Liberia Mission began as a response to the problem of the numerous orphans left by the civil war that ravaged the country
A large welcome sign at the entrance to the mission carries, besides the name, also the date of its inauguration, 3 November 2003, and the reason it exists in terms of what inspired it: God, education, and work. A painted Franciscan tau cross shows who is responsible for this institution. Located in Blacktom Town, Montserrado County, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia Mission began as a response to the problem of the numerous orphans left by the civil war (1989-1997 and 1999-2003) that ravaged the country and left a quarter of a million dead.
Next to the entrance is the St Anthony of Padua school with 380 children in classes ranging from kindergarten to high school. Of these, 112 live at the centre (85 boys and 27 girls). Besides these, another 20 youths live at the mission and attend a nearby secondary school. The buildings occupy about four hectares including, apart from the school buildings, the church of St Michael the Archangel and the male and female dormitories named after St Martin and St Bakhita respectively.
The mission also has a further six hectares with a farm and extensive gardens with a plantation of cassava - the local population’s staple diet. Near the field, there are pigsties and sheds for rearing chickens.
Handing on the faith
When we called on them we found only a few children since it was during the holidays and most had gone home until classes would begin again. Those who stayed behind did so because their parents could not look after them since they were following a special programme offered by the mission.
Joseph Sehnert, better known as Joe, is the present director of the mission. Joe is from Saint Louis, Missouri in the United States, and has been married for 46 years. He belongs to the Franciscan Works movement. He explained the purpose of the centre: “We try to hand on the faith to the children, giving them an education and, at the same time, helping them to learn a trade. We also ask them to contribute towards their upkeep by helping with various tasks in the mission.”
In fact, the children rise early and, before going to school, spend some time praying and doing some simple tasks in the fields or some general cleaning, and then prepare for school, which begins at 7:30. When they return from school, they have lunch and, from 2 to 5pm are busy with various activities, either in the fields, tending to the animals, or doing simple construction work, plumbing, sewing, or painting. Each has his own chore. This is what the American director calls “the technical training of youth.” This is followed by two hours of study from 6:30 to 8:30pm and then they have supper. The day ends for the smaller children with night prayer and bedtime at 9pm. The older children continue studying a while longer.
The children at St Anthony's come from different parts of the country and belong to some of the sixteen ethnic groups that make up the population of Liberia. Some have lost both parents. Others have only one parent, and others have fathers who are unable to work. “However, in Africa, nobody is completely orphaned as everyone has an extended family to which they belong or are somehow connected,” Joe says.
Mama Hellina, Mother of Liberian Courage
The origin of Liberia Mission must not be forgotten. This project was forged by people who knew how to take risks and show their commitment to the poorest by taking the initiative. This was the case of Hellina Gonyor, 57, whom we met dressed in overalls while painting the walls of the library with some youths. Hellina began her adventure by gathering children during the period immediately preceding the first years of the war in the early nineties. A mother of eight children (two of them died in the war), she saw the harsh situation all around her and asked God what she could do to help to alleviate the suffering of the people.
“There were children running about everywhere and there were dead bodies on the roadsides. Some children were looking for their fathers. I managed to get some back to their families. I took three of them home to my house and began to pray and ask myself what I could do for those children,” this Mother of Liberian Courage recalls. It was in 1993 that Hellina began to gather her first children who were then joined by others that she found in a camp for the displaced.
That was the beginning and, ten years later, she brought them to Liberia Mission and the work began. Since then, many directors have passed through this mission but Hellina, currently the programme director, is still here, a symbol of the project’s continuity from the beginning up to the present.
Mama Hellina can even consider herself the founder of this institution having brought its first members.
Pewe, Chades, and James
One of the boys is Pewe Sumo; he is fourteen years old and comes from the county of Lofa in northern Liberia, near the border with Guinea. When he was first brought here by Mama Hellina, together with some other children, he was only four and now, ten years later, he is still at Liberia Mission. Pewe has become a teenager full of dreams for the future. “All things are possible for God,” he says and adds with a happy smile “I pray every day for my people and that this mission may continue; I ask God to give me wisdom each day of my life.” Other boys and girls recently came to the Mission; like Chades Saydee, who is thirteen and arrived here last January. Chades loves to dance and dreams of entering politics to help develop the country. His friend, James Giah, is fourteen, an outstanding student – among the top achievers at the school. Keen on football, he wants to be an engineer and proudly showed us the three desks and two tables he and his friends had made.
All of them agree that they must work hard to make their dreams come true.
Rafael Armada and Luis Larra Lomas