Africa: Tunisia

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By Fr John Caruana

Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) in Tunisia

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary went to Carthage, Tunisia, at the invitation of Cardinal Lavigerie in 1885. Besides taking care of the house of St Monica in Carthage, the nuns served in the ‘Hospital of the Liberation’ between 1944-1956, after it was taken over by the Independent State of Tunisia.

In 1958 the Nuns were asked to take over ‘St Augustine’s Clinic’ which belonged to the Catholic Church and which was served by the Sisters of Niederbronn. The FMM nuns worked there for a quarter of a century. The Clinic served both Europeans and Tunisians.

Other houses were opened in Tunisia. In each community they were in contact with the Arab world. The nuns built good relationships with their neighbours and visited the poor and the needy. They look for work contracts according to their aptitudes and personal formation, especially in jobs less appreciated by other candidates. Health services are limited.

A Community was opened in Gafsa, in the South of Tunisia responding to an appeal from the Governor himself to open a kindergarten. The project of the community in the House in Kasserine, founded in 1970, consisted in living with the people and like the people, enjoying the same living and working conditions, in Christ’s name. They had various kinds of social service, according to the needs and the possibilities.

Sr Concetta Dimech was sent to Tunisia in 1978. While learning French, she helped in St Augustine’s Clinic which belonged to the Church under the responsibility of the FMM. This clinic was very well known in North Africa and patients came from as far away as Libya and Algeria. In the clinic, Sr Concetta met with patients of different nationalities besides Tunisians. After a year in Algeria, Sr Concetta worked at the Provincial House, welcoming the nuns coming from Libya, Algeria or North and South Tunisia, as well as people coming from Algeria and Tunis to be admitted to the Clinic.

In 1992 Bishop Fuad Twal asked Sr Concetta to help in the Curia as matron. Besides the Offices, the Curia had an extension house where they received guests. She had to look after the upkeep of this house and see that everything ran smoothly. All kinds of meetings took place in this house. All year round, they also received groups of priests. They welcomed groups of volunteers, from the Mission Fund and others, who came to help the diocese during summer. But Sr Concetta also found time to visit and help many local poor people. In her visits to the poor she experienced much misery. Women like to speak about the needs of their children. Many tourists visit the Cathedral, which is close to the Curia. She met Maltese tourists and always tried to help them. Many Maltese live in Tunisia, and thanks to the Maltese Ambassador the Maltese community meets on two or three occasions every year.

“Our mission here is quite a hidden one, but in reality it is great. People knock at our door asking for help, both on material and moral issues. They have such a trust in us. Do pray for us to continue our mission in the best way possible,” Sr Concetta says.

Sr Vinnie Catania left for Tunisia in 1980, and made her Final Profession there in 1982. She then started working in a Professional School for Female Formation, teaching knitting and crochet, and at the same time learning the Tunisian dialect with the girls. Afterwards she taught English in the Inter
College for the Baccalaureate. After some years, Sr Catania became the Secretary General of the Church’s 21 Schools, including schools from Kindergarten to Secondary for girls and Professional Schools for boys and girls.

Sr Victoria Vella’s first experience in Tunisia was serving as a nurse in the clinic ‘St. Augustine’ which belonged to the Church. At first it was not easy for her because of the French language. Although she had learnt it at school, she never spoke it. Nevertheless, she gave herself totally to the service of the sick that she loved so much. After some years she was sent to Senegal.

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