Sisters

Several pages in a photo album dedicated to my mother and her siblings is populated with photographs of my Tante Lina from her time as a missionary nun in the Congo.

Whereas my father would describe particular stories of my Uncle Kees related to his time in Uganda, I cannot recall anything similar about Tante Lina. I have been questioned about my interest in documenting my uncle’s life rather than my aunt’s even though both dedicated their lives to missionary work. The lack of information and subsequently minimal knowledge would be the biggest factor. In digitizing the photographs, however, I have developed a renewed interest and I am also reminded of the power of family dynamics.

Angeline van Rooij, born in Loon op Zand, the Netherlands, May 15, 1922, was the third child of an eventual eight in total and the first daughter of Nicolaas and Maria van Rooij. My mother would become her only sister as the sixth offspring, born in 1928. Two more sons ensued to complete the family. Tante Lina would follow the lead of her two older siblings into the Salvatorian religious order, as did the next to be born. All of the last four pursued secular careers. My aunt completed her final vows and became a nun on May 1, 1948. Why the van Rooij family chose to follow the Salvatorian order, with its roots in Italy and a base in Belgium, has never been explained to me. The Netherlands appeared to be an active recruiting ground for international missionary societies at the time and with the Belgium border a short distance from Kaatsheuval, where the van Rooij family settled, another country with the same language would not have been a barrier.

The vast number of pictures with Tante Lina appear to be in the late 1950’s. Tante Lina was among the original four nuns of the Belgian Salvatorian Sisters to be appointed to the very first mission in Kapanga of the Belgium Congo, September 7, 1958. My Mom and Dad will have already left for Canada, so Tante Lina would have sent the photos to them, many with a description on the back, in Dutch, in her own handwriting.

Perhaps my mother knew more and may have even attempted to convey additional information but I can only remember her saying Tante Lina worked at an orphanage in the Congo. The pictures appear to bear out that description as does the mission of the Salvatorian Sisters as listed on the website. I only just discovered the name of the place in the Congo, not realizing the massiveness of the country. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second largest country by land mass in Africa, double the size of South Africa, and eleventh in the world. With 90 million people it boasts the largest speaking French population on the planet, and it’s capital, Kinshasa, dwarfs Paris.

I first met Tante Lina when she visited Canada. Unlike other relatives, she had only a rudimentary understanding of English so communication was difficult. I imagine she would have been better in French but alas, my grasp of Canada’s other official language was lost years ago.

She measured only 4 foot 11, lean and always stood erect. Her size belied a strength born from a life of frugality and hard work in a difficult country. Possessed with a strong grip, she would greet you with a broad smile and a vigorous handshake that threatened to dislodge your arm from its shoulder socket. Tante Lina eschewed elaborate meals, relying on simple servings despite my parents efforts to introduce her to some of the luxuries of the western world. My mother spoke of her naivety to the everyday aspects of modern living we all took for granted.

Perhaps the most telling story of Tante Lina’s experience was a visit to the University of Western Ontario’s new hospital. My mother being a nurse, was curious about the new building on campus so they proceeded to drop into London’s newest hospital, like a tourist site. It already had a reputation for possessing the latest in new building design and surpassed the quality of the older Victoria and St. Josephs hospitals. My mom equated the entrance to the lobby of a fine hotel. Tante Lina cried when she witnessed the opulence, especially compared to her experience in the Congo.

Curiously the pictures of her time in Canada are scarce. My mother had organized the photo albums into themes. There is one album devoted to the times my parents visited the Netherlands; another combines all the pictures of family coming to our home. Tante Lina has disappeared from the visiting Canada book even though she has prominence in the van Rooij family album. I suspect the absence was intentional, a possible victim of family politics.

Sisters together in 1983 at the home of Uncle Herman on one of their trips to the Netherlands.

There is a rigid hierarchy within the church, including between priests and nuns; there has been traditional hierarchy within families, with males favoured over females, and those in a religious order ranking above all others particularly in a time period where children going into vocations raised the family’s status within the community. For the poor and the working class, the choice of religious life provided an opportunity to be university educated, escaping the determination of their position.

I have a sense my mother’s parents exhibited favourites and she was not among them, perhaps not living up to the accomplishments of an elder sibling of the same gender who made the family proud by becoming a nun. How those feelings played out in the dynamic between the two sisters is unclear. The differential treatment probably played a role in the decision of my parents to move to Canada, which I expect was initiated by my mother who wanted to exert her independence. The distance from immediate family came at a cost and may have further exasperated the differences among sisters. Although time and distance generally heal wounds, my mother was particularly stubborn and held onto grudges, never forgetting any transgressions, refusing to acknowledge mistakes. I have no knowledge of how Tante Lina’s actions will have played a role. People who join the clergy are human too, not always the saints we associate with the vocation. What Tante Lina contributed to the apparent tension or how the personality of youth influenced responses remains unspoken.

My intent here is not to conjure up ghosts; rather, my hope is to tell the story as a cautionary tale for you, for me, for all of us. The friction in their lives should serve as a reminder to understand the circumstances of others and to understand our own role in a relationship. It is a call for reflection, an honest look inward, an objective assessment of our own actions and inactions. I recognize in myself my mother’s tendency towards stubbornness and a penchant to be unforgiving of certain actions, summarily dismissive sometimes. I expect this trait will have had a negative impact in different areas of my life. I cannot alter what has happened; I can only affect how I respond and how I will learn to be a better person.

Tante Lina passed away in 2010. My Mom left this earth in 2005. Both were accomplished in their own worlds and I prefer to think they both found peace with each other in the end. I believe it is our family which will endure as we nourish our relationships with our parents, our extended family, our close friends, our brothers;

And our sisters.

3 thoughts on “Sisters

  1. Thanks Henry. Interesting read. Family dynamics and politics—it is amazing how as we age, we mellow a bit and can be more reflective of our past mistakes etc. The things that concerned us in days gone by, seem somewhat trivial now.

    My grandmother (mom’s mom), was one of 6 girls, and 4 of them became nuns. So i believe she experienced similar feelings of inadequacy choosing the possibly ”less honourable” life path at that time.

    So aside from Uncle Herman, who was the other older van Rooij sibling in the religious order? Was that the one that passed away? I remember some discussion with your mom, but can’t remember. I’m not sure Mike remembers.
    M

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Thank you for the comment Michelle. Anton was the eldest, born in 1919, died in 1942. Ome Nico, the youngest in the van Rooij household, wrote a family history entitled “Pa vertel eens….”. I have a copy and when I eventually translate it into English I will have more answers to some outstanding questions.

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  2. Intimate. Lovely.

    Bohdan Kordan, PhD

    Professor, Dept of Political Studies

    Director, Prairie Centre for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage

    St. Thomas More College l University of Saskatchewan

    1437 College Drive l Saskatoon, SK l S7N 0W6

    Ph: 306-966-8915

    ________________________________

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