Ebola forces restrictions on parish life in Liberia

Fr Garry Jenkins SMA, from the south of England, has spent more than 40 years as a missionary in Liberia. He has lived through the Civil War, various illnesses etc. The latest challenge he and his community in Bomi Hills, about 60 miles from the capital, Monrovia, face is the Ebola virus sweeping Liberia and other west African countries (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria).

The following Report, compiled by the SMA Communications Office Cork, draws on various sources, including emails received Fr Garry and some Liberians in the country. It attempts to show how Ebola is affecting the lives of the people.

Controlling the spread of the Ebola virus is proving very difficult. Figures for 8 August from the Liberian Ministry of Health indicate that there 383 cases have been tested with 216 deaths which is a death rate of 68.8%. The total number of confirmed deaths, in all four countries, is now over 1,000. But this figure is assumed to be way below the actual figure.

The Catholic Hospital, which is one of the principal hospitals in Monrovia, is closed. Several other hospitals are also not able to function normally, because of the Ebola outbreak.  

In Bomi (Tubmanburg) there have been eleven cases with seven deaths from one family; apparently, they attended a family funeral two weeks ago. On Wednesday, 6 August, the Soldiers had isolated a house about a half of a mile from the Church because two people had died there during the night and there were still several people inside sick.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has appealed for International assistance. Hopefully this and all other appeals for aid will receive a favourable response, as soon as possible. On Wednesday, 6 August, the President declared a ‘State of Emergency’ for 90 days. A few days before the declaration, the borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire were closed.

About 6pm on Wednesday the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia were deployed at the Klay Checkpoint. Since then, the Checkpoint has been closed to commercial traffic in another effort to halt the spread of the virus which is spreading quicker than anyone anticipated.

Fr Garry writes, “The ‘tension ‘ is the most challenging thing to live with. You will often hear people say that it is worse than the long war years, because the ‘enemy’ is unseen. 

Here in Bomi many people are afraid to visit the Government General Hospital after those confirmed cases. The Amadiya Clinic is closed. Furthermore, we closed our own small clinic on 29 July in order to protect our staff and indeed ourselves because the clinic is close to the Church and Rectory; besides Jane and Moses who have been with us since the War, are neither trained or equipped to meet a possible suspected Ebola case.

So far, thank God, none of us on the Mission have been unwell with even the usual sicknesses which we expect such as Malaria or Typhoid Fever.”

Fr Garry goes on to detail how the Ebola emergency is affecting the pastoral work of the parish. In his words you can almost feel the pain of this priest who has been … years serving the people in this part of Liberia.

“However, on the Pastoral side, we have taken what may be considered drastic precautions for now, in order to protect ourselves and others.

  • We have suspended village visitation.
  • Outside the entrance of St Dominic’s Parish Church there is always a container of chlorinated water for hand-washing before people receive Communion.
  • The ‘Sign of Peace’ has been suspended – in fact, there is no hand-shaking in the community at large in the country.
  • We, when we celebrate Mass, sanitize our hands before distributing Holy Communion.
  • And very reluctantly, we are suspending communion for the sick in their homes and the anointing of the sick.
  • And another important part of our Pastoral Ministry has been curtailed while the virus is a threat to everyone – officiating at the grave-side.

So it’s a very difficult ‘scenario’. We can only bear witness in our ministry by prayer and love rather than ‘action’.

However, Fr Garry sees also some positives in the situation in which he and his community now live. For three days eighteen women parishioners have been coming for Mass at 7am. After a short break, they return to the Church singing and praying until 6pm. They fast during these hours of prayer and break their fast together outside the Church before going home in the evening. “We closed the three days of prayers with Mass, today, on the Feast of St Dominic, our Patron Saint.”

Fr Garry is not alone, nor are any of the 9 SMA priests working in different parishes throughout Liberia. The people are wonderful, so supportive, despite the tremendous fear and anxiety people are living with.

We ask you to continue to pray for Fr Gary, for all the people in Bomi and beyond, and the doctors, nurses and peoples of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia that the Good Lord will continue to protect all of them and end this virus within our various Countries.