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 Teresa Dalle Pezze – With Courage and Solidarity
She was shot three times. A bullet in the head, one in the chest and a third in her right hip. Sister Teresa Dalle Pezze, a Comboni Missionary Sister, died instantly. On January 3, 1985, she was travelling from the Mission of Carapira to the port of Nacala in Northern Mozambique. At the crossroads before the town of Monapo rebels from RENAMO (the ‘Mozambican National Resistance Movement’ founded in 1975 as part of an anti-communist backlash against FRELIMO the country’s ruling ‘Mozambique Liberation Front’) attacked the army convoy in which Sister Teresa’s car was travelling. She managed to get out of the car and hide in the tall grass by the side of the road. The exchange of fire between the soldiers and rebels lasted an hour. During a cessation of fire, Sister Teresa heard a soldier nearby calling her saying, “Mama, can you give me your pullover? My wife is expecting a baby and she is feeling very cold.” Although probably taken aback at the request at such a perilous moment Sister Teresa answered with a smile, “Yes, of course.” Whilst removing the pullover, she raised it above her head. A rebel sniper on the other side of the road saw something moving. No hesitation. The target was very easy. He fired three times into the tall grass.
Saying ‘Yes’ to God through a missionary life
Teresa was from the little village of Fane near Verona in the North of Italy. She was born in 1939. At eighteen years of age, Teresa, like two of her brothers before her, decided to go to Switzerland to look for work in order to be able to support her family. She found work in a textile factory in Baar, a municipality in the Canton of Zug, and accommodation in a local hostel run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. It was in the adjoining convent, listening to the witness of Religious Sisters working on the Missions and passing through Baar, that Teresa first felt that God was calling her to the missionary life. Once she took the decision to dedicate her life to the Missions, her ‘Yes’ to God’s call was unwavering. Teresa went home in 1961, before the usual time for her annual leave, with the intention of informing her parents, Giuseppina and Giovanni, of her decision to join the Comboni Missionary Sisters and go to Africa to serve the ‘poorest and most abandoned.’ Her parents were very surprised at their daughter’s decision, but finally gave their blessing and Teresa entered the Postulancy of the Sisters in Verona. After proceeding to the Novitiate, Teresa made her First Vows on May 3, 1964 in the Chapel of the Comboni Missionary Sisters at Cesiolo, surrounded by her relatives and friends. Many commented on her evident great happiness and of her wish of leave for Africa immediately.
A devoted teacher and missionary sister
After training to be a primary school teacher and then travelling to Viseu in Portugal to learn the language, Teresa received her appointment to the Missions of the Comboni Sisters in Mozambique in Southeastern Africa. In a letter sent to her Superior-General she wrote, “Before leaving the Motherhouse, I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for your having chosen to send me first to Viseu and then to Mozambique.” And in a letter of July 1968 to her family she wrote, “I have finally reached the land of my dreams.” Teresa was assigned to the Community of Netia in the north of the country, where her field of work was in education: first as a teacher in, and then as the headmistress of, the Mission Primary School. She always found the time to listen to her pupils, to the parents and members of staff, and to the people turning to her for help or advice. When not in school she loved to go to the outlying chapels of the Mission and pray with the local people, and she suffered greatly when the apostolic work of missionaries was severely restricted by the Colonial Administration in Maputo. The Portuguese Authorities accused missionaries of taking the side of the FRELIMO Party (the ‘Mozambique Liberation Front’ which was founded in 1962 to fight for the independence of Mozambique from Portugal) in their armed struggle against colonial rule.
A Missionary in difficult times
With the signing of the ‘Lusaka Accord’ on September 7, 1974 the Portuguese Government in Lisbon provided for a complete hand-over of power to FRELIMO (‘Mozambique Liberation Front’) without recourse to elections, and formal independence for Mozambique was set for June 25, 1975. People naturally hoped that now they could start to enjoy their newly-found freedom, live in peace and reconstruct their country after thirteen years of war. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The new FRELIMO Government declared an avowedly atheistic Marxist State. Public worship was prohibited, all private property abolished and, with the wholesale nationalisation of all factories, shops and offices, ‘central planning’ was imposed throughout the whole country. Within two years a bloody civil war had erupted between the ruling FRELIMO Party and RENAMO (‘Mozambican National Resistance Movement’) who opposed their attempts to establish a socialist one-party state in the country. The war saw over one million Mozambicans killed in the fighting and a further five million displaced in refugee camps across Southeastern Africa in Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Atrocities, looting and arson, kidnapping and road ambushes were sadly once again the order of the day.
Greater courage to witness to Christ
Although mission schools were nationalised by the Government, missionaries were allowed to continue to work in them as salaried teachers but they were not allowed to teach or promote religion in any way. In 1976, the Government removed Sister Teresa as the Headmistress of the Mission School in Natia but kept her on the staff and appointed her to teach science. As the only female teacher in the school, she was also given the responsibility of caring for the health of the pupils. This gave her close direct contact with pupils and parents alike. The new political dispensation, however, required a different type of missionary presence in the country and a great love for the people, given all the many obstacles and difficulties placed in the way of the missionaries by the Government. As Sister Teresa wrote, “At first, it was very hard to get used to the new style of life and many could not manage it. We needed even greater courage to witness to Christ. In spite of the Marxist-Leninist propaganda, the sense of God is now stronger and the faith of Christian Communities is deepening. The Faithful come to pray in the chapel alone for fear of being reported to the Authorities and ask to receive the Eucharist in secret.”
Ready for Martyrdom
Sister Teresa lived with faith, courage and solidarity in a situation of growing suffering, violence and insecurity. Hers was a firm conviction that God was present amidst all the chaos and that through those events, as she often wrote, “Africa is writing its history.” She did not shy away from the risk of a tragic end. She was strongly determined, “not to abandon the people now when the need is greater; it would be like betraying them,” as she wrote to her Provincial Superior after being invited to go to Italy for a period of rest.
The end came on the road to Nacala through a typical act of generosity in offering her pullover to someone in greater need of it than herself. Sister Teresa’s body was transported from Monapo to the Mission of Carapira. A large funeral was held with the participation of many of the Faithful. That day a truce held in the area between RENAMO guerrillas and the Mozambican Army so that people could pay their respects without fear of being caught up in the crossfire. At the Requiem Mass, the Bishop of Nampula, Manuel Vieira Pinto, said of her, “Sister Teresa has made her last offering for the People and for the Church in violent Mozambique.”
She was buried in the cemetery of the Mission of Carapira alongside fellow Catholics killed in the war. A large cross was subsequently erected in memory of the Missionary Sister who knew ‘no frontiers.’