Doctor Sister from Tanzania
By Gail Wood
To appreciate what she’s done — graduated from Saint Martin’s
University, received her master’s degree in Belgium and recently
finished her doctorate in theology in Kenya — you first have to
know where she came from: a small, poverty-torn village in
When Sister Redemista Ngonyani, O.S.B., was a little girl,
she wanted to one day go to college. In a country where the
literacy rate is 73 percent and education is compulsory for only
seven years, until a child is 15 years old, her goals were
“She had a dream that one day she’d go to school,” explains
Sister Sharon McDonald, O.S.B., of Saint Placid Priory in Lacey,
who worked with Sister Redemista when she attended Saint
Martin’s. “But there were no doors opened for her. So, for her
to come to America, it was a dream come true.”
Sister Redemista is now the third woman in all of East Africa
to hold a doctorate in canon law.
Communication with Sister Redemista is a challenge, given her
current location in Tanzania, but she recently conveyed a
message to Saint Martin’s via Sister Sharon:
“This is what is in my head and in my heart: I will use
my Ph.D. to help the Church and its workers to work
harmoniously. This will help to smoothly spread the Good News to
all humankind and to the global family. This is going to be done
through seminars, workshops and teaching to different groups in
the Catholic Church, especially to institutes of consecrated
life and to schools that prepare young men for the priesthood.
People are already looking to me with hope and full of
expectations. With God at my side, I shall do His will.”
“I’d say she’s always known she was to be a change agent,”
Sister Sharon says. “Because she just recently finished her
doctorate, her role is beginning to unfold.”
Sister Redemista’s coming to America and to Saint Martin’s
was put into motion when, while in Rome, she met Sister Laura
Swan, O.S.B., of Saint Placid.
The Tanzanian nun asked for help educating herself and
several other sisters.
“Laura said we could help,” Sister Sharon recalls.
David Spangler, Ph.D., then the president of Saint Martin’s,
approved a tuition waiver. Saint Placid Priory fundraised to
cover the cost of travel and housing. Without that financial
support, Sister Redemista’s dream of an education would have
remained a dream.
Kind. Positive. Industrious. Friendly. Generous.
Appreciative. Joyful. Leader. Those are the words used
repeatedly to describe this nun, who, according to Spangler,
never took anything for granted.
“She was willing to work as much as possible,” says Spangler.
“I think when she saw something new, she appreciated the chance
to learn about it.”
“She knew from the very beginning that education was her
ticket to be able to provide some leadership for that area.”
And, remembers Spangler, Sister Redemista fit seamlessly into
“I was always impressed with the fact that she blended in
very well with our other students. She was willing to be part of
Sister Redemista has made the most of an open door, a door
opened by the helping hand of Saint Martin’s. At Saint Martin’s,
she majored in religious studies and graduated in 2004. She
continued her education at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in
Belgium, completing a master’s thesis on “The Authority of the
Diocese According to the 1983 Code.” She then returned to
Tanzania to work for her community, exploring the possibilities
of forming a federation of English-speaking Benedictine
monasteries of women.
She earned her Doctor of Philosophy in theology with
specialization in canon law and successfully defended her
doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Eastern
Africa in Nairobi. On Oct. 7, 2011, she became “Doctor Sister
Sister Redemista did what she dreamed as a child of doing.
Her education, her degrees are achievements she’ll now use to
open doors for others.
Sister Laura remains inspired by Redemista’s journey from
poverty in a rural African village to America and back to her
“I am in awe that a woman from rural Tanzania ventured to the
Pacific Northwest, knowing no one and with shaky English, and
successfully negotiated her way through undergraduate studies,”
she remarks. “Not only did Saint Placid Priory, Saint Martin’s
Abbey and Saint Martin's University each make her education
possible, it was a broad community of friends who supported and
encouraged her in myriad ways.”
“Sister Redemista is a woman of great courage, worthy of
present international students emulating,” Sister Laura says.
“She’s a shining light for Saint Martin’s.”
“This is an example of what Saint Martin’s is doing. Everyone
can celebrate that bridge.”
Closes Sister Redemista in her message to Sister Sharon:
“With God at my side, I shall do His will. It all started
with Saint Martin’s University in collaboration with Saint
Placid Priory. May God bless you now and always.”