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Monday, 19 October 2015 20:31

Adelaide Sisters lend helping hand

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Sr Sally Duigan olsh150In a remote South African field near the Zimbabwe border, a once ordinary family man has been given one of the Catholic Church’s highest honours. Benedict Daswa, a teacher and father of eight was declared a martyr and beatified before 45,000 people on Sunday September 13. With pilgrims travelling from all corners of the world, it’s hard to overstate the significance of southern Africa’s first beatification. But many may not know that a group of South Australian nuns helped to make it happen. And the canonisation of St Mary MacKillop proved the perfect inspiration. Jessica Braithwaite reports for The Southern Cross from South Africa.

Benedict Daswa, born in 1946, was a family man and teacher from the small South African region of Venda. The Catholic convert was fatally attacked just metres from his home in 1990 for refusing to support a village witchcraft campaign. It was against his Catholic faith, he had protested, and for this, he was brutally ambushed and murdered.

The fear in the community was such that many were afraid to attend his funeral. But standing among the grieving on that rainy, tragic day, was Sr Sally Duigan, a Daughter of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart missionary from Adelaide. Sr Sally had taught two of Benedict’s children and was later asked to accompany the family during the exhumation of his remains.

Who would have believed 25 years ago when I was at that funeral that tens of thousands of people would gather from around the world to celebrate this remarkable man’s life,” said Sr Sally.

Irish Bishop Hugh Slattery msc led the campaign to have Daswa beatified. “There’s something special about this man,” he said after hearing people were continuing to gather at his grave ten years after his death. “At the beginning, one couldn’t guess that the case would fly at all.” But the campaign found support from Australia’s Josephite Sisters, who had been involved with the canonisation of St Mary MacKillop. “They were extremely helpful and pointed out all the major things that needed to be prepared,” said Sr Sally.

Emeritus Bishop Slattery msc and South Africa’s Bishop Joao Rodrigues also visited Penola under the guidance of Sr Sally. Accompanied by Christine Martin olsh, the group were on a pilgrimage and fact-finding mission. “We picked up as much information as we could,” said Sr Sally.

As preparations continued, South Australia’s Sr Sheila McCreanor, a Sister of St Joseph, travelled to South Africa to offer advice. “I adapted the committee structure we used to prepare for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop to provide some outlines of how the diocese could plan it”, she said. “I felt honoured to have had some small part to play in this historic event.”

Fittingly, Sr Sheila was able to return to South Africa for the beatification, which was presided over by Cardinal Angelo Amato. “I was left with hope for those who attended. They will talk of the experience for many years to come,” she said.

Sr Sally said the most moving part of the ceremony was seeing Benedict Daswa’s eight children witness the international recognition of their father: “Just the radiance on their faces and their joy was heartwarming and will always remain with me.”

She attended the ceremony with a busload of young orphans and vulnerable children from the Holy Family Care Centre, of which she is the director. “The children understand only too well the fear and suffering caused by the practice of witchcraft,” she said. “To participate in such a unique and vibrant celebration will be a memory they will take with them into the future.”

The significance of the day also shone bright for Sr Claudette Hioson, an OLSH nun who was the official Promoter of the Cause. “It’s awesome. When I think about it as an Australian – that God would invite me to be involved with something so sacred – it’s humbling.”

As Benedict Daswa is considered a martyr, he did not need a proven miracle in order to be beatified, but will require one for sainthood. And with eyes firmly planted on the future, Sr Sally said it was only natural to think of the next step. “Now people are looking forward in hope for the day that he will be canonised.”

Photo by Jessica Braithwaite shows Adelaide nun Sr Sally Duigan olsh attending the beatification with children from the Holy Family Care Centre among the 45,000 people who celebrated the beatification of Benedict Daswa in South Africa last month. Sr Sally has closely followed his path to martyrdom since attending his funeral 25 years ago.

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of The Southern Cross, the official publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Read more about the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Australia (OLSH or FDNSC).