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“Freely you have received, so, freely give”

My name is Monica Luparello. I was born and raised in Palermo, Italy. After graduating in medicine and surgery, I entered the Congregation of the Comboni Missionary Sisters.

You might say that surely the profession I had chosen was already in itself a way of helping others and that religious consecration was not necessary. But a vocation is a gift, received… without having asked for it! My “choice” was therefore a response to the invitation to be, rather than to do, to belong and to be offered up, rather than to exercise a profession. Being a doctor was the means through which I could live this belonging and this gift. I think it was very painful for my parents, partly because, understandably, that was not exactly what they had wished for me, and also because this choice meant a geographical distance, with all its consequences.

 I left Palermo in 1992 to begin my religious formation and since then I have only returned for holidays.

 I took my first vows in 1995 and then went to Switzerland to study French and wait for my visa to Chad. I worked for three years in Chad at a hospital which was under the responsibility of the Comboni Missionary Sisters. Later on I was transferred to Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, with an intermediate period in Belgium to study Tropical Medicine. Over 25 years of my missionary life, I have been moving – coming and going – between Chad and Mozambique. 

I still vividly remember the first impact Africa had on me… the stifling heat when I arrived at the airport of N’Djamena, (capital of Chad) …it was as though fire was rising from the runway.  And then the mosquitoes during the night and the threat of malaria. I was somewhat dazed and wondered if I’d ever  be able to live there. But those first impressions were  impregnated with joy for having arrived there, and at the same time sadness for the health situation I found at that time, especially outside the big urban centres.

 I also remember a feeling of gratitude that I was not alone. Sisters who were “more experienced” in missionary life welcomed me and introduced me to life there through their explanations and their experiences.

 I have tried to live the medical profession as a way of evangelization. Perhaps, with respect to other colleagues who work with other motivations, at certain times,  religious consecration helps you to be faithful, to share deeply with people the most difficult situations that arise. It helps you to try to embrace and live a simpler lifestyle, certainly very different from the usual life the medical profession offers normally, and therefore a life much closer to people.

I was also asked to work as a professor at the Catholic University of Mozambique, in Beira, the second city in the country, in the “Faculty of Health Sciences”. Here too, for some time, I was in charge of some aspects of management.

 I have enjoyed so many things… and have learnt so much! I could summarise it by saying that I learned to say “Good morning”, to say “Thank you”, and I have been taught to collaborate with others, to walk and move forward together. The staff I have worked with at the hospital has helped me to say “Good morning” before doing or saying anything else, even in an emergency. I was always ready to intervene quickly, to correct an attitude, or an erroneous treatment… but whatever I said, the answer first was always the same “Good morning, sister”, and then we could face everything that came our way. After a couple of times, I understood the lesson and began in the same way. There’s always time to be nice, to treat each other with respect!

 As for the “Thank you”, I remember a particular moment, after a difficult birth, during the night. After it was all over and while I was administering some stitches, the grandmother of the very young mother, to my astonishment, took off some of her clothes and began to dance before me: imagine – a grandmother who dances at night in a maternity ward! The sister who was with me explained to me that this was the woman’s way of thanking me for the help I had provided them with. She thanked me with her whole being, her heart and her body. Deep down we are an indivisible entity and everything in us experiences the joys, the emotions, the pains of our life… The people with whom I have lived in Africa are capable of giving thanks and have taught me to do so, because we don’t really merit all that we are or all that we possess. Everything is a gift!

With regard to the challenges, apart from the climate, a great difficulty has been the differences in culture and in priorities. I had to “restart” (reset) my mind, my way of thinking and interpreting reality… I had to learn to know, understand and appreciate the people with whom I live and work, to let myself be enriched by their way of being, so different from my own. And I have also had to learn to know the Lord in another way. To do this I have needed time and also tears and patience.

 Another big test was the change from working in a hospital to teaching at a university. This was a new occasion to “restart” and to get to know the country in which I had previously worked, from another point of view and in a different geographical reality. For the first time I was a missionary in a big city… and since I had city roots I immediately got used to another lifestyle much more like the one I find when I return to Italy on holiday.

I no longer worked at a hospital with all its demands. Instead I had before me young people who were thirsty for knowledge and with whom I had the great joy of sharing what I had learned from books and at work.    

In the 10 years that I did this work I think I was able to “revise” the entire course of medicine. I also had the grace of seeing so many students attain their degree, and later the joy of collaborating with me in the formation of their younger colleagues!

A phrase to sum it all up would be “Freely you have received, so, freely give “.  The Lord continually shows me compassion and asks me to do the same, by promoting life and goodness and thus preparing the way for an encounter: between Him and those He loves.

Monica Luparello, Comboni Missionary

Our Mission in the World

The Comboni Missionary Sisters are women consecrated to God, called to evangelise, to build bridges between people, cultures and religions.

To set the downtrodden free.

The vision of St. Daniel Comboni lives in us today wherever we are:

  • In Africa, where we have our missionary roots.
  • In Europe, America and Asia where we reach out in answer to the signs of the times.
Sister Doctor in South Sudan
Sr Dorinda Cunha leading a christian community in South Sudan

Our traits are:

  • Passion for mission- giving priority to Africa among the communities most in need.
  • Making “the power of prayer our strength”
  • We choose to live a simple life-style
  • We live in community made up with members of different nationalities and cultures, making common cause with the people wherever we are in our mission.

Our Spirituality

The spirituality lived out of the charism of Comboni is a dynamic reality which continues to grow as we live the experience of following in his footsteps. In this section we wish to share some reflections on how we are growing in our understanding of the spirituality which emerges from the charism.

We hope they will help you to deepen your knowledge of and love for Comboni and his mission.

This icon written by Domenica Ghidotti, entitled Comboni and the Women of the Gospel, is an attempt to capture some of the feminine dimensions of the Combonian charism as we live them out today. Here we offer an ongoing reflection on the various elements of our spirituality as depicted here.  Click here to see more on the reflections…

Comboni icon

Testimony from Chiswick in London

A Diamond vocation

It takes a particular, not to say, special kind of person of feel the calling to a religious life and then to answer it. The quote: “Many are called, but few chosen” (Matthew 22:14) from the parable of a king who held a wedding feast for his son, springs to mind. It is a concept found in Scripture and can and is interpreted in different ways both in secular and religious circles.

In whatever she did that would be her mission

Sr Ida Pedrotti, was one individual who was called and invited to experience a personal relationship with Christ; a relationship of obedience, charity and service which has lasted for six decades.

(to see read more on Sr Ida click here)

Sister Ida

Meet two of our elderly sisters

Testimony of a Missionary by Sr Michelina

I am Sr Michelina Pirra. I was born in Northern Italy in the year 1937. When I was nineteen I heard about the Comboni Sisters and immediately became passionate about the missionary life and joined them.

Sr Chiarina

In solidarity by Sr Chiarina

I am Sr Chiarina Calcagno, born in Genova, Italy. I grew up in a big family where Christian values were lived and from a very early age I had the desire to share the good news of Jesus with everyone. I wanted to become a Comboni Missionary Sister, but my dad would not allow me to leave my family and country .

I was especially attracted by the way they lived: a simple life, dedicated to others, much close to the poorest people and working particularly in Africa. I still remember how hard it was for me to leave my parents, friends, and my village behind to join this missionary congregation.

Looking back, I see that the courage asked of me to follow this vocation was highly rewarded by the happiness it brought to my life. I was first appointed to Sudan – Khartoum to teach in the Comboni schools, some years later I was sent to   the Middle-East, where I continued to teach and start visiting Christians and no Christian families. I witnessed with great joy a gradual transformation of the place and of the people as new schools, hospitals, churches and other education centres gradually immerged.

I was always impressed by the eagerness in the children to learn, no matter the huge sacrifices they had to make to have to walk miles to attend school. While for me the hot climate, the study of the Arabic language and the insertion in the new culture were some of the challenges I encountered. In all this I was led by the belief that “Love overcomes difficulties ad makes all things possible”.

My eldest sister, Cristina Pirra, had also joined this missionary congregation. She served in Khartoum and Port-Sudan, teaching in the Comboni Schools for over 40 years. Cristina due to her poor health and age returned to Italy in 2016 and was taken to one of the Comboni Sisters care homes in North Italy, until she passed away in February 2019.

My sister and I lived long enough to see the fruits of our work. No regrets. Instead gratitude and joy fills my heart.

It is now a few years since I left my mission in Middle East and became part of the Comboni Sisters Chiswick community in London. I am no longer healthy and energetic as I used to be but I am passionate as ever. I now spend many hours in prayerful adoration before the Lord. I pray for people in need and those who help them both here at home and in other countries and continents.

Sr Michelina Pirra

God listened to my prayer and after a few years waiting my dad changed his mind and I joined the Comboni Missionary Sisters. I was in my late twenties and I was very happy to see my dream coming true at last!

After a few years in Italy and United Kingdom, I flew to Kenya where I lived for over thirty years. I felt at home at once. I had the joy of teaching in schools in different places of Kenya, among the Kikuiu, Borama, Rendille and Pokot tribes. The encounter with these different cultures and customs was a continuous challenge: for me new languages and new traditions…

I carry in my heart the joy, the songs and the dreams of the young African people. Their desire to study was strong and no sacrifice would stop them. Many had to walk from very distant villages to reach the school. Most of the girls were discouraged from coming to study mainly because their families wanted them to do the tasks at home and take care of the young children. Aware of this situation, girl’s boarding schools were built and a new era began for many of the villages girls too. The joint efforts, the commitment of the Comboni sisters, fathers and brothers together with the local people brought an enormous contribution to have a new way of life especially in areas where agriculture and looking after the cows was their only way of survival. Other sisters were offering other services in health centres, women promotion, teaching of the Christian faith .My greatest joy was to teach in school and to be able to share with them the good news of Jesus and his ever new message of love. Many of my students are now teachers in Universities, doctors and many other posts of responsibility. I feel deeply rewarded and proud of them.

Ten years ago I was asked to leave Kenya and come to London to be part of the Comboni sisters’ community in Chiswick. I am now 82 years old. I am happy I can give more time to pray for the many needs of our world. My personal and community prayer connects me with everyone. I cannot do much, but twice a week I still manage to go to help the refugees in the Jesuit Refuge Centre and the homeless Centre near Westminster Cathedral.

The COVID.19 is still affecting many people’s lives all over the world. Over 40 Comboni sisters in Bergamo- Italy were much affected and nine died in the same community. We are in solidarity with them too.

I am grateful to God, to Africa and to everyone who, in many different ways helped me to   fulfil the dream of my youth.

Sr Chiarina Calcagno ,

London, Chiswick

1st June 2020