By George Gregory
Special to The CS&T

NEWTOWN SQUARE – One of the greatest tragedies in human history was revisited during a moving and heart-wrenching presentation held at St. Anastasia School in Newtown Square March 16.

There was hardly a dry eye in the room as Sister of St. Joseph Catherine Nerny recounted her 2006 visit to the African nation of Rwanda, 12 years after the 1994 genocide in which approximately 20 percent of the small country’s population was murdered.

She is a professor of religious studies at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and is strongly involved with her congregation’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Rwanda is located in eastern-central Africa and is predominantly Roman Catholic. The Rwandan Civil War, which lasted from 1990-1993, raised tensions between the two primary ethnic groups that make up the population – the Hutus and the Tutsis.

Hutu ideology asserted that the Tutsi regime intended to enslave Hutus, and thus must be stopped at all costs. Following the assassination of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, militia groups from the Hutu majority initiated mass executions of Tutsi people and Hutus who sympathized with them.

The murder spree continued for three months until July, and in their aftermath, between 800,000 and 1 million men, women and children had been slaughtered.

Sister Catherine, together with Sister Winifred Grelis, S.S.J., visited Rwanda in March 2006 as part of their community’s outreach to aid in healing the broken nation.

“Our Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation flows right out of the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph to promote unity,” said Sister Catherine. “I promised the good people of Rwanda that I would return home and do more than simply tell their story.”

Her presentation included pictures of people that she met and bonded with, many of whom were orphaned or had lost their entire family during the genocide. When the sisters arrived, they were greeted by a sign on the local cathedral reading in Latin, “Ut unum sint,” meaning, “That all might be one.”

“After seeing the pictures and hearing the accounts, I felt as though I had met these people myself,” said Lauren Boyle, a parishioner at St. Anastasia.

Fellow parishioners Robert and Ruth Arata were also very moved by the lecture. “It really brought out the message of Lent in encouraging everyone to get to know someone who is poor,” said Robert. Ruth added, “And also, the stories and people we heard about give us beautiful examples of the power of forgiveness.”

Like Rwanda’s winding dirt roads, the road to forgiveness is long and difficult, but these faith-filled people know that the alternative is much worse.

Sister Catherine shared the story of the Sisters of the Assumption who survived the three-month killing spree by hiding on the rooftop of an abandoned convent, having to listen helplessly to children pleading for their lives on the streets below.

“We, as Catholic Christians, don’t believe in death without resurrection,” she said. “To be in Rwanda is to become small, and we, like the Rwandan people, must discover the borders we need to cross in order to love.”

Julianne Rees, who is a member of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Chester Heights, said, “The presentation contrasted death to life and told us of people coming to terms with their past so to have a future.”

George Gregory is a parishioner of St. Cecilia Parish in Coatesville.