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A community embrace for nuns out of Africa

At Austin Prep, ‘They’re joyful people. They’re very, very happy.’

Sister Paskazia Nakitende arrives to teach her morning theology class at Austin Prep in Reading.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

READING — At first glance, it is the familiar portrait of Catholic schools everywhere.

Well-scrubbed school kids in plaid skirts or khaki pants, sitting earnestly at their desks, learning about the Pythagorean theorem, or the melting point of tungsten, or the Emancipation Proclamation.

They crowd the hallways on their way to lunch, jostling and joking with friends, forging bonds that, in some cases, will last the long lifetimes that still stretch brightly before them.

But this is no cookie-cutter religious school.

Look more closely at the teacher at the head of the class.

Sr. Justine Babirye taught a topics and technology class to students at Austin Preparatory School in Reading. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For perhaps the greatest lesson being taught these days at Austin Prep comes from the journey that has brought these teachers — these African nuns who are members of the Daughters of Mary — to Reading where they have come to deepen the meaning of the words service and sacrifice.


“You need teachers to be role models for the kids so they can learn to be better people,’’ Mark Palumbo, a sixth-grader from Stoneham, told me. “I think the sisters portray that.’’

“When we’re in class,’’ said Angelica Zizza, an eighth-grader from Saugus, “Sister tells us stories about where she came from and how she has been learning about theology and religion her whole life and planning to become a sister.

“She lives very simply. They’re very good examples for everyone.’’

That’s precisely what James Hickey, Austin Prep’s head of school, had in mind to enrich the learning environment of this school of 775 students and 75 full-time faculty members.

Sr. Immaculate Concepta Kyampeire and Sr. Mary Namutebi ate lunch in the school's cafeteria.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Three or four years ago, the school’s leadership began to ask profound questions about the soul of the school.

“How can we connect Austin Prep more deeply to the global world?’’ Hickey said, recalling those conversations. “How can we diversify our community?

The school, Hickey said, began reaching out to different religious orders.


“We initially didn’t have a lot of success,’' Hickey told me. “And then last year we hired a teacher to teach religion here. He’s from Uganda. And he had heard of our efforts to connect to a religious order. And he said, ‘I may know someone in Uganda.’ And he put us in touch with someone who put us in touch with someone.’'

And then Hickey received a letter, an answer of sorts to a prayer. It said: “The mother general was going to assign sisters here.’’

The next thing he knew, these African nuns who grew up in a world far, far away from Reading, were on his doorstep. They arrived in Massachusetts with few material possessions, but with a faith that formed the fundamental bedrock of daily life.

Sue Belanger, an assistant head of school at Austin Prep, said the community’s response to welcoming the sisters to Reading was immediate and strong.

“One of the projects I was given was to set up their convent,’’ Belanger said. “In order to do that, I basically built a wedding registry. And those items were gone in less than a week. The community went crazy with that. I added things to it.’’

The nuns needed everything.

Bedding. Kitchenware. Curtains. A vacant rectory was cleaned and retrofitted.

A comfortable home away from home began to take shape.

“People were saying, ‘There’s nothing left.’ What more can we do?” Belanger said. “Can we make a monetary donation? There was one middle-schooler who wrote a note that said, ‘Sister, I picked out this bakeware. I hope you enjoy baking with it as much as I enjoy baking with my family.’ ‘’


Family. It’s a good way to describe precisely what the Daughters of Mary have found here.

You can see it in the hallways in the way the students greet their new teachers, and in the way these African nuns greet the kids with smiles of genuine appreciation.

Sr. Immaculate Concepta Kyampeire, Sr. Mary Namutebi, Sr. Paskazia Nakitende and Sr. Justine Babirye sang and played tribal drums and a shaker from Uganda after Mass in the school's chapel. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“Many people, when they think of religious people, they think: Oh, they just pray,’’ said Jared Cruz, a junior from Woburn. “They’re all people. They’ve been to high school and college. They came over as nuns, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped being themselves.

“That’s incorporated into their lives and their faith nourishes that. These people don’t just pray all day. I found that quite stunning. It’s a good gift to have that living example.’’

That learning experience here is going on from both ends of the classroom.

The kids are learning new lessons from the nuns.

The nuns are learning about life in America from their students.

“Here,’’ said Sister Immaculate, “they can easily access technology. They can easily learn something. But back in Uganda, they have to read and read and read. And you find the only source of information is the teacher.’’

Sofia Senn, a junior from Reading, said the most important lessons the nuns bring here come not from textbooks, but by example.

“I did a reading at Mass,’’ Senn said. “And afterwards they saw me in the halls and they were like, ‘Thank you for reading.’ I wasn’t expecting to be thanked like that. It was really nice. They’re great. They help with our spiritual journey because they push us to want to do more with our faith.


“Their presence — not just their words — push us to really accept our faith and to be happy with it.’’

If you spend some time with these nuns — as I did the other day — you cannot help but sense that happiness.

It’s a feeling that comes with living a life that you find fulfilling and enriching. And sharing that spirit with the school community here.

“A lot of our students grow up in the suburbs of Eastern Massachusetts,’’ said Chris Capone, a ninth-grade biology teacher who graduated from Austin Prep in 1988. “And although some of them have done some traveling — and obviously their young age as well contributes to this — they just don’t really have a world experience.

“The sisters bring that. They come from a different place. In a gentle way they’re able to present another aspect of the world that they’ve been exposed to.’’

None of that is lost on the teachers and the students here at Austin Prep.

“They’re almost like celebrities,’’ Hickey said. “The one thing that always strikes me is you can hear their laughter. They’re very joyful people. They are happy. There’s something inside. They are very, very happy.


“So, if you think about it, they come from a nation that doesn’t have the resources and the wealth that the United States has. Yet, in their poverty, there is some profound richness.’’

What a gift that is.

And what a lesson.

The kind of lesson you won’t find in textbooks. But it’s here, living in Reading.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.