Local Good Shepherd sister tends flock in Ethiopia

Good Shepherd Sisters
At the day care center run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, local children spend part of their day learning.

Sister Mary James Clines spent almost 30 years serving Long Islanders in need before answering the call to serve as a missionary in Ethiopia.

Sister Mary James grew up in Brooklyn and entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1954. In 1966 she was assigned to Madonna Heights in Dix Hills, and for the next 29 years she helped young mothers, troubled teens and families in crisis there. (The Good Shepherd Sisters retired to Massachusetts at the beginning of this year.)

“The idea of going to a foreign mission never entered my mind until I was in a sabbatical program in 1995,” said Sister Mary James. “Our congregation had begun asking for sisters to volunteer for missions in various countries, and I suddenly felt that God was calling me to do this. Plain and simple, it just struck me that this was a new way in which I could live our fourth vow of zeal for the salvation of souls,” the first three being the usual vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity.
“After prayer, discernment and a Maryknoll preparation course for missionaries, I was on my way,” she explained, arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November 1995.

“Two sisters from Ireland greeted me at the airport, as the mission in Ethiopia belongs to the Province of Ireland,” she explained. “It was very reassuring to find that we lived in a house and slept on beds. I had visions of camping out in a hut somewhere! During the next few weeks I became familiar with the simple life of the poor. Nothing could have prepared me for the extreme poverty of the people. In spite of their primitive lifestyle, they possess a quiet dignity and respect for themselves and each other.”

“My first assignment was in administration at one of our projects, Bethlehem Training Center,” Sister Mary James noted. “There were 150 women in training or employment at the center, doing a variety of tasks such as sewing, weaving, embroidery, and garment-making.” They sold the products in the city or shipped them to Good Shepherd Sisters in other countries to be sold at bazaars and parish outreach programs. “At the same site, we had a day care program for the pre-school children of the mothers who worked at the project, as well as other poor children in the surrounding community.”

When the government closed the training center in 2002, many of the women “formed a cooperative, determined to continue to support their families by continuing to do the work they knew and loved and accomplished so skillfully,” she said. “We gave them all the goods and equipment from the center, but it was no longer our project; the women were working on their own under the Cooperative Bureau of the government. They worked in a makeshift tent, but thanks to donors who made significant contributions and a large sum from the Irish Missionary Union, we were able to assist the women in building a new and very functional workshop to continue their dream.”

With the women now taking care of themselves, the Good Shepherd Sisters decided “to continue the day care portion of the project,” Sister Mary James said, caring for 100 pre-schoolers, as well as supporting 200 older children who attend government schools until they are 18 years old.
Sister Mary James noted that “three of us Good Shepherd Sisters live in a small convent in Addis Ababa, near to our projects, and two more sisters live in a convent at the northern end of the city. It is a house, simple but durable, and quite comfortable. We have a garden where we grow some vegetables, as well as beautiful flowers. Electricity is sporadic, since there is a great deal of construction being done in the city. At present the city is divided into four sections, and each one has their electricity turned off every fourth day. Our water supply is pretty good, but we keep a few containers filled with water for the times when no water comes into the compound.”

“Housing conditions for the poor are quite miserable,” she noted, “mainly small, shanty-type huts made of cardboard, plastic and a piece of corrugated tin, with no sanitation. Water is usually obtained from small fountains in the neighborhood. We do our best to help the people we serve to improve their living conditions, and they are grateful. We pray for the day when the government will do something to really make a difference for all the people, when 70 percent of the people in Ethiopia will no longer have to live without proper sanitation. We share all we can with the poor, but regrettably, we do not have the health or strength to live in the same conditions they do.”
As a missionary, “it is not easy to be so far from family or the sisters I lived with for so many years,” Sister Mary James noted. “However, in recent years, e-mails have helped a lot. The best thing is being able to share day-to-day happenings, good as well as problems, with our sisters in community and find answers together. We are also blessed in having good Ethiopian friends, whom we can depend on for advice.

“Since the Good Shepherd Sisters first came to Ethiopia in the 1970s,” she continued, “there continue to be many poor who are in need of the projects we sponsor. We have always emphasized the need for education and are gratified that many of the children who began in our day care program or who benefitted from our education fund or training programs are now employed. Considering an overall unemployment rate of 50 percent in the country, our work has made a difference.”

(Sister Mary James Clines with some of the young women who trained with the sisters to learn practical work skills. Credit: Deacon Greg LAFreniere | TLIC)