Martyrs Of Love

By Father Seán Coyle SSC

This article is based mainly on a report sent to the members of the Missionaries of Charity by Sister M Raphael MC, regional superior in Amman, Jordan, in 1998.

Sister Mary Michael MC was born Victoria Espejon in the Philippines on 21 September 1961. Along with Sr M Zelia MC (Pancratia Minj) and Sr M Aletta MC (Albisia Dung Dung), both from India and just a little younger, she was shot dead in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, in the south of Yemen, on the morning of 27 July 1998.

Three Deaths in the Street

The three Sisters set off after Morning Prayer and Holy Mass, offered on the death anniversary of Sr Zelia’s mother. At 7:50 am Sr Zelia phoned Sr Aroti in Sana’a, the capital, 225 kms to the northeast, to say she’d phone again from a place ten minutes walk away. She never made that call. Fifty minutes later Sr Aroti received a distressing call from a woman who worked for the Sisters telling her that Sr Zelia and her two companions had been riddled with bullets only three minutes after leaving the convent. She’d heard the machine-gun fire and had run outside to find the three bodies lying in blood.

Sister Aroti called the other houses of the Missionaries of Charity in Yemen and also Father Jose, the parish priest of Hodeidah. He and the police brought the bodies to the nearby hospital. With great respect, the police handed over to Father Jose the basket and bag of the Sisters containing their slippers, umbrellas, money to pay the phone bill, their crucifixes and rosaries. They then went with him to the Sisters’ convent to examine it carefully. They left the house perfectly tidy. The police inspector was struck by the simple way of life and dedication of the Sisters. Later the police handed the keys to the house to Father Jose.

Support from all over

Sr Aroti then phoned Sr Raphael in Amman and Sr Nirmala, Mother Teresa’s successor, in Calcutta, and the national authorities in Yemen. Help came from all sides. The government gave visas immediately to Sisters coming from elsewhere and to Father Sebastian MC in Rome. They also gave one to Bishop Giovanni Bernardo Gremoli OFM Cap, Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, who lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Vicariate includes the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, the Republic of Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman. The bishop lives in Abu Dhabi, UAE. There are now 1,400,000 Catholics in the Vicariate, almost all overseas workers, 3.3 percent of a population of 42, 250, 000. Two Sisters from each community in Yemen were sent to Hodeidah to help. The other three members of the Hodeidah community were studying Arabic at the time in Sana’a.

Some Indian parishioners helped make the coffins. Sister Raphael MC arrived in Sana’a the following morning and the government welcomed Sr Nirmala MC with honors normally given to a diplomat. Bishop Gremoli also arrived.

Farewell Sisters

Next day the visitors headed for Hodeidah. Indian nurses had volunteered to help prepare the bodies for burial. They placed garlands of jasmine on the remains and a cross and rosary in the hands. On 30 July the procession left Hodeidah at 7:30 am. Because of a very heavy shower in this place known for its unspeakably hot and dry climate there was delay because of flooding. The cortege reached Aden nine hours later.

Bishop Gremoli and five priests concelebrated the funeral Mass. An Anglican priest did the first reading. In his homily Bishop Gremoli proclaimed the three Sisters ‘Martyrs of Love.’ At the end of the Holy Mass Sister Nirmala spoke about the dedication of the three and about the aim of the Missionaries of Charity. She then started the mission sending hymn of the Missionaries, God will take care of you. A sandstorm blew as the three coffins were lowered into the ground.

The 100 or so elderly and disabled people living in the Hodeidah Institute whom the Sisters had taken care of, and the 450 or so with mental and physical disabilities whom they served in the clinic there, were in deep sorrow. Some fasted and one asked Sr Nirmala if the Missionaries would leave Hodeidah. Sister Nirmala assured her that not only would the remaining Sisters not leave but that others would take the place of Sisters Michael, Zelia and Aletta.

The Unspeakable Grief

Sister Raphael reflected, ‘As a whole, these three martyrs were quenching Jesus’ thirst each moment by their fidelity to little things, and dying to their selves without counting the cost. As we ponder the last agony of our dear three Sisters who died on that street without a drop of water or a human touch or a consoling word, it seems unbearable for us who day by day for 25 years walked and worked without fear in Hodeidah.’

A few weeks after the murders, on 13 August, the Missionaries of Charity in utter poverty celebrated the Silver Jubilee of their presence in Hodeidah, enriched by the blood of Sisters Zelia, Aletta and Michael. When Victoria Espejon took her first vows as Sister Michael in November 1988 and even when she went to Yemen in 1995, she probably never imagined how her life would end or that a member of the security forces on duty at her funeral would say, ‘Being a Muslim, I found your prayers and your church beautiful. I found much more meaning in that all faiths were united, Muslims, Hindus, Anglicans and Catholics. I respect your faith.’