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African nun at Saint Leo to return home to fight AIDS

Sister Pudentiana Kirungo Tibabyekomya, a nun born in Tanzania, has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Saint Leo University in five years.

MIKE PEASE | Times

Sister Pudentiana Kirungo Tibabyekomya, a nun born in Tanzania, has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Saint Leo University in five years.

ST. LEO

The sight was heartbreaking. Sister Pudentiana Kirungo Tibabyekomya had accompanied the priests that day 12 years ago in the east African country of Burundi to find and bury those killed in the civil war. As they trudged through the dry, dusty grass, the group heard crying. The crying led them to a woman who had been shot while fleeing the violence. Lying beside her was a naked 9-month-old boy, trying to nurse at his dead mother's breast.

The nun scooped up the baby and took him to the monastery. She took care of him and let him sleep in her own bed, a violation of her order's rules that forbid anyone but sisters in the sleeping quarters.

Shortly afterward, she confessed to her superior.

"I have this baby in my bed," she wrote. "I have violated the (rules)."

Her superior's response was not what she expected.

Do what you think is right, she said. Showing this baby the love of God is more important than the rules.

It's a philosophy Sister Puddy, as she's known at Saint Leo University, has always allowed to be her guide.

• • •

Pudentiana Kirungo, 57, was the second of 14 children born to a Tanzanian farming family. The first daughter, her name means spice in her native language of Kihaya. The family already had a son, so a daughter was seen as a plus.

She and her big brother were inseparable. She often accompanied him to church, where he was an altar boy. It was there she got her first glimpse of the nuns. Elegant in their flowing white habits, surrounded by children, they were the most beautiful people she had ever seen.

"I was always gazing at the nuns," she recalled. "I wanted to be with children forever."

At 17, she took her final vows, forfeiting the opportunity to have her own biological offspring.

"Now I have my children," said Kirungo, wearing a dress made by children from an orphanage she helped found. "I didn't lose. God is showering me with children wherever I go."

Sister Puddy began her religious life by going to school to learn nursing and to become a midwife. Later she ran a parish and then went to France to study hospital administration.

While there, civil war broke out in Burundi, a landlocked country that ranks as the sixth poorest on the planet. Only one in two children in Burundi go to school. Average life expectancy is about 43. Much of the country has been ravaged by AIDS.

Sister Puddy wanted to return and help people. Those close to her questioned her desire to forsake the safety of France for a war-torn wasteland.

"People thought I was crazy," she said. "But I thought my God wants me to help them at this time."

She secured a sponsor and came to live with the sisters of her order, the order of St. Therese of the Little Flower in Burundi.

She didn't go in planning to start an orphanage.

"I wanted to save one life," she said.

She started by taking in young orphans.

"One child became two, became three. I asked each sister to stay with one baby in her room. At the end of three months, we had 40 children."

Sister Puddy also helped refugees at the parish. Once she smuggled some out of the country in an ambulance. During a confrontation with soldiers, they told her to shut up. "Shut up first," she retorted.

The unarmed nun's outspokenness took the soldiers aback. They conferred off the side.

"They told me to go on, that we'd meet another day," she said.

Fearful that such bold actions put her life in jeopardy, her superior and some priests arranged for her to study theology in the United States. It was the first time she resisted an order.

"I didn't know how to use a computer," she said. "I didn't want to hear cars."

She contacted some sisters in Wisconsin who happened to be visiting Saint Leo University. Gary Bracken, the school's vice president for enrollment, helped arrange for a scholarship. The Benedictine nuns at Holy Name Monastery offered her lodging and food in exchange for her help with household chores.

"She seemed to adjust extremely well," said Sister Mary Clare Neuhofer, the prioress at Holy Name Monastery. Sister Puddy knew some English, so she could communicate, though Neuhofer said the accent was hard to understand.

She and another African nun who was studying at the monastery would treat their Benedictine sisters to African meals of rice cooked in coconut milk, salad with peanut butter dressing, a root vegetable called casaba and African doughnuts.

"She always had a very cheerful attitude," Neuhofer said.

While making friends was easy, academics came more slowly.

When a professor assigned a paper, Sister Puddy asked if she could write it in longhand. That got her a look of disapproval, but she was able to turn it in that way.

She took computer training in addition to regular classes and soon learned to be proficient. She also got help from a tutor and her faculty adviser.

"I would come to him and cry," she said.

Her fellow students also were quick to offer assistance with assignments. She earned her bachelor's degree in 2½ years. When she graduated the first time in 2005, Sister Puddy was named Saint Leo's Most Outstanding Student for the School of Arts and Sciences.

She stayed on to earn a master's in pastoral counseling. While she spent most of her time studying, there was time for a little fun at Busch Gardens.

Sister Puddy said she enjoyed KaTonga, a show devoted to animal folklore. It was accurate in its depiction of Africa, but "it was Hollywood," she said.

During her five years at Saint Leo, Sister Puddy continued to keep in touch with her beloved orphans. Once she was alarmed to receive word that food was short. The nuns were faced with returning the children to the streets.

"They are going to be drug dealers, prostitutes," Sister Puddy said. "I started to be traumatized."

That's when she got permission from Bishop Robert N. Lynch to solicit donations from Tampa Bay area parishes.

She appeared at numerous churches and Catholic schools and shared stories of the children's plight. Parishioners were touched. Sister Puddy raised enough money to build a water tank and a dormitory, and buy livestock.

Among those who gave were Barry Devine, who attends St. Raphael's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

"I was so moved not only by what she said but by the pictures she showed of the children," said Devine, who owns a St. Petersburg advertising agency and printed fundraising brochures. "There's no reason at all why children should have to end up that way."

Devine is so devoted to helping Sister Puddy that he dedicated a room in his home to the cause.

"I call it the Sister Puddy room," he said. Next on his agenda: a mission trip to Africa.

• • •

Sister Puddy is due to leave Saint Leo on Sept. 8. Only she won't get to return to the orphanage she left five years ago. Her superiors have commissioned her to run a new AIDS center in her native Tanzania.

She envisions the center as a place where AIDS sufferers and their children can make the most of the days they have left. She wants to help them write letters to their kids so they can know their family heritage. They also will learn job skills that don't require heavy labor, such as sewing and basketmaking, so they can help bring in income.

"They think they are cursed by God," she said. "I want them to know that's not true."

Sister Puddy is raising money for materials so the center can open in January. The price is estimated at $2.5-million, but Sister Puddy has faith all the money can be raised. She dismissed a friend's suggestion that she seek help from Oprah Winfrey.

"I don't need to depend on Oprah," she said. " I have many Oprahs around me here."

She still carries around photos of her orphans in Burundi.

One of them is of Aaron. He was the hungry, crying baby Sister Puddy pulled from the grass. He is now a healthy boy of 12. In three years he will go to high school. He likes to feed the goats, cows, rabbits and chickens. He always prefers running to walking.

"It is lovely to see him growing graciously," she said.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

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Want to help?

Sister Pudentiana Kirungo Tibabyekomya needs donations to raise the $2.5-million needed for an AIDS center in Tanzania. For information or to help, contact her local organization at St. Therese of the Little Flower World Mission, 701 S Howard Ave., Suite, 106423, Tampa, FL 33624. You also can e-mail Amiee Hamilton at amiehamilton@verizon.net.

African nun at Saint Leo to return home to fight AIDS 08/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 12:51pm]

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