Sister Maria de Coppi loved the people of her adopted homeland in Chipene, Mozambique.
“I have experienced beautiful and difficult times in this country: First the colonial times, then war followed by a time of peace and, today, unfortunately, a time of terrorism.”
— Sister Maria De Coppi
By: Kathleen M. Carroll
Comboni Missionary Sister Gabriella Bottani had a trailblazing aunt who preceded her into religious life. That aunt, Comboni Missionary Sister Maria de Coppi, left a voice message for her late one September evening, with an update about conditions in her beloved Mozambique.
“Hello, Gabriella, good evening. I just wanted to tell you the situation here is agonizing, it’s not good. It is very tense. . . . Everyone here is fleeing, the people are running away. It is a very, very sad situation. Pray for us, that the Lord protects us and these people. Goodbye, goodnight.”
Gabriella had the chance to return the call and ask her aunt whether she’d be fleeing along with the people. Sister Maria was uncertain. Violence was not new in the region and her mission included a school, a church, and a hospital — all good reasons to stay. She had been working in the country for nearly sixty years. She told her niece she wanted to wait.
Before daybreak, Sister Maria would be martyred by the Islamic State, executed for the crime of being “excessively engaged in spreading Christianity,” according to a statement issued to the BBC.
Agenzia Fides reported that Sister Maria was killed as she tried to return to a dormitory, to protect a few students who remained. The mission and its buildings were all set afire.
This area of northern Mozambique is rich in natural resources, including gold, precious gems, and natural gas. The latest struggle to control this wealth began in 2017, when extremists with the Islamic State and other groups began attacking civilians. More than four thousand have been killed and nearly one million have been forced to flee their land.
During her years of missionary work, Sister Maria had become a Mozambican citizen and said she felt “part of this land and this people in the midst of whom I lived my life.”
Of the latest conflict, she said, “I have experienced beautiful and difficult times in this country: First the colonial times, then war followed by a time of peace and, today, unfortunately, a time of terrorism.”
“The last two years have been very tough,” she said. “In the north of the country, there is a war over gas fields and people are suffering and fleeing: in my parish, there are four hundred families who come from the war zone. Then came the cyclone. Finally, last year the drought lasted for a long time.”
The bishop of the Diocese of Nacala, Alberto Viera, recalled: “Sister Maria had repeatedly denounced the war, exploitation and terrorism in Mozambique and the suffering of the people.”
But Sister Maria remained to the end. “I try to be close to the people above all by listening to what they tell me. Despite material poverty, listening to others remains a great gift, it shows you respect their dignity.”
Sister Nadia Coppa, president of the International Union of Superiors General released a statement in support of the slain Sister.
The news has shaken and deeply disturbed us. Another act of horror and death in Africa [which has been] tormented by civil wars, poverty, and fundamentalism. Our great pain becomes communion, deep emotion, and solidarity with Sr. Luigia Coccia, Superior General of the Comboni Missionaries, the Sisters, and the people involved in this act of violence promoted by armed rebels.
De Coppi will be remembered as a bright star that brought love and as a woman with a great missionary heart, ready to share the fate of her people. Sensitive to the needs of displaced people, she has always worked hard to guarantee material and moral assistance without ever backing down.
The Catholic bishops of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference also released a statement saying Sister Maria “died a martyr’s death because she has not abandoned the poor even in such difficult times.”
Story elements courtesy of Agenzia Fides, BBC, and the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.