Sister Suellen: ‘Thank you!’
Note: To honor Sister Suellen's request for privacy, the only information available is the following story on the Clarion Herald website. (Photos by Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)
By PETER FINNEY JR.
During her nearly five months of captivity in Burkina Faso, West Africa, Marianite Sister Suellen Tennyson wondered aloud where God was hiding in the midst of her isolation and loneliness.
Then, in an instant, she looked down at her feet, where one of her toenails had been battered and bloodied during a harrowing post-kidnapping motorcycle ride deep into the forests of West Africa, after which she was turned over to a rival Muslim group.
Her new captor saw her gouged toe and, inexplicably, began washing her feet.
“He washed my feet,” Sister Suellen told the Clarion Herald Sept. 13. “I’m sitting there, and this Muslim man is washing my feet. And I said, ‘God, is something going on here?’ It was like God was using him in some kind of way. I was just taken aback.”
In a pre-dawn raid by 10 armed men between April 4 and 5, Sister Suellen, 83, was abducted from the medical mission residence in Yalgo that she shared since 2013 with two other Marianite sisters and several lay employees.
After five months of her congregation hearing nothing about her whereabouts or her condition, Sister Suellen, the former international leader of the Marianites of Holy Cross, was freed peacefully in neighboring Niger – to the east of Burkina Faso – and released into the custody of the FBI and personnel of the U.S. embassy and Air Force.
No ransom was paid, Sister Suellen said, another one of the inscrutable mysteries of her captivity and release.
Speaking from a safe haven in the Archdiocese of New Orleans – where she returned quietly on Aug. 31 via medical transport – Sister Suellen said she was full of gratitude that her life was spared and for her safe treatment in captivity and the invisible actions of the thousands of people who prayed and worked for her release.
“That’s what I want to say – ‘Thank you to all these people,’” Sister Suellen said. “I am truly humbled by all of this. And the only way I can say thank you is ‘thank you.’ My heart is filled with gratitude.”
Living nightmare unfolds
The kidnappers, part of the first Muslim group, grabbed her from her bed without her shoes, glasses or medicine. They blindfolded and gagged her to keep her from yelling out to the two other Marianite sisters – Sister Pauline Drouin, a Canadian, and Sister Pascaline Tougma, a Burkinabé – who were locked in their rooms.
“I thought maybe they were going to leave me sitting on the porch, but all of a sudden they wrapped me up and took me,” Sister Suellen said.
“Whoa, this was not what I thought was going to happen. But from the beginning, I was asking God to please use this for good. I don’t understand why it’s happening; I don’t understand why they took me. And a lot of good has happened – all these people praying.”
Sister Suellen was placed on the back of a motorcycle and told to hang on. Her captors rode through the night and for most of the early morning until she was handed over to the second group, which treated her reasonably well and did not physically harm her.
Her captor at one point gave her a few pieces of paper and a red pen, which she used to mark her days in captivity on a handmade calendar. Whenever she was moved to a new, unknown location, she would draw a horizontal line to symbolize the latest segment of her journey.
At the end of each week, she drew the numbers 7, 14 and 21 and circled them to keep track of her time.
She had absolutely no idea where she was.
“I told my caretaker, ‘I can’t run away – I can’t run, and I don’t know the way!’” Sister Suellen said, smiling.
Faith sustained her
Before the rainy season came in June, she slept outside under a hand-crafted, tent-like structure with branches and leaves for the roof and a cloth that could be moved to keep the direct sun out of her eyes. For most of her captivity, she had no books of any kind to read, so she relied on her Catholic formation to recite prayers she has known since childhood and Bible verses.
She also began every day with the prayers of the Mass – remembering what she could and reflecting on Scripture.
“Prayer sustained me,” she said. “I went through my Mass every day. I did each part of the Mass and received spiritual Communion. During the day, at least three or four times a day, I would do a spiritual Communion. That was the thing that kept me going because I had nothing.”
Yalgo is in northern Burkina Faso, not far from the border with Mali. Reliefweb reported in April that in the last two years, Burkina Faso’s northern and eastern regions had seen a “sharp deterioration in the security situation ... due to the presence of non-state armed groups.”
Sister Suellen said there was nothing very much out of the ordinary in the days leading up to her abduction.
“We had been having many problems with local terrorists who had been causing trouble, so I thought they were the ones who abducted me,” she said. “I thought they were just coming to rob.”
Sister Suellen said she contracted malaria and lost 20 pounds during her captivity. Her diet consisted of “spaghetti, rice, sardines; spaghetti, rice, sardines – but no Italian sauce or good Creole sauce. No red beans and rice. But, I did have my cup of coffee in the morning. I had a piece of bread every day, but I had the hardest time swallowing it. I have no desire for sardines any more.”
During her loneliest moments, Sister Suellen said she prayed for “peaceful patience,” because she saw no end in sight.
“I had many conversations with God,” she said. “I would say, ‘OK, God, what’s your word to me today at this moment?’ Sometimes it was a Scripture passage or a story from Scripture. But, after a while, it was just messages to me. And the one that stayed with me the longest was ‘peaceful patience. You need to be peacefully patient.’”
“I prayed the mysteries of the rosary and the Way of the Cross many times. And, you know, Jesus felt his father had abandoned him. I said, ‘Have you abandoned me, God?’ And he said, ‘Suellen, I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have called you, and you are mine.’ I said, ‘OK, I know you haven’t abandoned me, but I just don’t know how much longer I can go on.’”
Inching toward freedom
At some point, her captor found a sofa for her so that she did not have to sleep on the floor.
In August, without warning, she moved again, this time on a motorcycle ride in which she had to cross three rivers. She was so tired at the time she begged for a rest because she was barely able to hang on.
Then, finally, at a rest stop, she saw three men dressed in African garb along with another man dressed in a nice shirt and pants.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh Jesus, is this another group I’m going to have to start up all over again with?’” she said. “But the good news is they had a truck and not a motorcycle. One of the men came to me and said, you can take that jacket off. And he turned to me and he said, ‘You’re free!’ I said, ‘What? I’m free? Who are you?’”
They were now in neighboring Niger, where the men took her to someone’s house.
“We stopped to get something to eat, and the man said, ‘You need to take a shower. Let the woman of the house help you,’” Sister Suellen said. “Oh, I felt like I was in heaven. And then it dawned on me. That was the first woman I had seen in five months.”
Sister Suellen arrived back in the archdiocese on Aug. 31 and went for medical checkups. She is regaining her strength and using a walker to guard against falls, but she is getting stronger.
“I sang ‘Amazing Grace’ I can’t tell you how many times,” she said. “And I would just add the verse and put how many days I had been in captivity. But I still have just one day to praise the Lord – today.”