09/31/2023 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – In the 1970s, Sister Leonella Sgorbati of Italy first stepped foot in Africa, where she would spend the next several decades until her untimely death in 2006. She lived in Kenya for many years, working as a midwife and serving as the head of the Consolata Nursing School. Sgorbati also helped create the Chemichemi Institute, an academic institution for women to access an education and spiritual support.
Eventually, Sgorbati crossed the northern border into Somalia. Despite the terrorism that ran rampant in the nation, Sgorbati held hope for the next generation. She helped create a nursing school in the capital city of Mogadishu, to expand the region’s healthcare offerings, but also provide opportunities to young adults who may otherwise be seduced by al-Shabaab recruiters.
Sister Joan Agnes Matimu, the current regional superior of the Consolata Missionary Sisters, recalled, “We deeply believed that if we gave a chance to the young people, something different, they would lay down their weapons. Sister Leonella believed deeply in that. She said, ‘I know I am taking risks. I know I could be risking my own life, but I will do it for love.’ “
While she worked with people from a variety of backgrounds in Somalia, Sgorbati chose to bridge the differences they faced. Matimu recalled, “She said there was no problem of working with people of other culture and religion as long as there is respect for each other, for where there is fear, there is no love.”
As the years went by, the threats to Sgorbati grew increasingly palpable. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech in Germany, referencing a Christian emperor’s criticism of Islam. His remarks sparked a new wave of anti-Christian sentiment throughout the Muslim world, including in Somalia.
Even though Sgorbati kept her faith largely private in the workplace, according to Matimu, the local extremists likely thought Sgorbati was attempting to convert students at the nursing school.
Yet, Sgorbati persisted in her work despite the threats. Acknowledging the risks of her ministry, Sgorbati said in a March 2006 interview, “I know there is a bullet with my name on it. I don’t know when it will arrive, but as long as it does not arrive, I will stay [in Somalia].”
Only a few months later, Sgorbati’s words became reality. On September 17, 2006, gunmen shot at Sgorbati and her bodyguard as they exited the nursing school, striking them both several times. Both succumbed to their injuries.
To the very end, Sgorbati clung to her faith, choosing love over fear. According to a group of sisters who witnessed her death, Sgorbati’s echoing last words were: “I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.”
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