Who would ever believe that what began as a small seed, planted in the hearts of consecrated women in Pennsylvania, USA in 1995, would grow into such a giant tree of collaboration in Africa? The founders of ASEC: the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia and Chestnut Hill College, the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scranton and Marywood University, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia and Neumann University, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and Rosemont College; marvel at how much this seed has grown! Like The Parable of the Mustard Seed - a dream of four founding congregations of women religious and their four universities in Pennsylvania in the United States of America has done just that.
“30And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mk 4:30-32).
Such is the story of African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC). Since 2005, ASEC has taken root in Africa, providing educational opportunities to more than 5,300 Catholic sisters within Uganda and nine other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
When ARU was conceived and born by the women religious of Uganda 50 years ago, did you ever dream that your younger sister, ASEC, would be born 30 years later in the hearts of consecrated women in the USA? Our sisterly collaboration has brought the relationship between the consecrated women in the USA and the African continent to a whole new level. At your 50th anniversary I am very proud that, informed by the word of God and our faith, we nurture and share the core values of transformation, collaboration, service, leadership, capacity building and reverence. Great! Isn’t it? ASEC looks back proudly on the last 20 years shared in your life. As our big sister, ASEC looks to you for continuous nurturing and support of our programs and activities in Uganda.
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My dear big sister, why is the education of sisters our concern? Catholic sisters dedicated their lives to serving people of all walks of life. They are often found in the hard-to-reach rural areas or working with the most disadvantaged people within a community. Between 2007-2017, over 2,500 sisters (over 350 from Uganda) have been trained through our Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) program and that number continues to grow. The SLDI program provides professional skills that support the efficiency of sisters in their various ministries. SLDI workshops are hands-on; offering experienced-based education that produces an immediate and positive effect on communities where SLDI alumnae serve.
ASEC has not only taken root, but has flowered and is continuously bearing fruit through the alumnae of our programs. Sr. Jola, an alumna from Uganda, upon completing the SLDI training, announced,
"it is my first time to sit in a class and learn something which I can apply straight. We are on fire. We are thinking of how to go back and start it!”
The impact of ASEC’s programs on the vibrancy of individual sisters and their congregations is evident in the vitality of the communities where the sisters serve. Consequently, ASEC’s programs continue to respond to the aspirations of its founding members and of the women religious in Africa that education and leadership skills are key to running the day-to-day mission work of congregations; from financial planning and bookkeeping to fundraising, teaching, counseling and nursing. ASEC is cognizant that governments across the globe are increasing the requirements for teachers, principals, nurses and other occupations that sisters hold. Congregations need to have the resources to respond to these evolving requirements.
ASEC’s Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) program was developed in 2013, as a response to assist the sisters in acquiring higher education to remain relevant in the frontline of social services of the Catholic Church to the community. By 2020, our HESA program expects to serve approximately 1,200 sisters at 22 partner colleges and universities, with about one-third of HESA participants completing a portion of their studies online. Already, more than 120 sisters serving in Uganda have participated in HESA.
It is common knowledge, my sister, that Africa is a continent of vast potential, in spite of obstacles of armed conflict with its resultant poverty, hunger, disease, ecological degradation and violence. What remains hidden to the public eye is the role of Catholic sisters in addressing a multitude of the most pressing development challenges in Africa today. Yes, guided by the word of God and their faith—sisters are deeply involved in peace building, improving healthcare, education and working to reduce poverty. But sisters are also affecting change on the local, regional and even national levels. Like busy ants, sisters’ grassroots work is moving the needle on nearly all of the 17 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Can you imagine why discussions on women’s roles in development hardly cast an eye on Catholic sisters as part of the greater womanhood? The contribution of the sisters at all levels speaks for itself.
Maybe nobody has blown the trumpet for the sisters? But, ASEC is here to testify that Catholic women religious are a strong force in harnessing the potential of Africa, addressing development issues and offering hope for the future. These women, who are deeply trusted by their societies, work to improve life by leading and serving where the needs are the greatest; in schools and healthcare facilities, in human service, environmental and economic projects across the world.
Dear ARU, on your 50th anniversary, ASEC stands with you as a beacon for women religious to occupy their rightful place within the public arena of development discourse. We call attention to the many formidable and practical approaches that sisters have generated over the years to achieve sustainable development. ARU at 50 years awakens Uganda and indeed the world, to the reality that faith and development are not mutually exclusive. ASEC invites all religious women (and men) across the globe to continue to collaborate. Let us work together to nurture the mustard seed until it grows into a tree, tall and strong, sheltering all the people of God.