Before Sister Kathleen McGuire left for Liberia in 1992, she had a professional portrait made of herself, to make sure her loved ones would have a good photo of her in case she didn’t return home alive.
That portrait is now one of the few mementos Fred McGuire has of his older sister. She was one of five nuns from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) convent in Ruma, Ill., killed by militants in October 1992 during the First Liberian Civil War.
Now, the sentencing of a former Liberian official tied to the nuns’ killers is fostering mixed reactions among the loved ones they left behind.
Fred McGuire, a retired Air Force colonel, is hoping for justice when Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, a former top lieutenant of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, is sentenced on immigration charges in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
But, the nuns of the Adorers’ Ruma Center are looking beyond retribution, focusing instead on their sisters’ — who they know as the Liberia Martyrs, or simply “The Five” — legacy of courage, faith and service.
Into the fray
When Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, Kathleen McGuire, Shirley Kolmer, Mary Joel Kolmer and Agnes Mueller prepared to leave for Liberia in 1992, they were continuing an Adorers’ mission there dating back to the 1970s.
But, conditions had worsened in the country since 1989, when rebel forces under Taylor invaded the country, pitching it into a civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives and made refugees of nearly half the country’s population.
The Adorers left Liberia in 1991 as rebel forces approached the outskirts of the capital city of Monrovia, and the sisters’ convent in the suburban city of Gardnersville.
When a cease-fire was announced in early 1992, Sister Elizabeth Kolmer, sibling of Sister Shirley Kolmer and cousin of Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, said the nuns were eager to return to Liberia, and to the people they’d served there.
The risks remained great, but Sister Elizabeth said her sister, Shirley, was a strong-willed woman who would not be deterred by danger.
“Shirley was Shirley,” Sister Elizabeth said, “so she went over first in March 1992.”
When the first Sisters returned to Gardnersville, they found rebel soldiers had taken up residence in the convent, and had executed people in the house.
Without hesitation, Sister Elizabeth said they set about cleaning up the remains of the bloodshed, then returned to Ruma to bring back a permanent mission party — four who had previously served there, plus Sister Kathleen McGuire.
Sister Elizabeth said the nuns were joyous about heading back to Liberia, despite the risks.
“They were just dedicated to the people, and Shirley referred to it as going home,” she said. “Liberia was home to her.”
It was their love for those they served outweighed the danger, Sister Elizabeth said.
“It was dedication, faith and love of the people,” she said. “All charity comes down to one thing, and that’s why you do it — because you love.”
Sister Kate Reid, who was a close friend and longtime colleague of Sister Kathleen McGuire, said the other nuns at Ruma feared for the five, but couldn’t stand in the way of that sense of duty.
“For the sisters who went back, it was a genuine love for the Liberian people,” she said. “They had lived among them and worked among them for years, and they carried a deep sorrow at the country and the people being torn apart, the terrible loss of life and the misery.
“Those sisters left very reluctantly when they left the country during the civil war,” Reid said. “They didn’t want to run when the people might need them the most.”
But, the risks were well-known.
Fred McGuire thinks back to that portrait his sister Kathleen had made, and how intentional she was in leaving it for the family.
“I think the five nuns knew what was coming,” he said. “It was never said. They all came home. They all had their pictures made, spent some time with their families, and then they went back. They knew they were going back into a very serious rebellion, and there was a good probability something fatal could happen.”
The blood of martyrs
The risks of serving in a war-torn country caught up with the nuns in October 1992, as the cease-fire collapsed and rebel forces once again cut a swath of destruction through the outskirts of Monrovia.
According to information provided by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra and Mary Joel Kolmer were killed on Oct. 20, 1992, as they drove the convent’s security guard home to a neighboring suburb.
Three days later, soldiers shot and killed Sisters Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller and Shirley Kolmer in front of their convent in Gardnersville.
Fred McGuire said he will never forget the phone call he received, notifying him of his sister’s death.
“About 5 o’clock in the morning my phone rings,” he recalled, “and I’ll never forget these words: ‘Fred, the nuns are dead.’”
He was in Virginia at the time, and he said his first thought was to get one of his brothers to the family home in Ridgway, Ill., so his mother wouldn’t hear of Kathleen’s death on the news.
“I remember thinking, ‘I do not want her to wake up and hear that Kay’s been killed.’”
A measure of justice
McGuire said the nuns’ bodies were not buried, and could not immediately be recovered.
“We were unable to remove their bodies, and we didn’t get their full bodies, just bones,” he said. “What brought closure for me was being able to get her remains back.” That was almost two years after Kathleen died, he said.
In 2012, Taylor was sentenced in international court at The Hague to 50 years in prison for war crimes. Now, McGuire is hoping for justice in the sentencing of Woewiyu, who once served as Taylor’s defense minister.
Woewiyu was convicted on perjury, immigration fraud and related charges last July, after federal prosecutors alleged he gave false answers on a 2006 application for citizenship to hide his role in the civil war.
Prosecutors did not allege Woewiyu was directly involved in the five nuns’ killings, but said his actions and the policies he promoted led to their deaths, among other atrocities. Prosecutors say he faces up to 30 years in prison on the immigration conviction, but he has not yet been scheduled for sentencing.
For McGuire, even the maximum sentence would not be enough for his sister.
“Personally, I’d like to see him executed,” he said of Woewiyu. “But realistically, the most I can hope for is what the prosecutors are going for. You want to get some kind of, I wouldn’t want to say revenge, but some kind of justice for what happened over there.”
A lasting legacy
While prosecutors and family members hope for justice through the court system, Adorers at the Ruma Center are focusing instead on the inspiration they draw from their five martyrs.
Sister Kate Reid remembers Kathleen McGuire as a nun who died as she lived — deeply committed to social justice and helping those in need.
The two worked together closely in aiding Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees fleeing war in the 1980s, and Kathleen formed a committee that eventually led to the Ruma Center offering sanctuary to refugees seeking asylum.
“Kathleen embodied strength for resistance, and passion for resistance against forces of death and a passion for justice, and yet she could remain very nonviolent in her demeanor,” Reid said. “She was just very resolute … She was a rock of a woman — so solid in her goodness and in her oneness with God. She knew who she was and what she was about.”
Reid said she still draws strength from Kathleen every day, as she continues her work to aid a new generation of immigrants fleeing poverty, hunger and violence.
Sister Elizabeth Kolmer, whose sibling and cousin died in Liberia, said the inspiration of the five martyrs goes beyond simply doing good acts.
“Doing has nothing to do with this,” Kolmer said. “It has to do with being.”
For the martyrs and their heirs in the Adorers, Kolmer said it’s about a state of being that seeks the welfare of others above self.
“That was very important to them, and our order generally is very focused on social justice,” Kolmer said.
She said the martyrs’ legacy is their “dedication and concern for someone other than themselves, for people of a different culture.”
“They weren’t just locked into our order, or what Americans do,” Kolmer said. “They wanted to reach out to another culture. They were dedicated to the people of Africa. They are such a good example and a model for all people.”
Sister Barbara Jean Franklin, who lived with and was close to Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, said she still works daily to live up to Sister Mary Joel’s example of selfless service.
“She didn’t need to know who you were or why you were in the circumstances you were in,” Franklin said. “She just saw someone who needed some assistance, and there she was.”
She said that fearless willingness to “rush in” wherever there’s a need remains a beacon to all Adorers.
“I think that’s a challenge to all of us, still, to go where the need tugs the most at our hearts, and to not be afraid to do that,” Franklin said.
She sees that legacy being lived out in Adorers who face both physical danger and social ridicule for taking stands on immigration, environmental stewardship and social justice in general.
“It’s where we think we should be, as Catholics and as people of faith,” Franklin said. “We keep taking a stand, whether it’s popular or not.”
A gift of courage
In whatever causes the Adorers take up, Reid said they have the five martyrs as an example of courage and faith.
“There is a deep belief among us that God does not abandon people, that when the world is coming apart and there’s so much violence and bloodshed, that God is not indifferent to that, that God is very close to them,” Reid said. “But, God needs us to be God’s hands and heart. That’s what takes people back or keeps them there, in dangerous situations, is wanting to be sure the people know God is with them.”
In setting that example of courage, even at the cost of their own lives, Reid said the five martyrs lived out the example and teaching of Jesus Christ.
“The sign of Jesus shedding his blood on the cross — it’s a sign of love poured out,” she said. “That’s what we see with the five sisters — they were doing deeds of love like Jesus, and did not want to turn away from that, did not want to run away from the people and the good they could do.
“They are that example to us, and all of us aspire to have the courage to be in difficult situations, where people most need us, and where God most needs us,” Reid said. “God has a heart for the poor and the oppressed, and we aspire to accompany people in their pain. Sometimes, we do it better than others, and in them we have an example of five people who took considerable risk, and paid the price.”
Reid said all of the five martyrs continue to live on in, and to inspire, the work of the Adorers.
“The witness of their lives still makes a difference,” Reid said, “and hopefully makes others of us braver and more compassionate.”