Cape Cod native finds calling in war-torn Rwanda

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By Linda Andrade Rodrigues
Anchor Correspondent

MASHPEE, Mass. — Led by the Spirit, Erin McDonald, 35, travelled the world on a quest to ease the suffering of the poorest of the poor. Transformed by loving God and neighbor without distinction, she ended up where she started.

“It was the mystical work of God drawing me,” she said. 

The daughter of Tom and Debbie McDonald, she has one younger sister, Megan. The family moved to Mashpee when she was in third grade and became parishioners of Christ the King Parish.

She attended public schools and Religious Education classes at the parish. 

“That was my first connection to the Sisters of St. Joseph,” she said. “Sister Claire and Sister Annette headed the Religious Education program.” 

Graduating from Falmouth High School, she enrolled at Regis College in Weston, where she spent her freshman year.

“I actually got to connect with the Sisters of St. Joseph there,” she said. “Something about religious life attracted me, but there was no absolute clarity.” 

During the summer she volunteered for a two-week mission to aid the poor in West Virginia, which was sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston.

“It really was very serendipitous,” she said. “I flew into Wheeling and didn’t know anybody. I was a spunky 19-year-old who wanted to go somewhere different and loved it. There was a lot of poverty, and I wanted to make the world a better place.”

McDonald transferred to Wheeling Jesuit University and for three years lived in community with the Sisters of St. Joseph. 

“I did have an interest, but I was not a novice in any formal formation or discernment program,” she explained. “The Sisters were very welcoming and said, ‘Live with us.’ I paid some rent and contributed by cooking.”

McDonald earned an undergraduate degree in psychology. She enrolled at West Virginia University and earned a master’s degree in social work.

Hired by Wheeling Jesuit University, she returned as director of Service and Social Justice, an extension of campus ministry. She worked with young adults instilling Catholic social teachings and serving on missions to the homeless and migrants, as well as provided disaster relief in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and humanitarian aid abroad to the people of El Salvador.

“I was renting my own apartment but still in relationship with the Sisters,” she said. “I had a wonderful life full of blessings and challenges.”

Yet an internal struggle ensued in her mid- to late-20s.

“I was drawn to religious life, and this kept nudging at me; and I loved my ministry,” she said. “I have a wonderful personal prayer life and had two different boyfriends. Was I being called to married life, to religious life, to single life?”

After much soul searching, she came to a crossroads when she was 29.

“Two things just kept reemerging in my life: I was drawn to living and serving the poorest of the poor overseas and to religious life,” she said. “I took a post with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rwanda. This last step was going to lead me in a new direction in life or bring me back to the threshold of the Sisters of St. Joseph.”

McDonald quit her job, sold her car and gave away all her possessions.

“I had to move to a place of complete freedom and follow where the Spirit leads,” she said.

McDonald landed in Rwanda in war-torn central Africa amidst the Congolese who were engaged in a violent ethnic conflict.

“The death toll rivalled the total death toll of World War II,” she said.  “It was the worst place for women. I stripped my life down to its basest form. Every single day is a question of life or death.”

For two years she ran an international NGO (non-governmental organization) that included two refugee camps of 54,000 people, six schools and 12,000 students. She learned French to communicate with them. 

McDonald recalled one horrifying incident. They were helping refugees at an outpost where a rebel group had kidnapped women when they received word that the rebels where coming back. 

“We got in a car and drove away,” she said. “But a group of children were running behind the car.” 

She knew that the rebels could kill them. 

“Why is my life more valuable than theirs?” she pondered. “This does enormous things to one’s soul.”

Given the grace of walking in such suffering, she said she realized the gift of her own life.

“Stripped away from all distractions, I learned who I am and what I was called to be in the world,” she said. “I’m called to be a Sister of St. Joseph.”

 McDonald returned to Wheeling and began the canonical process with the Sisters of St. Joseph of West Virginia.

“I needed to be integrated into communal living,” she said.

For the past two years she has lived at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cleveland. In preparation for taking first vows, she and two other novices planned a pilgrimage on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain along the French route. They would take a connecting flight through Dublin, Ireland, to France.

Arriving at the airport last month, McDonald was denied passage to France. 

“I learned that my passport expired Dec. 31, 2015; and to enter France, a passport must be valid for the next six months,” she said. “I encouraged them to go, but they didn’t want to go without me. Everything changed.”

They flew to Dublin and lodged with the family of a friend, a Jesuit priest she had served with in Africa. During their two-week stay, they went to the west of Ireland, walking a portion of the Wild Atlantic Way, an ancient Christian pilgrimage route. They climbed Croagh Patrick, the mountain where St. Patrick prayed and fasted for 40 days and nights.

“It is considered a holy place,” she said. “Irish Catholics climb barefoot and on their knees.”

On the east coast they also walked the Wicklow Way, a pilgrimage route since medieval times.

“It was a beautiful experience, but it wasn’t what I planned,” she said of the journey to her ancestral homeland. “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” 

McDonald took her first vows on October 10 in the Cleveland motherhouse.

“I had to get out of my own way to say yes to it and come to this formation process from a really healthy, whole place,” she said. 

 In three years she will take her final vows. 

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