About a year ago, my cell phone rang in my pocket while I was in Tamale shopping for my mission, Christ the King parish in Gushiegu, Ghana, which was sixty-five miles away.
The urgent call was from James, our catechist, who told me that an elderly, sick woman named Martha Fusheni was asking to be baptized. I learned from James that Martha had been hospitalized a number of times, most recently for surgery that resulted in complications. She was afraid to leave her home to go to the hospital in distant Tamale because relatives had gone there for medical care and had died. James and I discussed Martha’s situation, and we agreed that I would baptize her the next day, although James would baptize her if she became weaker or seemed to be dying.
The following day, I traveled to the chapel in the village of Zamashiegu, about fifteen miles from the main parish church in Gushiegu. When I arrived, the chapel was closed and no one was there. After an hour, James came. He thought that the baptism was to take place at Martha’s home. I asked him if she was strong enough to come to the chapel so she could receive the sacraments during the celebration of the Eucharist. He thought she could, especially with the help of family and friends.
A little later, family members and people from the Zamashiegu Catholic community gathered with the frail, suffering woman at the chapel. I saw in their faces the compassion they felt for Martha. During Mass, she sat on the floor because she was more comfortable there. She was in pain, but did not groan or cry out. She listened intently as the Scripture readings were proclaimed. When she was baptized, she accepted Martha as her Christian name. Martha also received Holy Communion for the first time, as well as the anointing of the sick
After Mass, I spoke with Martha’s daughter Monica and asked why her mother did not go to a hospital. Monica explained that Martha did not want to go and that they had no money for treatment. I urged Monica to take her mother to the closer hospital at Yendi and offered some money for Martha’s treatment. Martha went to the hospital that same day. She died the next day in the evening.
Martha began to learn about Catholicism from her daughter, Monica, and son-in-law, John. They were baptized in 2014 during the Easter season in the village of Nabaliba, another mission outstation of the parish. Martha’s desire to become a Catholic grew stronger after James, our catechist, gathered people interested in the Catholic faith in Zamashiegu, the village where she lived. In the beginning, religious instruction and Mass took place in a classroom or under a tree. In December 2014, a permanent chapel for the new faith community was blessed and dedicated in honor of Divine Mercy.
After being baptized, receiving Holy Communion, and receiving the anointing of the sick, Martha’s final wish was to be buried according to the rites of the Catholic Church. On the day of Martha’s burial, I was away from the parish for a diocesan meeting, so James was to celebrate the rite of committal at the graveside.
For a time, it seemed that Martha’s final wish would not be carried out. According to local customs, Martha was to be buried in the traditional way. All the elders of the village came to perform the traditional rites by the grave located at the entrance of Martha’s house. James was not allowed to speak or make known that she wanted to be buried according to the Catholic rites. In keeping with tradition, the youngest son is responsible for his mother in her old age. Thus, the elders turned to Martha’s son, Abukari, and asked about her last wishes. The young man, with his wife and two children, stepped forward and told the elders that his mother was baptized and wanted a Catholic burial.
At this, the elders stepped back so that James could celebrate the committal. The Catholic community of Zamashiegu surrounded the grave site. As James led the prayers, Martha’s cloth-wrapped body was laid to rest. A simple tomb with a wooden cross was formed over the site. Finally, everyone departed.
Two weeks later, Martha’s family asked me to offer a memorial Mass. Friends, neighbors, members of the Zamashiegu Catholic community, and Martha’s family gathered for a joyous celebration of her life and faith. That day, we also went to Martha’s grave, which I blessed while we prayed.
Martha’s new life in Christ began in the waters of baptism and was nourished with the Bread of Life. In her illness, Martha received strength, peace, and courage through the anointing of the sick. Martha was the first person from the Catholic faith community at Zamashiegu to die and be buried according to the rites of the Church. What an impact Martha had on me and on all the people who shared her journey of faith!
We were all touched by the example of her perseverance and her fervent faith.During those days, the Catholics of Zamashiegu were united and became stronger as a faith community. They supported Martha when she professed her faith in Jesus and the Church. In her experience, they witnessed the Christian meaning of death. By their active participation in the funeral rites and memorial Mass with Martha’s family, they embraced the ministry of consolation proclaimed by Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blest too are the sorrowing; they shall be consoled” (Matt. 5:4).
Later, as I reflected on all that had happened in such a short time, I thought of the consoling words from the Liturgy, “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven” (Preface I for the Dead). As it was for Martha, so may it be for all of us!