for – they turned one of their buildings into living quarters for the surviving children, and began homeschooling.
The sisters have seen those first survivors through high school and St John’s remains a children’s care centre. The sisters, well above retirement age, were retired at the end of 2019 and chose to stay a few months longer to do a little sightseeing in our beautiful country, something they had never had the time to do in 30 years. And along came Covid-19. As the local schools shut down, the sisters found themselves, retired or not, still providing homeschooling for the children at St John’s.
One year later they were finally able to secure a flight home. Sister Frantiska Olexová flew back to Slovakia on February 29 and the following day, Sisters Anece Salay and Denice Olshausky returned to Pennsylvania in the USA, where the Covid-19 infection rate is higher than here. Of course, Covid-19 is partly to blame for the lack of any public activity to mark the end of an era; the ladies are now in their seventies and vulnerable. No one will miss them more than the young men and women to whom they were mothers.
For those who may be interested, the history of the SSSF and St John’s Care Centre was published in January 2020 through Amazon. The book is called The Great Need.
Writer: Sandy Dacombe Ferrar
Subeditor: Wahl Lessing
Editor: Anchen Coetzee