Unholy Row Over Pistol-Packing Nun

A Catholic nun who is feuding with priests over her leadership style has been nominated for a prestigious national award.

Sister Priscilla Dlamini, head of the Holy Cross Hospice at Emoyeni in northern KwaZulu-Natal, this week admitted that she once hit a fellow nun for putting muti in her room.

Dlamini, 55, who confirmed to the Sunday Times that she owns a licensed gun, is among three finalists from KwaZulu-Natal chosen for the Shoprite Checkers-SABC2 Woman of the Year Award.

The award, to commemorate National Women's Day on August 9, pays tribute to the most exceptional women in the country. Dlamini will receive R10 000 if she wins.

Dlamini belongs to the Benedictine order, whose adherents take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

According to the award's sponsors, Dlamini is a finalist in the social services category. Her citation describes her as, "a Catholic nun since age 15 [who] has single-handedly converted old stables into a haven for destitute HIV patients. She has received international recognition for her hospice."

This includes being granted funds by the Holy Cross Children's Trust in London to take care of an additional 453 households headed by children and 1 121 Aids orphans. The hospice also provides home-based care for 2 011 people.

But Dlamini also has her detractors. Relations between her and the priests and parishioners in Eshowe deteriorated so badly that almost the entire congregation of the Holy Cross Church - about 300 people - left the church a month ago. They are now holding services in a community hall.

At least 15 former staff members, including three priests, five care-givers, two treasurers, two secretaries and the chairman of the parish council have complained about Dlamini's management of Holy Cross.

Father Sifiso Ntshangase, who left the Holy Cross Church last year, said at least 22 priests and diocesans from the Diocese of Eshowe had held a sit-in at Bishop Monswaik Biyase's house earlier this year to demand that Dlamini be removed from the mission.

"We went to the bishop and demanded that he remove her but he did not succeed. We told him we would not move until he moved her but even after sitting there for a week, we were unsuccessful," he said.

A letter in the Sunday Times's possession shows that Biyase wrote to Dlamini in May this year, asking her to leave Holy Cross and move to the Thwasana convent between Mahlabathini and Vryheid.

Ntshangase said the services, which at one time were packed to capacity, were now almost empty.

"We started to congregate at Sabeka Community Hall four weeks ago. The people are not happy about this but do not have a choice because they refuse to go back to the church," he said.

The former treasurer of the Holy Cross Church, Johannes Ndlovu, who worked there for 14 years, claimed that Dlamini often quarrelled with the priests.

The Mother Superior of the Benedictine order in KwaZulu-Natal, Sister Theodora Ntuli, said she would not comment about Dlamini until she had spoken to Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, the head of the Catholic Church in South Africa.

Napier confirmed that he had received complaints about Dlamini.

He said he had suggested that both Dlamini and the parish priests be removed while an investigation was conducted to determine the problems.

"What seemed to be the main problem was that the people in charge of the parish and the people at the hospice were not communicating and were not understanding each other's role clearly enough. Something needed to be done to draw up boundaries so that each one will know where their authority and responsibility began and ended," he said.

"It's a tragic situation and I am in an awkward position where I have no authority over the matter. I have done as much as I can. I have given my recommendations to the bishop and that's as far as I can go."

Dlamini admitted that she was having problems with the church.

"They don't come out and tell me why, they just want me to leave. They don't really give me a concrete reason. I questioned it many times but there was no response.

" If they have anything against me, they can go to court and lay a charge against me and then I will be able to defend myself.

"If I leave, the community will suffer. They keep complaining but they are not helping me with my projects. It's motivational to be chosen for the award. After so much, at least other people recognise what I am doing."

Dlamini went on: "The people protect me because if anything happens to me, they will have nothing."

Commenting on the incident involving the assault on the nun, she said: "The nuns came together and wanted to poison me. There were three of them. One of the three came to me and told me that they wanted to poison me.

"The others started to put muti in my room. When I asked who did it, one nun said who it was and when I asked her she said she did not care and then I hit her."