Good Shepherdesses in Addis Ababa

Through limitless energy and countless projects, a congregation of sisters make a difference in Ethiopia’s capital.

text by Sister Mary James Clines, R.G.S.
photographs by Asrat Habte Mariam

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Psalm 23 holds special meaning for the Good Shepherd Sisters of Ethiopia: It reminds these dedicated women that everyone should be able to receive the love of God, in whatever form.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd trace their origins to the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity, founded in France in 1641 by St. John Eudes. A zealous missionary priest, John Eudes was struck by the plight of unfortunate women in need of protection and guidance in their desire to lead a stable life.

It was this community of sisters that attracted Rose Virginie Pelletier in 1815. Given the name Sister Mary Euphrasia, she committed herself to the works of the congregation. Inspired by the vow of Zeal for the Salvation of Souls, which is the heart of their vocation, Mary Euphrasia was consumed with the compassion and zeal of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Following her election as superior of her community, she was filled with a need to extend this ministry of mercy to other parts of the world. In 1835, the Holy See approved the formation of the community. Her new congregation became known as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.

In her lifetime, Sister Euphrasia established 110 convents all over the world, peopled with sisters dedicated to bringing the love and compassion of the Good Shepherd to persons in need. In 1940, Pope Pius XII recognized her zeal and sanctity, canonizing her a saint. According to the order constitution, “Zeal, that precious part of our Eudist heritage, has been given a universal thrust by St. Mary Euphrasia – it must embrace the world.”

It was not until 1971 that the first Good Shepherd Sisters arrived in Ethiopia. Three years later, the Province of Ireland assumed support for the sisters, generously providing personnel and funds.

The first task of the three sisters who began the mission was to become familiar with the most deprived areas of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

“Everywhere we saw sad, downtrodden women – carrying water and firewood, caring for malnourished children, lining up outside hospitals and clinics,” Sister Mary Teresa Ryan recalls. “Equally visible were the city beggars, street children, handicapped persons and prostitutes.”

Following their constitution, the sisters resolved “to help bring about change in whatever condemns others to live a marginalized life.” Anxious to assist the women in helping themselves, the sisters explored possible income-generating activities with the goal of self-support for the women. There was an urgent need for teaching employable skills.

In answer to this need, the Bethlehem Training Center started in May 1976. It took only a few posters to draw a stream of young women to the compound, located in an area where there were great need and few services. The sisters spent weeks interviewing the women and visiting their homes. The numbers, the poverty, the lack of hope – all were overwhelming.

A group of women was selected to learn rug and carpet weaving in the traditional Ethiopian style; teenagers started needlework, basket-making and cotton-spinning classes. Literacy classes were also added, as many of the women had poor educational backgrounds and were anxious to improve themselves.

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Tags: Ethiopia Sisters Poor/Poverty Women (rights/issues) Employment