'Mama' to many
Anglican nun ministers to children orphaned by AIDS in Cameroon[Episcopal Life] Sister Jane Mankaa was 16 when she joined the Sisters of Emmanuel, a contemplative order in her native Cameroon. But something was missing.
"I've always found some emptiness in my heart," she recalls. "I knew I had to do something, but I didn't know exactly [what]."
The answer dawned during the AIDS crisis, which orphaned many Cameroon children. "I started to find a place in my heart for these children. I started to understand what the emptiness in my heart was."
She confided her budding dream to a Roman Catholic priest, who told her: "You can't start it in the air." He gave her travel money to the United States, so she could discern further what she needed to do and begin raising funds.
"I needed to have some [time] to know whether it really was from God or from my own sentiment."
That was 1997. A year later, she was staying at a Roman Catholic community when she met a female Episcopal priest in Iowa and expressed a desire to know more about U.S. Episcopalians. "I think I've always loved the Anglicans," she confides.
She wrote to all the Episcopal orders in the United States, and one invited her to come and stay with them: the Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey.
"This community accepted me," she says. "Here, my ministry was understood and encouraged."
A shared dream
Mankaa and the order's superior began visiting area churches, sharing her dream and raising funds. Mankaa, who was confirmed in 2002, started the Benedictine Sisters of Bethany, an Anglican order, in Cameroon to run the ministry, which began with seven children. While in the United States, she worked as a housekeeper at the Mendham convent, sending money each week to feed the household.
The Good Shepherd Home -- named after a Lutheran congregation in Parsippany, New Jersey -- opened its doors in 2003. The ministry began really taking off in 2005, Mankaa says. The complex boasts several buildings, with more to come, many named after sponsoring Episcopal congregations in the Diocese of Newark or individual benefactors. Grace Bakery supplies food, jobs and income.
Redeemer Nursery and Primary School educates children through eighth grade, and plans and fund raising are underway for a secondary school. The philanthropic Rosenberg Foundation in New York is constructing a building to house another 80 to 100 orphans.
"God is working miracles as far as we're concerned," says Sister Mary Lynne Pfitzinger of the Mendham convent, who visits Cameroon for two months each year to help at the home. "God is working and touching people's hearts in this country, and people want to be a part of this ministry."
In an effort to be self-sustaining, the home operates four farms with cows, rabbits and pigs as well as cultivated vegetables. Mankaa hopes to add poultry, and also to find ways to obtain food shipments from the United States.
Wheat won't grow on the farms, so they must import flour to make bread.
Fifty children now live at the home, with more arriving all the time. Sometimes villagers summon Mankaa to a house where seven or eight orphaned children live with their grandmother, asking if some can move to Good Shepherd. "It's always difficult to know which ones to take," she says. "We take the most fragile ones."
Some babes arrive days or months old after their mother dies. Good Shepherd's first baby, Benedict, now 3-1/2, moved in at 9 days old. "This child has become so attached to me," Mankaa says.
"He saved my life," she adds, recounting the night armed robbers entered her bedroom while she was feeding him milk.
They'd been sent to kill her, they said, but offered to let her live if she gave them all her American dollars.
She held out Benedict. "I said, 'Look, we are here to take care of these orphan children.'
"I think something touched them when they saw that child. When they left, I was so frightened, I started running in the night." She realized she could leave the baby and flee, but she resisted, deciding: "If I have to die, I'll die with this child."
They survived the night, and Mankaa hired security guards and had an alarm system installed. If it goes off, she says, "the whole town will get up."
Extending the ministry
Mankaa's ministry supports the town as well. Villagers use the water system and electricity installed for Good Shepherd. Mankaa provides financial assistance, jobs and occupational training.
She hopes to educate more orphans than those who live at Good Shepherd, noting an estimated 9,000 orphans live in six surrounding villages.
"No school is free," she explains. "If you're an orphan, you can go nowhere as education's concerned."
Taking a break from her work in Cameroon, Mankaa is on her annual visit to the United States to raise funds and awareness of her ministry. This year, the trip included attending the February screening of the documentary The Good Mother of Abangoh about her ministry at the Director's Guild Theatre in New York.
The film was slated to be shown at several international film festivals across the country.
Mankaa and Pfitzinger will return to Cameroon in May, no doubt transporting multiple laden suitcases. (One year, Mankaa brought home a cooked Thanksgiving turkey.) "Mama" and "Mama Mary Lynne" will be greeted by their 50 children -- or more.
Mankaa, 47, no longer is troubled by emptiness in her heart. "I am so happy," she says. "That vacuum is finished. Now we are looking for ways to bring more and more children."» Respond to this article