Ulaan Baatar (AsiaNews/UCAN) – When Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) nuns arrived in Mongolia in 1995 there was only a handful of priests who had come in 1992. After 12 years of mission, Sister Nellie Zarraga talked to UCA News about her experience as she prepares to leave.
The Catholic Mission in Mongolia started in 1992 with the arrival of three ICM priests. One of them, Fr Wenceslao Padilla, was made bishop 11 years later and now runs the Apostolic Prefecture of Ulaan Baatar which now consists of 64 missionaries from 19 countries as well as six lay missionaries. Its four parishes and six mission stations serve 415 Mongolian Catholics (out of a Mongolian population of 2.8 million).
“At the time [of the mission’s arrival] everybody wanted to learn English, so we offered English classes in the evenings. During Christmas we went out and offered some food and drink to street people after the English class. The Mongolians in our classes had never done that. They were amazed,” Sister Zarraga said.
“Teaching English was an entry point,” she explained. “There is a Mongolian saying: ‘Your world is as big as the palm of your hand without acquaintances.’ Our world gradually grew bigger and bigger. Father Wens (Bishop Padilla) was good at making acquaintances. He met a kindergarten teacher and agreed that we teach English to teachers and children in the kindergarten.”
A few years later Sister Lieve (Straiger) taught knitting, (ICM) Sister Marife (Sebial) English, and I was invited to the mental hospital, Sharhad, by Christina Noble, [an Irish woman who has founded orphanages in many countries around the world].”
“I was shocked, seeing all the children in one room. The nurses were not doing anything, just guarding the children. Uranggoo, a Mongolian Catholic, and I went and started to work there with the special children and discovered Maant, the other mental hospital.”
“In 2000 Father Wens invited the Brothers of Charity of Ghent, Belgium. They came every other year, inviting doctors and experts, and trained Mongolian doctors in Sharhad. They taught therapy, physical development, art therapy, sewing, organizing classes for mental patients.”
There were difficulties as well. In Maant the “director was misallocating funds. The head of the children's department of the health ministry eventually admitted that 35-45 people were dying every year in a hospital for 180 people. [. . .] We even brought training to the Maant personnel. But all of a sudden they closed it down. The patients were put into Sharhad.”
“The mentally handicapped” are the “the most marginalized and to the poorest.” They are “challenged because they cannot care for themselves. They need care from their parents and society.”
These children “are born to alcoholic parents or have been street children from the time they are born” but “there are people who have started to come out in the open.” Since “we opened the Rainbow Center, other centers have come up. It is still very little in proportion to the need.”
Asked about the hardest thing, she said loneliness, “being cut off from our communities, being just the four of us,” plus the priests, and “a little group of other sisters, the Koreans, who could not speak English.” Although “we were prepared for it [. . .], Christmas was such a lonely time.”
“We had to learn to come back to God without the frivolous activities we usually surround ourselves with. It was like fasting, only God and you,” she said.