For Sister Tireza Gabriel Usamo, a 38-year-old Catholic nun from Ethiopia in Africa, the climate and customs of Mongolia have been a constant challenge ever since she went there as a missionary. She is part of a three-member team of nuns from Consolata Missionaries working in Arvaikheer town in central Mongolia.
The Church in Mongolia was re-established when three Immaculate Heart of Mary missionaries arrived there in 1992, a year after democracy was restored after the fall of communism. The Catholic Church was active in Mongolia in the 13th century but its role was ended by the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. Christianity was then forbidden in a country sandwiched between China and Russia.
As the Church marks 30 years of its reincarnation in 2022, it has two Mongol priests, 22 foreign missionaries and about 35 missionary nuns including Sister Usamo. They work for some 1,400 Catholics under the Ulaanbaatar Apostolic Prefecture, which covers the entire country of some 3.3 million people.
Ulaanbaatar's Italian Bishop Giorgio Marengo is among 21 bishops that Pope Francis will make cardinals in a consistory in August. Bishop Marengo, also a Consolata missionary, met the pope in May with a team of Buddhists in an effort to promote interfaith collaboration in Mongolia.
In the following interview with UCA News editor Rock Ronald Rozario, Sister Usamo speaks about the tiny Church in Mongolia, its culture and diverse customs, and the challenges missionaries face there.
What do Consolata nuns focus on in the Mongolian mission?
Our sisters work to be close to people through social activities such as working with children and women. We started working here about two decades ago. We now serve in the capital Ulaanbaatar and Arvaikheer, focusing on people.
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For example, in Ulaanbaatar, we run a center for children. It has facilities for them to play, stay and do homework after school. In Arvaikheer, we run a sewing center for 16 women where they make handbags and do embroidery work.
The sewing center aims to make women self-reliant. We buy their handmade products and pay them. But we do not do it as a business to make money. Therefore, we do not sell their products in the market but give them as gifts to various countries and visitors. These are poor women, and their income is good support for their families.
We also run a kindergarten. The small children come for education, and they can also stay there for free. They are mostly children of workers.
We also run a "free shower" facility. Mongolia has an acute water scarcity. Its rivers and groundwater are reported to be polluted because of industrialization and mining activities. So, some five years ago we started a facility offering people a shower in all seasons.
The facility is open to all every Tuesday and Friday from 10am to 5pm. The water comes from our tube wells. At one time 50 people can wash and take a bath in the facility. During summer more people come for bathing here each day. We use electricity to warm up the water during the winter. In the rest of the week, people go to nearby government water points to fetch water for drinking and washing.
The free shower is part of our mission to be close to the people and stay together. These are small acts of generosity that can touch their hearts. This gives them the sense we are living among them and love them whether they are Christian or not.
We also visit their families from time to time. If they are poor, we help them by providing food. For example, when we have a feast, we visit them with gifts. Our bishop informs us whenever there is a need and we lend our helping hand.
How different is life in Ethiopia from Mongolia?
Social life is very different in Mongolia than in my country. For example, people here live in one ger (traditional Mongolian tent). One family has one ger, which is a large room, and live together. It is unthinkable in Ethiopia.
A typical Mongolian ger is a round tent made of wood lattice and heavy felt sheet. Thanks to the excellent insulating of the felt sheets, a ger remains quite warm during winter and comfortable during summer. Usually, a ger is separated by two sides — left and right or east and west. Male members stay on one side and females on the other side. They have a toilet outside.
In the countryside, a ger has everything for a family. In the middle, they install a wood-fired or gas stove, which is used for both cooking and heating. They cook everything in one pan together — meat, potato, carrot and sometimes rice with meat. They use very little water for washing dishes and clothes. Family members have very few clothes except for winter clothes.
Mongolians in urban areas have a regular life like people in cities in other parts of the world. But those in the countryside are still nomads. They travel from one place to another. When they leave one place, they carry the materials of their ger and set up a new one in the new place. Most Mongolians in the countryside depend on rearing animals like cows, goats, sheep and yaks. So, they usually install a ger where they can find grazing fields for their livestock.
Mongolians have a very simple lifestyle. When I first came, it was very interesting for me — their life of simplicity. They eat simple food prepared mostly from meat. A popular food item is buuz, a steamed dumpling filled with mutton or beef.
Their way of welcoming guests is also interesting. In Ethiopia, we offer tea or coffee to people. Here, they offer milk mixed with a bit of salt. I enjoy this whenever I visit people in their houses. They mostly offer cold cow milk in a traditional cup, holding it with two hands. Milk is common in every Mongolian household, and they drink milk every day. Their offer of milk to visitors means they consider the person as one of them.
If the guest is an important person, they offer him or her a traditional Mongolian hadag (sacred blue scarf) on the first visit. That is the highest form of well-wishing and greeting in Mongolia. A hadag is made of silk and should always be blue-colored as blue is considered the most sacred color in Mongolian culture. It represents the blue sky.
Consolata missionary Sister Tireza Gabriel Usamo (right) is seen at a church-run handicrafts center for women Arvaikheer in central part of Mongolia.
Do you offer any special services for Mongolian people?
We also work for men addicted to alcohol. We have one ger for them in Arvaikheer where we provide them counseling. We then follow up with them. The service was suspended due to Covid-19 but the center is still there.
This service has yielded good fruits. One of our workers used to engage in domestic violence after drinking. His wife and only child were in a terrible situation. One of our nuns visited the family and advised the man. He then changed his mind, though he didn't give up drinking completely. It is difficult for addicts to abandon the habit. However, the problem can be reduced to some extent, which can help the family and the community. I was also involved in the process, so I know how this service can help people who suffer because of addiction.
How hard is the mission in Mongolia?
In a large country with just 3.2 million people and a harsh continental climate, it surely is not an easy one. I was told it is a very cold country when I was preparing for this mission. But when I arrived, it was beyond my expectations. Well, it is extremely cold. I have experienced cold below minus 39-40 degrees in the past four years.
Mongolians wear long, heavy jackets called deel during the winter. They are made from skins of animals such as sheep and yaks. They wear woollen clothes beneath the jacket to keep themselves warm. They also wear long, heavy shoes made from animal skins.
Dressing up in winter clothes was challenging for me. It was difficult for me to wear such a dress and continue working. Indeed, it is very tough to work here during the winter. When I look through the window, I can only see white snow, and outside is extremely cold. As I was not able to endure the cold, I thought I couldn't survive. Then I learned how to dress up and started going out. I also joined a class to learn the Mongolian language.
The weather is extreme here. During summer, the temperature can rise to 35 degrees and during winter the temperature drops to minus 39-40 degrees. In the beginning, the cold winter was tough for me as I come from Africa. But I accepted this as a reality of life.
Mongolians are habituated to extremely cold winters. They worry if the winter is not cold enough or snowing is less. They fear less cold would have a bad impact on the health of humans and animals, and there might be an outbreak of diseases. During winter, they stock up on firewood and charcoal to make fire and to keep the ger warm.
Farming is possible only in some parts of Mongolia. In most places, just like in Arvaikheer, people are mostly shepherds who rear cows, goats, sheep and yaks for a living. Animal husbandry is an integral part of the traditional, rural Mongolian lifestyle.
I have slowly started to enjoy the nature here and how four seasons change one after another. I appreciate the beauty of God's creation. It also provides an opportunity to obtain wisdom. There is a cold season when everything seems dead and then comes the hot summer season when there is life and greenery. It is like the unending circle of life — dry winter and lively summer. I realized that God created every place differently, and we need to have eyes to discover the beauty. In Mongolia, I see the God-gifted beauty in nature and people.
Sister Tireza Gabriel Usamo plays with children at a daycare center run by Consolata missionaries.
What is the other most challenging factor in the Buddhist-majority country?
It is true Mongolia has only some 1,400 Catholics but they are very welcoming and are strong in faith. Some non-Christians see us and try to follow us.
There are two issues when we deal with local people. Firstly, Mongolians have their rituals and cultural heritage, which are quite strong. Many Mongolians, whether they follow a religion or not, go to the mountains early in the morning to pray and talk to the spirits. There are also some specific rituals for Buddhists and shamanic followers.
Some cultural practices are tangible. For example, when the first sun of the Lunar New Year appears, they all go to the mountains. Even Christians who come to Mass also go to the mountains. In some way, they consider it part of the Christian faith. In the Bible, we have the prophets and Jesus, who went to the mountains to pray and to be closer with God.
We must know their language to understand their culture. It is not easy to change their hearts. Even Catholics continue to follow their old traditions because they grew up in that tradition. On certain days, they go to the mountains before coming to Mass in the morning. We cannot tell them not to go. We must accept it and give it an interpretation based on the Christian faith.
Can you share some more unique aspects of Mongolian culture?
The burial of dead bodies in Mongolian culture is thought-provoking. Mongolians consider death as something very secret and sacred. They believe the burial of the body must take place early in the morning before sunrise, following Buddhist and shamanic customs. Whether they are Buddhist or Christian, the body is never taken to a worship place for funeral prayers. A community leader or shaman arrives and leads a prayer before the body is taken out for burial in a family or community graveyard. Death is silent here, and people also grieve their dead in silence.
There is only one Catholic graveyard in Mongolia, and I know very few people have been buried there. I have never seen a Catholic burial in my four years here because burials are done secretly and early in the morning, in a place far away from their house or tent.
Some Catholics are good Christians who follow Christian rites and rituals, but others still follow their traditions. It is a challenge to deal with such a mixed community. All I can do is convert myself. I need to learn about their culture and rituals, and only then I can touch their hearts. It is good to be with them when there is an occasion, which can help us to be close to them.
Sister Tireza Gabriel Usamo professes her final vows as a member of Consolata Missionary congregation on Jan. 29, 2022.
What are your suggestions for the expansion of the Church in the country?
Catholicism in Mongolia has a long history, beginning in the 13th century. But the number of Catholics was very small during that period. Then successive regimes prohibited Christianity until Mongolia became a democratic nation in 1992.
The Catholic mission was restarted here in 1991 and this year we are celebrating the 30th year of the return of Catholic missionaries after diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Mongolia were established. In the past 30 years, many interesting things have happened. We have 1,400 baptized Catholics in Mongolia in eight parishes. Every year during Easter, some new members are baptized. In our parish in Arvaikheer, one family was baptized this Easter. So, there is hope and light for missionaries like me. It takes time for the Church to grow. The Church cannot expand overnight. We are progressing slowly. Day after day, year after year, the Church grows step by step.
Since there are very few Christians in Mongolia, many people have never seen Christians. When I travel by bus or go to public places, people can identify me as a Christian. They call me a "Christ person." They look at my habit and pectoral cross, and they understand that I am a Christian.
Today people accept Christians easily, but it was not easy in the early years. In 2003, when Consolata nuns first came, they faced strict regulations. They couldn't go outside without permission. But now everything is open. It is because they have realized that we are here not for us but for them.
Most Christians come to the church regularly. But some don't and it is our duty to visit their houses and encourage them. Sometimes we make a call to ask them if we can go to their house. Only if they say yes, we go. This is not like other countries where you can say "Christ is the King, and listen to Him". Here, we give witness to Christ in silence. We don't have a vocal presence in social and public life except for some activities, but we express our presence differently.
The good thing about being a missionary here is the peaceful life. There is no fear or disturbance. Whether it's day or night, I am sure nobody would touch me. The people respect each other, and this protects us. Moreover, they also have reverence for me as a foreigner and a religious person. The government and people recognize our presence.
I can cite an example. When our previous bishop (Bishop Wencelsao Padilla) died in 2018, the government issued a condolence message and the media covered his death. People came to know more about him and the Catholic Church in Mongolia when he died. He was the first missionary, and he was buried as the first missionary on the soil of Mongolia. He worked in Mongolia for 26 years and he laid the foundation of today's Church in Mongolia.
How is your missionary experience shaping your own faith and life?
I knew nothing about the country when I came here. I attended programs and participated in Mass, but I mostly kept silent. I looked at people, smiled and tried to understand local life, but in silence. I felt like a baby learning to walk and talk. It helped me to enter my inner self, to listen to myself. In my country, I was a teacher, but here I am learning … to be present among the masses. Slowly I started to learn everything — to eat the local food and to greet and talk. I learned the language and it helped me to get close to the people. I realized it was my invitation for personal growth.
From time to time I keep silence and think about my vocation — why Jesus has called me here and what is my contribution? It took time for me to learn, and I faced many challenges. I have overcome challenges with my conviction and sharing with others in the community about my difficulties. Sometimes I feel tired, but I overcome it by listening and sharing with others. Life is a gift from God, but it needs my contributions to build up through different experiences. This is how transformation takes place. Now, I enjoy my life here and I feel Mongolia is like my home.
Sister Tireza Gabriel Usamo is seen with her other nuns after her final vows in January.
What do you think are the positive changes missionaries made in Mongolia?
There are 10 Catholic religious congregations working in Mongolia — five of men and five of women. Altogether 70 clergy and religious, both local and foreign, are serving the country. They run schools, centers for handicapped children and homes for the elderly besides managing Caritas Mongolia, the social service arm of the Church.
These services are offered to all, not just Christians. All religious orders like Consolata, Salesians and Missionaries of Charity are carrying out different pastoral and social activities to support families and society. For example, Missionaries of Charity, founded by St. Mother Teresa of India, run a center for the poor and destitute. They are not Christians but the nuns stay with them and support them.
Our work is challenging. Sometimes, we must get permission to carry out various social activities because the Church works under government rules. For example, our congregation clearly presents to the government what we do and why we do it. So far, we are living and working here uninterrupted and peacefully.
What are your future plans?
As a young missionary nun in Mongolia, I had my final vows on January 29 this year. I thank God for calling me to be his missionary. My future is in God's hands, not mine. I will keep doing with sincerity what I have been asked to do here. I will go to and work in any place wherever my superior wants me to work. I have faith in God, and I am determined to do anything for the glory of God. I am ready to sacrifice my life for the special mission God has given me.
* Photos supplied by Sister Tireza Gabriel Usamo
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