Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 14, 2000
A long way to school
Sisters come from Nigeria to study theology at Newman College
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
Three new Nigerian students at Newman Theological College have something to write home about. After spending two weeks in Canada, they have discovered the weather is cold, the people are warm and the hotdogs are great.
Sisters Augustina Chukwu, Agnes Nnodu and Helen Oparaku, members of the Handmaids of Holy Child Jesus religious community, are the newest international students at Newman.
The sisters will spend the next three years at Newman pursuing diplomas in theological studies with a possibility of completing the degree program as well.
Canada is the farthest the sisters have travelled. They had never left their native Nigeria, except for the trips they made through four African countries to Ghana where they picked up their passports.
"We don't know anything about Canada," Oparaku said. "Nothing."
What they know about North America, they had heard from sisters in their community who had studied in the United States.
"When we see (Canada) on the map, we don't know what it's like," Oparaku said. "We don't see the land or the mountains. We can't see the snow on a map. We didn't know anything about it."
Nnodu added, "We know that Canada is not like America and it's cold. The people are nice . . . very accommodating."
The sisters were sponsored by the Ursulines of Prelate with financial contributions by local religious communities including the Grey Nuns, Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, Faithful Companions of Jesus, Sisters of St. Joseph of London and Sisters of Providence.
They arrived in Edmonton Jan. 23.
"We have had this history with Africa," said Sister Teresita Kambeitz, former dean of students at Newman College, who was instrumental in drumming up financial support for the Nigerian sisters. "We've had (Ursuline) missionaries in Africa for 30 years.
"We don't have sisters there now. But if we can't have sisters go to Africa, we brought Africa to Canada."
The estimated three-year cost of tuition and room and board for the sisters is $90,000.
The sisters are living in the vacant convent adjacent to the college's chapel. Residing with them is Sister Regina Jochim, who will serve as their companion during their stay in Edmonton. Jochim is a former missionary to Zimbabwe.
Studying theology is new to the sisters not only because there are no Catholic theological colleges in their country, but because it is not a common area of study for members of their congregation.
"Theology is for the priests," Oparaku said. "That was my notion. We're sisters, we didn't need to know theology. Why do you need to study it? We thought only the priests need it.
"It's a very difficult subject. It will not be easy to learn."
The advantage the sisters have in their studies is their fluency in the English language. The challenge, however, is overcoming the North American accent that accompanies it.
"People here speak with a different accent, it's hard to understand," Oparaku said. "And they speak too fast."
Upon completion of their studies, the sisters will return to Nigeria to serve as catechism teachers. Oparaku and Chukwa, former primary school teachers, will return to the parish schools, while Nnodu will return to teach community workers working with the poor.
"This will show us how to go out and teach others . . . go to other countries and teach in the schools," Nnodu said.
Oparaku added, "We want to teach them to know God, to bring people to faith."
If they had it their way, the sisters would watch the hustle and bustle of the city from their living room. They needn't face the frigid morning air to get to their classes or attend daily Mass. Everything is only a heated corridor's length away.
"I have to make them go outside everyday," joked Jochim. "The first day they went for a walk, they got outside the door and wanted to go back in. The next day they went out for five minutes. Everyday they stay out a little longer.
"Maybe soon they won't want to come back in."
Like with many visitors from countries deprived of blasts of wind chills and drifting white stuff called snow, the Nigerian sisters will have to adjust to the climate.
"We saw snow for the first time," Chukwa said.
Oparaku added, "We were getting worried. It was covering all the cars and sidewalk."
The sisters were afraid the snow would put the entire city at a standstill.
"We thought 'How can anyone go anywhere if the snow is covering the cars?'" Oparaku said.
The cold weather aside, the sisters have adapted comfortably to their new environment. Although quite shy at first, the sisters can get chatty and giddy. They know their way around the college hallways and learning the shelving system in what Oparaku calls the "perfect library."
Canadian food isn't much different from that found in Nigerian kitchens, said the sisters. It's only prepared differently and includes a wider variety of meat products. The sisters have taken a liking to doughnuts, chicken and Oscar Meyer wieners.
"We love hotdogs," Oparaku said, as the other sisters laughed and nodded their heads excitedly.
What is it about the hotdog that makes it such a delicacy for the sisters? The relish? Ketchup? Warm hotdog bun?
"Everything!" Nnodu said giggling.