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25 years ago, 5 nuns were murdered in Liberia. Their legacy continues today.

The Martyrs of Charity from Ruma

It is the 25th anniversary of the murder of five nuns from Ruma in Liberia.
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It is the 25th anniversary of the murder of five nuns from Ruma in Liberia.

This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.

In October 1992, five nuns who were missionaries from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ’s Ruma province were murdered by rebels near the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Since that time, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ have honored their sisters’ sacrifice by telling the story of their lives and working to re-establish a relationship with the people of Liberia.

The Adorers who died — Sister Barbara Ann Muttra, of Springfield; Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, of Waterloo; Sister Shirley Kolmer, of Waterloo; Sister Agnes Mueller, of Bartelso; and Sister Kathleen McGuire, of Ridgway — were from a center located in Ruma, about 25 miles south of Belleville.

sister Agnes Mueller
Sister Agnes Mueller, 62, of Bartelso, ministered as a nurse in hospitals in Taylorville and Red Bud. From 1981 to 1983, she served as director of Apostolic Services for the province and from 1983 to 1987 as formation director. She began working in Liberia in education and pastoral ministry in 1987. She professed her vows in 1948. — From the Belleville News-Democrat, Nov. 1, 1992. Belleville News-Democrat archive photo

Priests of the Society of African Missions invited the Adorers to establish a ministry in Liberia in the early 1970s. The sisters served Liberia’s people through charitable work, including staffing health clinics, teaching, pastoral work and mentoring.

Liberia had experienced and continued to experience civil unrest for years. According to an Associated Press report, the seven-year first civil war in Liberia in the 1990s killed more than 150,000 people and ended with Charles Taylor, the strongest warlord, winning the presidential election of 1997.

The civil war caused delays and confusion in the news coming out of Liberia in 1992.

In a phone conversation last week, Sister Mildred Gross, who served as provincial superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Ruma at that time, shared her memories of the murders.

“The last time we had talked to them, personally, was on Oct. 2, 1992. They went to the international communications center in Monrovia, since they didn’t have a phone. They would call us on a monthly basis and tell us how things were. We had some idea that the fighting was going on,” Sister Mildred said.

Sister Mildred first learned something had gone wrong when she heard about “the capture of five sisters in Liberia” on KMOX St. Louis radio’s 3 p.m. news on Oct. 28.

“I called KMOX and talked to Fred Bodimer. He verified that he was talking about my sisters from Ruma,” she said.

Sister Mildred said, “It wasn’t until Oct. 31 at 2:35 a.m. that we received a call from the provincial, John Murray, of the Society of African Missions fathers, and learned the sisters were dead.”

In a story from Feb. 9, 1993, BND reporter Doug Moore wrote what forensic experts and investigators believed happened to the missionaries: “On Oct. 20, 1992, Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra and Mary Joel Kolmer left the convent in the Monrovian suburb of Gardnersville to take a Lebanese security guard to check on his family.”

Sister Barbara Ann Muttra
Sister Barbara Ann Muttra, 69, of Springfield, worked as a nurse since 1943. From 1968 to 1971, she was a volunteer in refugee camps in Saigon, Vietnam. She went to Liberia in 1971 where she attended to the healthcare needs of the people through clinics and the education of primary healthcare workers. She professed her vows in 1943. — From the Belleville News-Democrat, Nov. 1, 1992. Belleville News-Democrat archive photo

It is believed the sisters picked up two members of the allied West African peacekeeping force. Reports indicated they were ambushed on the road by soldiers of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, who later denied his forces had been involved.

Moore wrote: “The burned-out vehicle later was identified by its intact license plate. Remains of the two sisters were found nearby. Bullet fragments and the condition of the vehicle led to the conclusion that all occupants had been shot.”

The three remaining sisters, Sister Kathleen, Sister Agnes and Sister Shirley, reportedly tried to leave the convent several times the next day, but fighting broke out each time.

On Oct. 23, 1992, rebels, again believed to be under Taylor, went to the convent in Gardnersville demanding money.

Moore reported, “They first shot Sister Kathleen when she opened the gate, then shot Sisters Shirley and Agnes when they told the rebels they had no U.S. currency, but only Liberian money.”

Forensic evidence also showed multiple fractures in the skeletal remains, indicating that the sisters’ bodies were beaten with a blunt object after they were killed.

Sister Mildred said, “We agreed, as a province, that we needed to move away from focusing on their deaths, which were so brutal because of the way they were done — ambushed and shot and mutilated.”

“We had to focus on their lives. That’s really what we’ve done these past 25 years. We tell the stories of how they gave of themselves and sacrificed their lives for the cause of the people of Liberia,” she said.

According to a report from the AP, published in the News-Democrat on Nov. 1, 1992, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called the killings a “massacre.”

In the same AP report, the State Department said the United States was “shocked and appalled” and condemned “this cowardly act.”

It read: “The State Department declared the fact that these women had no role in Liberia’s civil war and were in the country to work with orphaned children and other victims of the conflict makes the killings all the more repugnant.”

Over 1,400 community members mourned for the missionaries in a special service held at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belleville on Nov. 5, 1992.

Sister Mary Joel Kolmer
Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, 58, of Waterloo, was an elementary school teacher for 25 years in schools in Illinois and Iowa. She went to Liberia in 1982 to serve as a religion teacher. She professed her vows in 1957. — From the Belleville News-Democrat, Nov. 1, 1992. Belleville News-Democrat archive photo

At the service, family members of the sisters shared their memories of the women over 2-foot-high, black-and-white photos of Sister Barbara Ann, Sister Mary Joel, Sister Shirley, Sister Agnes and Sister Kathleen. Their bodies had not been recovered from Liberia because of the intense fighting around Monrovia.

After weeks of negotiations, United States diplomats, escorted by West African peacekeeping forces, recovered the bodies of Sister Shirley, Sister Agnes and Sister Kathleen in December 1992. Sisters Barbara Ann and Mary Joel’s bodies were located later and sent back to the United States in January 1993.

Sister Mildred recalled, “We did not receive bodies; we received remains. The person who helped us a lot was Paul Simon, the senator. He’s dead now. He took over and helped us in the recovery, retrieval and return of the five sisters.” She said though she never doubted the Adorers would be given back to them, Sen. Simon worked tirelessly on their behalf in the international community.

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Makanda, was the chairman of the U.S. Senate’s African Affairs Committee at that time.

In a funeral service held in December 1992, Sister Shirley, Sister Agnes and Sister Kathleen were buried at the order’s cemetery in Ruma, like almost all of the members of the center since it was established.

In a story by Moore, published in the News-Democrat on Dec. 14, 1992, Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis, of the Liberian capital of Monrovia, presided over the funeral.

At the funeral, Francis said, “Once they put their hands to the plow, they didn’t turn back. They could have come back to their own country, the United States, where you have everything, but they wanted in a special way to serve the Lord in the poorest of the poor.”

Sister Shirley Kolmer
Sister Shirley Kolmer, 61, of Waterloo, was an elementary and high school teacher for 12 years before she began teaching math at St. Louis University in 1964. She went to Liberia in 1977 as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Monrovia. In 1978, she returned to the United States and served as provincial superior until 1983 when she returned to Liberia to teach at the university. She later became principal of St. Patrick High School in Liberia. She professed her vows in 1947. — From the Belleville News-Democrat, Nov. 1, 1992. Belleville News-Democrat archive photo

The Adorers received a letter dated Dec. 7, 1992, from then-President George H.W. Bush and the First Lady, that conveyed, “heartfelt condolences from he and Barbara,” over the deaths of the nuns.

On June 27, 1994, BND reporter Amber Grimes documented the unveiling of an 8-foot bronze monument at the center in Ruma dedicated to the five Adorers and all who serve. It was designed by sculptor Rudy Torrini, of St. Louis.

Sister Mildred said, “The monument is for everyone at Ruma. It honored the five sisters with the sculpture of the women who had their hands upraised but also, all people who minister and give of their lives.”

“To have it built was kind of a challenge for us. Some of the sisters felt that the money should be given to the poor rather than build the statue.”

She described the monument as a place for the Adorers and the community to reflect and heal. “It became a very meaningful symbol for us and a constant reminder of their lives and deaths,” she said.

Archbishop Francis, of Monrovia, assigned a commission to investigate the murders in October 2002. Francis said the findings would be sent directly to Rome.

Sister Barbara Ann, Sister Mary Joel, Sister Shirley, Sister Agnes and Sister Kathleen were declared “Martyrs of Charity” by Pope John Paul II in 2002.

A news release from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ: United States Region dated Oct. 18, 2017, said, “No one has ever been brought to justice for the crimes of the sisters’ killings, and the Adorers have not pursued any investigation or prosecution.”

Sister Kathleen McGuire
Sister Kathleen McGuire, 54, of Ridgway, spent 14 years as a high school teacher in Illinois and Iowa, four years in campus ministry at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., and six years as province peace and justice coordinator. She went to Liberia in 1991 where she helped in the schools and developed programs to help people deal with the trauma they experienced as a result of the civil war. She professed her vows in 1956. — From the Belleville News-Democrat, Nov. 1, 1992. Belleville News-Democrat archive photo

In May 2017, the Adorers sent two of their members, two associates and two Newman University students on a pilgrimage to Liberia to talk to the people who knew the sisters and to walk where they walked.

One of the women to take the pilgrimage was Sister Raphael Drone.

Sister Raphael, who took her first vows in 1960 and who served as a missionary in Liberia for 20 years, said the pilgrimage was “like going home.”

She said, “I went with Sister Barbara in 1971. I was there 17 years. Whenever I go to Liberia, it’s a feeling of going back home because I know a lot of people there. They are always welcoming us.”

Sister Raphael has served in Liberia multiple times since the sisters’ murders in 1992. “We didn’t go back for a long time,” she said.

“Three of us went back in 2008. I went and decided we still needed a presence there. Then, in 2010, I went back as a lay missionary with the Society of African Missions. I stayed for two years. I went again in 2014. I signed a two-year contract but I was only there six months because Ebola broke out.”

The Adorers’ memories are being kept alive by the Liberian people who have named schools and clinics after the missionaries.

“There were so many stories that started with ‘Do you remember when?’” Sister Raphael said. She described being on the 2017 pilgrimage and reconnecting with people she knew personally from her service and some who had known the martyred Adorers.

An Adorers of the Blood of Christ associate, who also went on the trip, recorded some of their pilgrimage activities on the Adorer’s blog page.

Among their experiences, the associate wrote about meeting former students of the Adorers, listening to Liberian children sing a song about the nuns and meeting a missionary who was held captive by rebels but survived.

As for the future of the Adorers’ mission in Liberia, Sister Raphael believes the time has come to go back.

She said, “The people have been waiting for us for a long time. I still think that the needs are there and our service would be life-giving for us and for them.”

“The people of Liberia are our friends and they know that. And they know we care about them.”

On Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, more than 300 people attended a commemorative event at Ruma to honor the 25th anniversary of the death of the Martyrs of Charity.

Sister Janet McCann of the Adorers said the event was more of a celebration than mournful. “It was really about celebrating not just who those five were, but the relationship between the people of Liberia and the Adorers,” Sister Janet said.

A new mini-documentary about the Adorers by Bill Streeter of Hydraulic Pictures was shown. It includes actual footage of the sisters performing charitable work in Liberia.

Sister Raphael attended the commemorative event as well.

She said, “We all follow the commission Jesus gave us to spread the love of God. We all do that in our own ways. This service was also about listening to how someone took that commission all the way to the end.”

“Please pray for the people of Liberia,” Sister Raphael said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Heidi Wiechert: 618-239-2500, @BND_HeidiW

Liberia At A Glance

The African country of Liberia was founded in 1822 as a haven for freed slaves from the United States and other countries. Its capital, Monrovia, was named for President James Monroe. Liberia has experienced two civil wars and wide-spread instability since the 1980s.

In the Liberian presidential election held in October 2017, there were 20 candidates running for office. The two lead candidates, George Weah and Joseph Boakai, did not receive the majority of the votes necessary to win the election. A run-off between Weah and Boakai is scheduled for Nov. 7, 2017.

  • 1980 — Samuel Doe carries out military coup. A council led by Doe suspends the constitution and assumes full powers.
  • 1985 — Doe wins the presidential election.
  • 1989 — National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor begins an uprising against the government.
  • 1990 — Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) sends peacekeeping force. Doe is executed by a splinter group of the NPFL.
  • 1992 — Five Adorers of the Blood of Christ from Ruma are killed by rebels near Monrovia.
  • 1997 — Taylor wins presidential election. International observers declare the elections free and fair.
  • 2000 July — Government reports first attacks by rebels who identify themselves as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).
  • 2003 July — Rebels battle for control of Monrovia. Several hundred people are killed. West African regional group Ecowas agrees to provide peacekeepers.
  • 2003 August — Charles Taylor leaves Liberia after handing power to his deputy Moses Blah. Interim government and rebels sign peace accord. Gyude Bryant chosen to head interim administration.
  • 2003 September-October — UN launches major peacekeeping mission, deploying thousands of troops.
  • 2005 November — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes the first woman to be elected as an African head of state.
  • 2006 April — Former president Charles Taylor appears before a UN-backed court in Sierra Leone on charges of crimes against humanity.
  • 2011 October-November — Presidential elections. President Johnson Sirleaf wins re-election.
  • 2012 April — Ex-president Charles Taylor is found guilty of war crimes for aiding and directing rebels in Sierra Leone. He is sentenced to 50 years in jail, to be served in Britain.
  • 2014 July-October — Liberia announces emergency measures to combat spread of outbreak of Ebola virus.
  • 2016 June — UN peacekeeping forces in Liberia (UNMIL) hand back responsibility for security to the country’s army and police. The mission first deployed in 2003, after two civil wars in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Liberian chronology from the BBC.