Nias, off the coast of Sumatra in northwest Indonesia, is in every sense of the word a ‘Christian island’ in the most populous Muslim nation on earth. Of the total population of around 750,000 souls, some 550,000 are Protestants and 150,000 Catholics. One Catholic foundation on the island is the convent of Saint Clare in Gunungsitoli.

The convent lies at the foot of the ‘Gunung Suci’, the ‘Holy Mountain’. For years it was popularly known as the ‘accursed mountain’, because for centuries local people were preyed on by headhunters or dragged off into slavery. The first two Catholic missionaries arrived here from France in 1832, but died shortly afterwards.

In the Second World War the Dutch colonial administration was expelled by the Japanese. To this day a Japanese military bunker remains high up on the hilltop in what are now the convent grounds – many people were executed in the bunker. Now the Poor Clare Sisters have erected a large cross on top of it and built a Lourdes grotto beside it. Each day lots of people come to kneel here and pray, while others ask the sisters for their prayers. The curse has become a blessing.

The 31 sisters of the congregation live in strict enclosure. Their life is far from easy, with constant power cuts and periods of political instability. To support themselves they run a small candlemaking business, bake unleavened bread for Mass, sew liturgical vestments and furnishings, and run a smallholding.

The island was struck by a tsunami in 2004 and an earthquake in 2005, but the cruellest blow of all for the sisters was a fire in the candlemaking workshop, which engulfed the shop and storeroom, shortly before Christmas 2015. Jenky, a young helper, ran out of the building, his whole body on fire. Sister Claudia rescued him and and brought to safety, before herself collapsing. She survived, but her help came too late for Jenky, who died three days later.

All the Christmas candles and all the wax stored for the Easter candles flowed down the street like a blazing stream of lava. The workshop itself was destroyed, along with all the expensive candle moulds and the adjoining building. But the sisters did not give up, remembering the prayer of their founder, Saint Clare. In one of her meditations she said: ‘I ask one thing only of your holy love – perseverance till the end and the perfect fulfilment of your will.’ We have supported the rebuilding of the candlemaking workshop. So now the sisters can continue to give witness and bring light and blessings to Nias.

This article can be found in Mirror 0217.