The Angolan War of Independence (1961–74) freed the country from its colonial Portuguese rulers but immediately plunged it into a 27 year long civil war (1975-2002), essentially a power struggle between two former liberation movements: diamond-trade funded UNITA and the Marxist-Leninist MPLA. The civil war spawned a disastrous humanitarian crisis, internally displacing one-third of Angola’s total population, and Marxist ideology seeking to eliminate the Church from the public sphere and from society. ACN has worked to help the church in Angola rebuild, serve and accompany the country’s Catholics, who represent more than half of the 20 million strong population of Angola.

We have supported a number of reconstruction projects, and gone beyond simply the repairing of structures. The aim is to rebuild and strengthen communities, to enable priests and sisters to devote more attention to their spiritual formation and to pastoral care. Here, contemplative sisters have a particularly important role to play as they pray for peace and healing and the revival of faith in a country where so many people, families, communities are still scarred by war.

In stark contrast to Angola’s recent history, the Poor Clare Sisters of ‘Nossa Senhora dos Anjos’ in the Archdiocese of Malanje are contemplatives. Like their founder Clare of Assissi, they are dedicated to holiness and poverty. Currently 19 Poor Clare Sisters and five novices are living in the monastery.

The Order of Saint Clare first came to Malanje in the early 1980’s, when the bishops of Angola asked the Poor Clare Sisters to establish a contemplative convent there, promising them a large number of vocations in a short time. And indeed it was so. Thanks to the generous missionary spirit of the 10 or more sisters who volunteered to leave Astudillo in Spain to go to Africa, after much effort and ‘great poverty’, in 1982 they founded the convent in Malanje: ‘As soon as we arrived, the vocations began; so many in fact, that we didn’t have room for them’, explains Mother Maria del Carmen with a smile. ‘That’s why we asked ACN for help to set up a novitiate.’ Following the success of this first venture on such fertile spiritual soil, the Sisters founded another convent in the capital Luanda, and one in Xai-Xai, in Mozambique.

In addition to the spiritual duties of the contemplative life, the sisters make baby clothes and religious items for sale in order to bring in a little additional income for the convent, otherwise they live from alms and our support. The monastery has a long story with ACN. Mother Maria del Carmen Reinoso lived through Angola’s civil war, and has shared heroic stories with us. Living the Gospel of mercy amid flying bullets is no easy task. The Poor Clare Sisters in Malanje, have lived through a number of battles during the civil war that destroyed so much in Angola, all without leaving their convent walls. ‘It’s a miracle that we’re still alive, but we weren’t hit by a single bullet.’ Angola’s civil war was one of the longest and bloodiest on the continent, and the early ‘90s was the most violent period of all. During one of the phases during which the convent was attacked, Mother Maria tells us how the sisters had to hide in their bread oven in order to take shelter from the terrible hail of bullets that were being fired. The walls were riddled but the Sisters saved!

Their convent chapel is today one of the places where the faithful could gather during last year’s Jubilee Year of Mercy as there was one Door of Mercy, something which brought great joy to many here. The Monastery is a great column of the diocese and ACN has been helping them since 1987. Every one of these projects has been meticulously recorded by Mother Maria: the construction of the convent itself, the extension of the chapel, its restoration after it was peppered with bullet holes during the war… Mother María del Carmen tells us of her gratitude to ACN for all the help this pontifical foundation has given. ‘We are able to live, thanks to the benefactors of ACN’, she says, adding ‘Our prayers are the only thing we can give them in return, and so every day we pray the Rosary for them and also offer Masses’.

The Poor Clares in Angola are a living example of merciful and heroic love and their mission and charism are so essential in a country which only just has started to heal.

This article can be found in Mirror 0317.