The Cross is part and parcel of every Christian vocation. For each Christian, the sharing in the Cross of Christ takes on a different form. For some, the identification with Christ’s sufferings reaches the point of giving their lives as in the case of those Comboni Missionaries who wished to remain faithful to their missionary vocation ‘until death’ as taught by their Father and Founder, St. Daniel Comboni.
The following excerpt is from Supreme Witness: Comboni Missionaries Killed in the Line of Duty, an account of the lives of 25 Comboni Missionary priests, brothers, and sisters who died in the service of the Gospel in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. You can find the book online here.
Sister Liliana Rivetta – I have not risked my life for nothing
Sister Liliana Rivetta was born on November 15, 1943 in Gavardo, in the Province of Brescia, Northern Italy. Times were hard in the post-war years in Italy. Although she did well at her lessons, Liliana was a somewhat disinterested pupil and left school at the age of fourteen to go and work for a dressmaker in the nearby town of Brescia. She had to travel an hour’s journey each way, but she was happy to be able to help her family financially. When she was sixteen, she asked her parents to allow her become a Religious Sister. The answer was a resounding ‘No.’
On March 26, 1965, when she was twenty-two years of age, Liliana chose a moment when her parents were away and, accompanied by her sister Aldina, she took the train to Verona and joined the Comboni Missionary Sisters founded there by Bishop (later Saint) Daniel Comboni. She had already come to know the Sisters through a mutual friend and often visited them. On discovering Liliana had left to become a Religious Sister, her mother and father no longer wished to have any contact with her. Liliana dearly loved her parents and suffered greatly because of this estrangement.
She left for London where she did her Novitiate of two years and then took her First Vows as a Comboni Missionary Sister on September 29, 1967. At times Liliana admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the fact that God had called her to the Religious and Missionary Life:
“The missionary vocation is so great that I cannot understand how Our Lord could call me to it. With this great responsibility (we may call it that) which I have on my shoulders, I ask you to pray for me that I may respond fully and yield a hundredfold according to the talents that Our Blessed Lord has given me.”
Assigned to Uganda with a dream
After her First Vows, Liliana began to prepare herself for work in the Missions. After completing a Montessori Course, with a view to teaching preschool children, she was assigned to Uganda and was fascinated by the thought of teaching there, “I have learned to play the piano so that I can attract African children. I believe they love music. Between one song and another I will be able to speak to them of Jesus. My family will be a large one and I must learn their languages so as to make them really mine.”
She knew this was something of a dream, but she already felt that Africa was in her blood. On September 12, 1969 the SS Asia set sail from Venice with Sister Liliana and one hundred and twenty other passengers on board, bound for Mombasa in Kenya, where it entered the port on the morning of Wednesday October 8, 1969. Liliana continued her journey by train from Mombasa to Lira, a town in the North of Uganda. It was a remarkable journey following the winding path of
the railway through the Tsavo Park, the Great Rift Valley, the tea plantations in the Tororo Hills of Uganda and finally the wetlands of the Nile around Soroti. As the train chugged along at a steady thirty miles per hour, Liliana admired the scenery and the abundant wildlife: the elephants, gazelles, ostriches, lions, cheetahs, zebras and giraffes, and the pink flamingos on Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru.
Wherever the train halted, groups of children would run along by the track, greeting the passengers, waving their arms and asking for food, money or whatever people had to give. For Liliana those children seemed the most beautiful children in the world. African children seemed to speak in torrents of words gushing from their mouths, like water from a fountain. All these scenes were impressed on Liliana’s memory forever.
The District of Lira
Liliana gradually grew accustomed to the climate, the environment and the people of Lira. During the dry season, the hot sun beat down mercilessly. All the grass dried up, becoming a yellowish straw-like colour, and died scorched by the hot wind. When the rainy season came, all would suddenly change. With the rains, the stunted straw-like grass was transformed into luxurious tall growth. The rains brought new life everywhere they fell.
Adults and children alike welcomed the rain; their faces turned upwards to receive it, like dry fields thirsting for water. Rain is considered a blessing in Africa. The first time Liliana saw a tropical storm, she was terrified by the amount of water that fell, and wondered how anything could survive such a downpour: the local huts of dry grass and mud, the fields of cassava, millet and sorghum, or the gravel roads. In fact the rickety bridges across the local rivers in the District were often washed away by the force of such water and the wetlands around Lira became lakes passable only by canoe.
The Mission among the Lango people
The land inhabited by the Lango ethnic group has been generously blessed by nature. If the rains do not fail, there are plenty of beans, cereals, vegetables and all sorts of tropical fruits. Mangoes hang down from the trees within easy reach. Citric fruits abound, oranges, mandarins and lemons, although they have a colour of their own, a greenish yellow colour unlike those seen in the shops of Europe. The Mission was like a ‘Garden of Eden’ with fruits and flowers of every kind: bougainvillea, hibiscus, and frangipanis adorned the entrance to the Convent of the Sisters.
The wetlands were covered with lotus flowers. Together with the green vegetation and abundant growth, however, the rain also brought mosquito larvae to life after they had been dormant during the dry season. To avoid getting malaria, it was necessary to take chloroquine tablets and sleep under a mosquito net. At first, Liliana would scream at the sight of a caterpillar, a scorpion, a cockroach or a spider; yet she soon learned to live together with these and the countless other creatures, great and small, of Northern Uganda. She even managed to eat the flying white ants that would swarm around immediately after the rains started and which are a much sought-after delicacy in the locality.
The children of St. Kizito Nursery School became an integral part of Sister Liliana’s life. As she would go to the local villages to visit their families, they would follow her along the paths that were like shady tunnels through the long grass that met above their heads. The children who had never seen a white woman before would keep repeating with a mixture of trepidation and amazement, “Muzungu, muzungu” meaning ‘European.’
Along the way she would meet women with a wonderful combination of balance and strength as they carried large pots of water on their heads, with a ring made of grass as a protective cushion, and their babies on their backs. They walked with long steps, majestically, she thought, like royalty. After three years running the Nursery School in the Mission of Lira, it was time for Liliana to return to Italy to prepare for her Final Vows which she took on July 2, 1974. She stayed another three years in Italy working on the ‘home front’ while undertaking further training as a primary school teacher.
A difficult assignment in Kenya
In January 1977 she left once again for Africa, this time bound for Kenya. Her destination was to the Parish Primary School in Kariobangi, one of the many shantytowns scattered around Nairobi. The crowds of human beings coming and going from the cardboard shelters with their roofs of plastic sheeting among the open sewers and mountains of rubbish made a deep and lasting impression on Liliana. She did not know where to start. In that part of the city, countless poor children searched among the heaps of rubbish for scraps of food in order to survive.
With the help of ‘Caritas International,’ Sister Liliana began a soup kitchen near the Primary School to feed local children, and the number receiving a nourishing daily meal soon ran into the hundreds. Liliana was literally besieged by children whose odour of destitution and rubbish soon became her own. Yet she was heartbroken at the sight of so many hungry children, and in her heart of hearts longed for a world away from crowded humanity.
Sister Liliana was relieved, therefore, when a year later she was again assigned to Uganda. This time to the Mission in Amudat in the South of Karamoja, on the border with Kenya, among the Pokot ethnic group. Being free to spend time with the local people without the pressure of school responsibilities made Liliana very happy indeed but this was not to last long. The headmistress of the Girls’ Primary School in the Mission fell seriously ill, and the School was desperately in need of a new head. Sister Liliana reluctantly obliged. It was the beginning of 1979.
The final journey
This year was to see the start of a terrible time for Karamoja. The region was in the grip of armed conflict, with the abundance of weaponry left by the former soldiers of Idi Amin, between the different ethnic groups. Sister Liliana personally saw thirteen people shot dead around the Mission of Amudat. There was the worst drought in living memory which saw the death of all the livestock and widespread famine among the local people. The children were starving and Sister Liliana gathered eight hundred of them into the Mission compound. When supplies were running low and she feared having nothing to give them to eat, the tears would begin to flow and she would go to Church, praying to God to urgently send some food for her hungry children. At the time, she wrote to one of her friends in Italy, “I would be prepared to pay the price in person to alleviate the suffering of these people.”
It was early on the morning of Monday August 10, 1981 with armed robbers and cattle raiders on the roads, that Sister Liliana drove to Moroto, the regional capital of Karamoja, to buy food, stationery, uniforms and medicine for the School. The trip would be her last. On the way back to Amudat, she was driving the vehicle with another Sister, Rosaria Marrone, in the passenger seat. She was very happy, as she had filled the vehicle with all the items needed at the school.
Shots from an AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle rang out. The first struck her in the shoulder but the second pierced her heart. The vehicle came to a halt in the grass by the side of the road. The attackers approached, and on seeing the Sister dead at the wheel, one of the band apologized to Sister Rosaria, saying, “Oh, we didn’t mean to kill a Sister, we didn’t mean to kill a Sister” and they immediately departed without even bothering to look further inside the vehicle.
Sister Rosaria removed Liliana’s veil and used it to cover her lifeless face. She moved Liliana’s body to the passenger seat and set out for the nearby Mission of Nabilatuk. Liliana was only thirty-seven years of age. “I have not risked my life for nothing,” she had written tellingly to a friend only a few days before.
A time for forgiveness
The following day, a Funeral Mass was celebrated for Sister Liliana in the Mission of Amudat with many Missionaries and a large number of the Faithful present and, at the request of her parents, her body was taken to Italy for burial. At the spot where Liliana gave her life on the road between the Missions of Lorengedwat and Nabilatuk, a large cross was erected by the Faithful, and to this day is referred to ‘Lomusalaba,’ the ‘place of the Cross.’
The greatest miracle to happen subsequently was that the Pokot people forgave Sister Liliana’s murderers who were from the rival Pian ethnic group. One of the Pokot elders said at her funeral, “Now we know for certain that, with Liliana interceding for us before Him, God will protect us.” Her parents, who had only been reconciled to Liliana’s decision to enter Religious Life and become a Missionary on her last visit home, dedicated their remaining years to supporting the work of the Comboni Missionary Sisters in Karamoja, and in particular to the running of the Girls’ Primary School in Amudat.