Maria Wennekamp aka ‘Mama Alphonsa’ (1881 – 1972) (PE nr 1090 – 2018/04)

Solid foundations of a church

On the 27th October 2017, the Diocese of Bukoba in Tanzania celebrated the 125th anniversary of Kashozi Parish, the first Church in the diocese. The Missionaries of Africa who had begun this parish were represented at the celebration. Sisters Victoria Gaa, Amani Ndatabaye and Maria Sakina of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa represented the East and Central Africa Entity of MSOLA.

Bishop Jean Joseph Hirth and the Fathers arrived in Mushonzi, Bukoba in 1892. They had come from Uganda. They set up house in Kashozi which they called Marienberg. In 1901, Bishop Hirth appealed to the White Sisters to join the Fathers in Kashozi. In 1902, four sisters arrived and took charge of the orphanage and the refuge. They began a dispensary and took care of the sick.

‘Mama Alphonsa’ lived for 50 years in Kashozi and for another 22 years in Kagondo. Her long life shows the challenges faced at the beginning of the mission. In her obituary, it is mentioned that Mother Marie-Salome herself encouraged her on two occasions to persevere as things were so difficult.

At the age of 21, Maria Wennekamp was cleaning her brother’s room when she came across a newsletter of Bishop Lavigerie appealing for missionaries. Maria made up her mind at once. She entered the postulancy at Esch in the Netherlands, because the White Sisters had not yet arrived in Germany. In October 1903, a group of 15 postulants arrived in Saint-Charles, Algeria to begin their novitiate.  After her profession in 1906, Maria, whose name in religion was now Sr. Alphonsa, was appointed to the orphanage of St. Charles.

In 1908, Sr. Alphonsa was appointed to Save in Rwanda and on the 10th October 1908, she along with three companions embarked on a ship at Marseille en route to Africa. On the 29th October, the little group arrived in Mombasa, Kenya. Sr. Alphonsa and another sister spent Christmas and the New Year at Kisubi in Uganda. On the 31st January 1909, they set out for Rwanda. The caravan advanced in daily stages of 6 to 8 hours. After 16 days they arrived at Issavi. “We were the first white women who ever came there” she wrote. The sisters began to visit families and to learn Kinyarwanda. After just a year, Sr. Alphonsa had to leave Issavi because she received an appointment to Kagondo in what is now Tanzania. She took her perpetual vows there on the 2nd May 1911.

Sr. Alphonsa worked in what one called the “boarding school.” In fact, it was a sort of refuge which grouped about 100 persons comprising children preparing for First Holy communion, young girls entrusted to the sisters until they got married and old women living out their last days in peace. Sr. Alphonsa was put in charge of the young girls, which meant sharing out, and supervising the work and reading lessons. In the afternoon, she took a little outing with another sister. Twice a week, they were gone for the whole day and passed the night in an outstation in order to be able to do the “class” the next day. All this was carried out on foot…of course.

Sr. Alphonsa was known and loved by all. However, on the 14th December 1922, she left for Kashozi where she was to spend the next 50 years. At Kashozi, as in practically every mission post, there was a school, a catechumenate, a hospital or a dispensary, an orphanage cum refuge plus the necessary house work.

Sr. Alphonsa’s apostolate was preparing children for First Communion, her most important apostolate. However, she also worked in the laundry, mending and darning, making church vestments and manufacturing hosts. She did all this without any special preparation. It was by teaching the faith to baptized children that she trained herself little by little. Each day, the children received an instruction. Every three months a new group came for instruction. One year, she found herself teaching catechism with a seminarian on probation, Laurean Rugambwa, later Priest, Bishop and Cardinal

Sr. Alphonsa kept the same occupations until 1953. During this time, the mission developed and the country was taking giant steps towards independence. Notable events included meeting Dr. Julius Nyerere and the appointment of Bishop Laurean Rugambwa as Cardinal.

In the community, there were problems with language. The elders did not speak English and others hardly any French. One communicated in Kihaya but the teachers had to learn Kiswahili and did not know Kihaya.

Around 1964, when she was 83 years of age, Sr. Alphonsa reduced her activities. She did a bit of sewing and kept an eye on the chicken coup. Her deafness bothered her more and more and affected particularly her relationships with the people that she had known for such a long time. In 1969, she was given the honour of laying the foundation stone of the new “Home Craft Centre.” Two years later, came another big demand as she was asked to leave Kashozi to return to Kagondo.

On the 11th April 1976, she celebrated 70 years of religious profession and in October 1981, her 100th birthday. Many Priest/sons came for the feast but ‘Mama Alphonsa’ was already tired and asked only to rest.

On Saturday 22nd May 1982, at 12.30, she fell asleep for ever. The funeral took place on Monday 24th May with 29 concelebrants. Bishop Gervasi Nkaranga emphasised in his sermon that it was such lives given for the Church of Tanzania that assured its solid establishment

Sr. Alphonsa (Maria Wennekamp), German

Born on the 17th October 1881 at Herten, Germany; died on the 22th May 1982 at Kagondo, Tanzania

First profession: 16th April 1906 at Saint-Charles, Algeria.

At Kagondo from 1910 until 1922, and from 1972 till her death.

At Kashozi (Marienberg) from 1922 to 1971.

Compilation par Sr Gisela Schreyer,
archiviste SMNDA

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