One week before the Boko Haram terrorist kidnapping in which nearly 300 students were taken from a girls school in northern Nigeria, a similar overnight raid across the nearby border in Cameroon saw an elderly Canadian missionary nun taken hostage with two Italian priests.
The men came in cars and on motorcycles, knocking down doors at a mission school, seeking Westerners. Witnesses heard the nun cry out “a lot” as she was taken away.
As an international military operation continues to free the girls, news broke Sunday that Sister Gilberte Bussière, 74, has been freed after nearly two month’s captivity along with Father Gianantonio Allegri and Father Giampaolo Marta, both of Vicenza in the northeast of Italy.
Few details were available on the circumstances of their release — whether by rescue, ransom, escape, negotiation, or some other method — but all three are reportedly in good health. Sister Gilberte was in Yaoundé on Sunday, where she was to be met by representatives of the Canadian High Commission and Sister Thelma Renaud, the local leader of her order, the Sisters of the the Congregation of Notre-Dame.
“We rejoice with her family, and we wish to thank those who have made this release possible,” the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre-Dame said in a statement. “On May 31 we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, when Congrégation de Notre-Dame Sisters renew their vows yearly. This year takes on a special meaning as we also celebrate this great news: Sister Gilberte is free!”
A press conference is scheduled for Monday morning in Montreal.
Italy’s government thanked Canada and Cameroon, and its foreign minister referred to an “operation conducted brilliantly,” but Canada would not confirm any role it might have played in the release.
“We are delighted and relieved to have received confirmation by the Government of Cameroon of the release of a Canadian citizen and two Italian nationals who had been held captive in Cameroon,” said Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, a Foreign Affairs spokesman. “We thank the Cameroonian and Italian authorities for their assistance. Canadian officials have been in regular contact with the family to provide assistance and to provide consular support to the Canadian citizen.”
Pope Francis was said to have taken a keen interest in the abductions, praying for their safe return.
“We thank the Lord that this case reached a positive conclusion,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. “At the same time, we continue to pray and commit ourselves so that every form of violence, hate and conflict in various regions of Africa and in other parts of the world can be overcome.”
Born in Asbestos, Que., Sister Gilberte, 74, who took the name Sister Sainte-Marie-del’Assomption, has worked in Cameroon since 1979, after teaching for two decades in Lac-Mégantic and Athabaska, Que.
She had lately stopped teaching, according to a spokeswoman for the congregation, whose motto is Liberating Education. But she was still tutoring students and aiding with homework, at the little church school in the village of Tchéré, near the Nigerian border.
The village is close to the larger city of Maroua, in the far north of Cameroon. It is closer to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, than to Cameroon’s capital Yaounde.
In a letter released by the congregation, written last February when Sister Gilberte had returned to Canada for cancer treatment, she describes how frequently her work reminded her that, in Christian service, “we are the Christ of others.”
She thanked her sisters for their encouragement and prayers, and wrote of a new adventure that requires her to abandon herself “in full confidence into the hands of Him who loves me with a mad passion [“Celui qui m'aime d'un amour fou”]. I know he wants my wellbeing…. I have not closed the door on Cameroon; you know well that if my health permits, I will return with joy to help our Cameroonian sisters and the children of the school in Tchéré.”
The kidnapping followed the abduction of a French priest, Georges Vandenbeusch, 42, who was taken in a similar raid in last November, and freed in December. Also this year, a French family including four children was taken by Boko Haram, and later freed after a ransom was paid.
Boko Haram — literally “Western education is sinful” — is a brutal Islamist terrorist group based in northern Nigeria, whose broader politics align with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In an effort to impose fundamentalist Islamic rule, it has been responsible for many atrocities against Christians, including church bombings, mostly in the last five years.