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Risking All for Christ

Sr. Anne on a home visitation with the sick in Pakistan.
The Spark of Life

By Sarah MacDonald

As the Columban Sisters celebrate their centennial year, Sarah Mac Donald speaks to Congregational Leader Sr. Anne Carbon about her life as a missionary and the challenges ahead.

“To be a Columban you need to be a risk-taker,” Sr. Anne Carbon states matter-of-factly. Twenty-seven years after she made her First Profession, she is now at the helm of the Columban Sisters, having been elected Congregational Leader in Knock in May 2023.

Sr. Anne Carbon, Congregational Leader of the Columban Sisters, with an icon of St. Columban in the background
Sr. Anne Carbon, Congregational Leader of the Columban Sisters, with an icon of St. Columban in the background

Originally from Cebu in the Southern Philippines, Sr. Anne trained as a nurse prior to entering the congregation. “When I chose to become a missionary, I didn’t know what it entailed but I knew that there was a lot of giving of myself in order to go to the periphery and the unknown.”

It was while working as a nurse in Manila for the Columban Fathers that Anne Carbon found herself reading and being inspired by the stories of mission in the Far East magazine. The late Fr. Charlie Meagher was providing pastoral support to Anne and suggested she contact the Columban Sisters.

“I went to see the Columban Sisters, and I was really struck because they were not wearing a habit like all the other Sisters I knew. I’ve never regretted joining the Columbans because I feel my independent nature really matches the charism of the congregation. I have grown in my relationship with God, and I feel enriched by the people of different cultures that I have encountered.”

After profession, Sr. Anne initially went to Britain where she secured her UK nursing registration. Her next step was mission in Peru. “In Lima, the Sisters’ mission was very good; everything was covered — education, catechetics, health.” Anne went to Lima’s largest mental health hospital and began to volunteer there.

Years of conflict in Peru had seen tens of thousands killed or disappeared. Ayacucho in the mountains, which is ten hours from Lima by bus, is one of the places which suffered greatly at the hands of the far-left guerrilla group, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). “There was a lot of post-traumatic stress among the people. Some were living on the streets. At an assembly of the Columban Sisters I told them that I would really like to open up a mission in Ayacucho. There was a lot of chronic mental ill health, notably schizophrenia, and Ayacucho had no psychiatrist.”

Sr. Anne visited families where some men and women were tied down to the bed because the family didn’t know what to do with them. “I was really touched by what I saw. I knew something had to be done! I applied for some money from the Congregation, and I connected with the medical staff back at the hospital in Lima where I had volunteered.”

From very small beginnings Sr. Anne started a mental health clinic in Ayacucho. Initially she approached those on the streets and offered them the chance to bathe and provided them with some food and medication from the back of a car. In time the clinic rented a space and expanded with the assistance of nurses and doctors from Lima. A nurse from Co. Kerry, Ireland, Angela Keane developed the special needs program in the clinic. Then a group of doctors from Yale University in the U.S. came aboard. They provided two psychiatrists while Misean Cara in Ireland provided a grant to fund the training of five nurses in mental healthcare and the cost of building the clinic.

After eight years, having successfully built and opened the clinic, Sr. Anne realized she had become more of an administrator and fundraiser than a hands-on health worker. It was time to pass the project to someone else. “As a missionary, you don’t undertake a ministry for life. You start it with a view to handing it over. So, I began to dialogue with different groups to find the right one who could keep it running. The Brothers of Charity had the same ethos.” Sr. Anne’s one request to the Brothers of Charity was to “make sure to love the poor patients” and make them “a priority.”

After handing over the clinic in Peru in December 2010, Sr. Anne was elected to the Columban Sisters’ leadership team and was based in Magheramore, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, for six years. In 2017, having completed her term of office, she took a sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. The tensions between Israelis and the Palestinians underscored the need for interreligious dialogue, while meeting the Bedouins gave her a sense of being called to mission in Pakistan.

After setting up a nursing home for elderly Columban Sisters in the Philippines, she went to Pakistan in 2019. She spent four happy years there and had just started a health program for Pakistan’s marginalized Christian community, who “are really abandoned,” when she was elected Congregational Leader in May 2023.

As the Columban Sisters mark their centennial, there is much gratitude and a number of challenges ahead. The most obvious of these relates to personnel. Like every other congregation, the Columban Sisters have seen a decline in vocations.

For now, mission work continues in Ireland, Britain, the United States, Philippines, Korea, Myanmar, China and Pakistan. But most of the younger Sisters are Asian, and they are needed in their own countries for leadership, administration and formation. “We are really very stretched,” explains Sr. Anne.

As the congregation celebrates its 100th anniversary, she believes that even though there is recognition of the “fragility of the congregation” there is still hope for the future. “We are acknowledging the current reality but there is also a spark of life, and we have to harness that energy.”

Sarah Mac Donald is Editor of the Far East magazine.