Mama Karola, one of Rwanda’s first nuns, joined the Bernardine Sisters in 1957. Formerly known as Godiliva Mukamazimpaka, Mama Karola spoke to Women Today about her life as a nun.
“In 1957 when I was making the Benedictine vows with seven other girls, our Christian names were changed. We then selected the ones we wanted and I chose ‘Karola’.
However that has changed today. When young women make their vows, they retain the Christian names given to them by their parents during baptism,” Mama Karola narrates.
Mama Karola’s sect, the Bernadine Sisters, first came to Rwanda in the 1930’s and their first headquarters were built between the present day Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux high school and CHUK, Kigali University Teaching Hospital.
“They were only foreign Bernardine sisters at the time and they felt they needed to have Rwandan sisters. That is how the seven of us were selected”, she remembers.
Dressed in a navy blue skirt and snow white T-shirt with a grey veil, the 83-year old seems very strong for her age. Born in 1930 in Butare, the current Huye District, she was the only girl in a family of seven.
“The Bernardine first came to Rwanda around 1932. While growing up, nuns taught us and I always loved the way they were determined to take care of the community. It was because of that that when I was through with secondary school, I requested to become a nun. My parents and brothers respected my decision and they even escorted me to the convent the first time I officially started staying here,” she disclosed.
Besides being a nun, she taught and at some point became the director of some schools.
“Professionally, I was a teacher but I had to retire because I was too old to teach. You see I even lost most of my teeth (she laughs). Today I just do simple chores here. I clean up a little bit and rest and pray most of the time,” Mama Karola revealed. “Taking the vows to become a nun is like taking marriage vows, you have to be committed and love is involved. It was my love to serve God that made me choose to be a nun.”
When asked whether family members come to visit her at the convent she says wistfully, “I lost all my relatives and brothers during the Genocide. All their homes were burned.”
Mama Karola has advice for any young woman who wants to join the convent. “If any young woman wishes to become a nun, they have to go the headquarters in Butare and talk to the Head Sister. But they should have completed secondary school although they will continue to learn about the Bible and get more spiritual guidance,” she said.
Sister Regina Uwamaria, the head of the Bernardine Sisters Convent in Kigali, first met Mama Karola in 1979.
“After completing primary level, young women were trained how to make handicrafts and how to take care of the home. I got to know Mama Karola when I visited one of the homes here in Kigali where she was training those young girls. She was great at teaching and she also knew how to make handicrafts,” Sister Uwamaria recalled.
“Mama Karola is so compassionate and loves praying. Most times, they have to get her from church to talk to someone. She also loves being busy. Even at her age, she enjoys doing simple chores just to stay busy. For example if her clothes get torn, she will make it a point to stitch them herself,” Sister Uwamaria reveals.
She also said that Mama Karola is an inspiration to many at the Bernardine convent community.
“We learn a lot from her each day. If she is not correcting us on specific Kinyarwanda words, she mobilises us to come together to talk and laugh because she enjoys seeing people cheerful all the time. Every day we have to meet and talk about the things that happened and she enjoys such moments. If we don’t meet she will continuously ask why we didn’t meet.”
Who are the Bernadine Sisters?
The Bernardine Cistercians of Equermes are a small branch of the Cistercian Order. They follow the Rule of St Benedict, and co-operate with the apostolic mission of the Church through educational activities and hospitality. There are eight monasteries of nuns in six different countries, united by a central Government.
The Abbeys of Notre Dame de la Brayelle at Annay (1196) Notre Dame de la Woestine at St. Omer, (1217) and Notre Dame Des Près in Douai (1221) were three Cistercian houses for women in Flanders. In common with many monasteries in the area, the sisters were known as Bernardines.
Dame Hippolyte Lecouvreur (1747–1828) from Les Près, together with her blood sister Dame Hombeline Lecouvreur (1750–1829) from Annay and Dame Hyacinthe Dewismes (1760–1840) from La Woestine met together in 1799 with the sole aim of re-establishing their Cistercian life.
Educational activities remain part of the Bernardines to this day. In 1806, building work began on the new monastery.
The new code of Canon Law of 1917 opened the door for the Bernardines to re-find their Cistercian identity. New Constitutions were approved in 1937, which recognised the Bernardines as Cistercians.
In 1955, official approval from Rome enabled the sisters to take solemn vows as Cistercian nuns.
Following the call of Pope Pius XII, monasteries were founded in Hamamatsu, Japan (1954) and Goma, Congo (1960). The Bernardines were able to return to France and the Mother House was transferred to the Monastery of Notre Dame de La Plaine, St André-lez-Lille (1948).