60 years of ‘Sister Act’
|Sister Maria Regina. Picture by Jack Zimba|
AS A little girl Regina Kuhlmann dreamt of travelling to Africa and serving as a Catholic nun.
And so in 1952, when she was only about 18 years old, Regina, who would later be known by her Christian name “Maria”, decided to follow her dream. She left Germany for Africa to begin her new way of life.
Although her parents were devout Catholics, Maria, who is the oldest of five children, says it was very hard for her family to let her go, but they never tried to stop her.
Perhaps what made it even harder for the Kuhlmanns to let their daughter leave the family and travel to Africa was the fact that they, like millions of Germans at the time, were still trying to rebuild their lives after World War II.
Now aged 85, Maria still has fresh memories of the war.
“When the sirens went off, we had to get out of bed and look for a safe place. Before the war ended in 1945, we had lost everything,” she says.
Maria’s father, who was serving in the German army at the time was captured by Russian soldiers and kept as a prisoner of war for years.
“It was an anxious waiting. We were not sure if he was alive or not,” says Maria.
But in 1950, the captured soldier did return home.
However, by then, Maria had become even more determined to leave her country for the missionary field – Africa.
Maria first arrived in South Africa in 1952 where she trained to be a nun, and then later did her training to become a nurse.
In 1956, Maria began working in a hospital in South Africa until 1962 when she was posted to Zambia (Northern Rhodesia then) and begun working at a small missionary outpost in Lukulu.
She speaks about Lukulu with some fondness.
“We were not rich that we could get all the medicine and food, but it was nice to help the people; and the people were happy, and we were happy. What else could we want?” she says.
In the evenings, Maria and her fellow nuns sat down together singing and working on handicrafts.
Years later, Maria was posted to Lewanika General Hospital in Mongu where she worked in the theatre.
In 2007, Maria was posted to Lusaka, where she has devoted her time in establishing a school in Chalala.
And on January 7, this year, Maria Regina Kuhlmann, who belongs to the Congregation of Holy Cross, celebrated 60 years of a life given to poverty, chastity and obedience, but is very unpretentious about her long service, attributing everything to prayer.
“If you pray in the morning and put your day in God’s hands and say ‘Lord, what comes, comes, I will take it. If it is nice, I will be happy, and if it is hard, I will offer it up,’ then you can make it,” she says.
There has been a push within and outside the Catholic Church to change the celibacy law to allow priests and possibly nuns to marry, but for Maria that is unthinkable.
“I’m old fashioned, I couldn’t imagine that,” she says. “If I had a family with four children, how would I go out and do all the work?”
“I have chosen celibacy and I will stick to it,” she says.
When asked if she ever desired to have a family of her own, Maria replies:
“It never really occurred to me that I would like such.”
She instead talks fondly about the children she helped to nurse during her active service.
Maria also dismisses any suggestion that she chose to become a nun because she did not have a social life.
“I did have a good family and I had a good life,” she says.
Maria talks of going out for movies and attending parties as a teenager.
“I never had a real friend from the male side. I had male friends, but we were friends, like friends, open. There was never anything,” she says.
Maria says she was never swayed from the thought of going to Africa and becoming a nun.
“I’m simply different, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” she says with a chuckle.
“If you had to make a decision again today, would you still choose to be a nun?” I ask her.
“Yeah, of course,” she responds immediately, almost as if that answer had been there all the time.
“I don’t regret a minute. No!” she says.
But Maria admits times have changed, and talks implicitly about the social influences today when one is making such a decision.
“In 1951 when I entered [the sisterhood] there was no TV, there was not much social life,” she says.
But Maria almost loses her composure when she talks about the behaviour of young women today.
“I’m ashamed the way some women here behave, the way they dress, the way they show themselves. What about your dignity as a woman? It has been lost,” says Maria.
“It’s their life, but I feel ashamed to be a woman that you can get your dignity and throw it away,” she says.
About twice a year, the convent where Maria belongs in Kabulonga, Lusaka, invites young girls to stay with the nuns as a way of showing them their way of life, after which they can then decide whether to join the sisterhood or not.
Maria says the girls are never talked into joining the sisterhood.
“It is their decision not our decision. We lead them towards it, but we don’t say ‘come and join us’, they come out of their own free will,” she says.
For six decades, Maria has led a Spartan life, completely devoid of luxuries, including cosmetics and jewellery.
“I wouldn’t know how to apply lipstick, but still I’m happy so why should I apply it?” says Maria.
The octogenarian is softly spoken, with a genial face now touched by age.
Among Maria’s treasured possessions is an old photo of her family, a wooden cross, a curved image of the Virgin Mary and some curved images of guardian angels she was given by her family in Germany.
She also treasures a rosary she received from Pope John Paul II when she met him at the Vatican years back.
And when she dies, Maria wants to remain modest. She does not want an expensive coffin.
“I wouldn’t like that,” she says.
Once every three years, Maria goes to Germany to visit her family, but almost scoffs at the idea of her going back to live there.
“I don’t feel at home any more in Germany. We don’t fit in the life of the people outside the convent. We don’t. Perhaps if I was younger, say 40 or 50 years old, but no,” she says.
Even when she dies, Maria wishes to be buried in Zambia.
“We have no money to fly a body to Germany, and who would look after me in Germany?” she asks.
“I wouldn’t go back, alive or dead,” she says with a chuckle.
Maria wants to reach 100 years, but does not want to become a burden to the people around her when she is too old to do things for herself.
Outside the small convent, Maria shows off her garden with banana trees heavy and bent-over with fruit. It keeps the old nun busy for now.