Belfast Missionary Sister describes her work nursing in Africa

Sr Patricia with doll Sunshine -  picture Anthony Omuya

Sr Patricia with doll Sunshine - picture Anthony Omuya

Millicent Mwololo from the Daily Nation in Nairobi, interviewed Sister Patricia Speight, a Franciscan Missionary Sister for Africa about her life and work as a nurse in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

I met Sister Patricia Speight on a bright morning and the first thing she told me about was her doll, Sunshine. She was given the doll by a Catholic nun when she was five years old, she recalled.

"That day, my older sister, then six years old, was receiving her First Holy Communion and my mother was sick in hospital.

"After the Mass, my father took us to visit the Dominican Sisters in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Then this nun, whose name I cannot recall, gave me this doll saying, 'Patricia I am giving you this African doll because I know that one day you will be a missionary in Africa.' I kept the doll and named her Sunshine," she said.

When she was about 16 years old, Sr Patricia felt drawn to work with the poor and marginalised in Africa.

Since she was from a large family, she had dropped out of school and was working as a receptionist at a hospital in Belfast to supplement the family's income.

She was also an active member of the Legion of Mary and would visit the sick in hospital to comfort them.

"I would write little encouraging messages to them and just spend time listening to them," she said.

One Sunday evening just after she had left the wards, Sister Margaret Josephine of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, a nurse at the hospital, followed her.

She had been watching how Patricia dealt with the sick. "She asked me whether I had ever thought of serving as a nun. I told her that I would think about it and give her an answer later," Sister Patricia recalled.

That night she talked things over with her parents, who were elated. The following Saturday, her father took her to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa Convent, where she met Sister Margaret, who introduced her to the other nuns.

"I was very touched and impressed by their simplicity. I enjoyed their stories, and their way of life touched me," she said.

At that time, her ambition was to be a nurse, but since her family could not pay for her training, she saved part of her salary and enrolled for evening classes.

Three years later, at the age of 21, she was accepted by Westminster Hospital in London to train as a nurse.

"I still felt God calling me to be a nun. I prayed every day, attended Mass and read the Scriptures," she said. After the training, she was awarded the title 'Nurse of the Year'.

While in London, Sister Patricia visited other congregations to discern which order she could fit into best. "But my heart was calling me back to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa," she said.

Patricia later returned to Ireland and worked at a hospital in Belfast.

A year later, at the age 24, she joined the convent at the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa in Mount Oliver Dundalk, Ireland, where she spent the next two years undergoing orientation.

"I learnt about the congregation's constitution, was taken through what being a nun meant, and exposed to community work," she said.

In 1983, she was sent to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital for practicals to enable her to be registered.

"Once again, I qualified with a distinction as Nurse of the Year,' she said.

Thus qualified, she was first posted to Kenya to a hospital near Bondo in Siaya County, where she was to work with the community. But after a week, she was transferred to the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) in Nairobi.

Working at KNH was not easy, she said, for while she considered nursing a calling, the other nurses simply treated it as a job. She recalls some cases that troubled her.

One afternoon as she was returning to work after lunch, she saw a woman lying on the ground on Ngong Road. She moved closer and noticed that the woman was very sick.

"I flagged down several cars and fortunately, one man stopped. I asked for assistance and we took her to KNH. When got there, I asked the man to help me get the woman out of the car but he just looked at me. I fetched a trolley, only to notice a foetus and blood on the back seat. The woman had had a spontaneous abortion," she recalled. The driver was not pleased. Sister Patricia cleaned the seat and wheeled the woman right into the doctor's room.
"To my surprise, the doctor asked me why I was worried as the woman was fine. This took me aback since she had lost a lot of blood. The doctor told me, 'Here people are stronger than you think,'" she said.

Later, she sought assistance from the Consolata Sisters to take the woman to her home. After nine months at KNH, she was transferred to a hospital in Meru run by the American Brothers.

One morning as she was opening the clinic, a man dumped his heavily pregnant wife on the doorstep. "He just ran away," she said. "I had not studied midwifery but I had this book that detailed how to deliver a baby. I read it and followed the instructions."

Two hours later, the baby was delivered safely and healthy.

Then there was a woman who went to the hospital at night after being bitten on the face by a stray dog, her baby still strapped on her back. Luckily, the baby had been spared. "I cleaned the wound and dressed it but advised her to go to the main hospital for an anti-rabies injection," said Sister Patricia.

"But she didn't and eventually succumbed to rabies, leaving behind a six-month old baby."

In 1985, Patricia returned to Ireland for her final profession, which took place on August 30, 1986.

"The Lord was saying, 'Patricia come to me'. I inscribed those words on my ring. I have lived by them," she said.

Thereafter, she enrolled for a two-year midwifery course with the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Drogheda, Ireland, after which she returned to Africa, this time to the Regina Coeli Mission Hospital in Nyage District in Zimbabwe, where she served for four years.

In Zimbabwe, she started a home-based programme for the sick in the village. She recalls visiting a woman with full-blown AIDS who asked her for some chicken.

"I prepared it and took it to her. I visited her a few days later, only to be welcomed by an awful smell from her room.

"I looked under her mattress and found the chicken, which had grown mouldy. It seems that much as she wanted to eat it, she was too sick and had not managed to," she says. And as she threw away the mouldy food, some of the villagers wondered why she was throwing away 'good' food. "I warned them that they would get sick if they ate it," she said.

The home-based care programme in Nyage is still operational.

Read more about the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa here:

A version of this article was first published by the Media Group

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

Please support our journalism by donating today.