Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo by Johnathon Kelso
Sister Mary Immaculate Njihia participates in activities with the residents at St. George Village, a retirement community in Roswell. She and two other sisters from Kenya arrived last fall.


Sisters bring Jesus’ compassion to the sick with nursing ministry 

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 17, 2024

ROSWELL—At around 5 a.m., prayer starts in this suburban brick house. The lit candle in the chapel—a converted sitting room—signals the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle. 

This pre-dawn prayer begins the day for the three religious sisters, all natives of Kenya, who have come to the Atlanta Archdiocese.  

After an hour of prayer and meditation then breakfast with Kenyan chai and coffee, they make the quick drive to the nearby St. George Village retirement community to start their shifts as nurses and a certified nursing aide. For them, they extend their prayer through their care to their patients. 

Waking before sunrise, Sister Mary Jane Kongo said her life of prayer is bound together with her nursing. Her aim is “to do ordinary things like any other nurse, but in an extraordinary way” by reflecting God’s love for the sick. “I want to bring Jesus’ compassion to the sick.” 

The trio follows the long history of Catholic sisters here working in health care. The first hospital in Atlanta was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1880. The facility continues today as Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital. In addition, an order of Dominican sisters operates Atlanta’s cancer home dedicated to the care of terminal patients. The Hawthorne Dominicans opened the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in 1939.  

The Kenyan sisters are on the nursing staff at the Roswell retirement community owned by the Archdiocese of Atlanta and one will soon begin work at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital.  

The red brick colonial home is a convent for these three sisters of Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate. (They are also known as the Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Nyeri.) 

They arrived in the archdiocese in the fall of 2023. The sisters join the more than 100 religious sisters serving in the Atlanta area, according to the Official Catholic Directory 2023 edition. 

Since the community is devoted to the Virgin Mary, images and statues adorn the home’s walls and the chapel.  

The Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, founded in Kenya in 1918, is a religious order numbering more than 400 sisters serving in schools, clinics and hospitals across East Africa and Italy. 

The sisters came to the United States in 1999, making their home in New Jersey. The Atlanta area is the first venture beyond the Northeast.  

The three women share a common background. Each was raised in a large, devout Catholic family, where reciting the rosary was routine. Seeing religious sisters at school or working in health clinics inspired them to pursue lives of service. 

The community members wear gray habits and a veil, along with a large silver crucifix around their necks. They change into white-colored habits during their care-giving shifts. 

Sister Mary Immaculate Njihia, 33, made her final profession in 2023. Her mother was a strong advocate for her to follow her heart into religious life, while it took her father some time to come around to the idea. She started her journey to the sisters after graduating from high school.  

“I got married last year,” she said, smiling. On her right hand is a simple silver ring given to the women when they pledge their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. “What I have been longing for all my life, I have done.”  

She trained as a certified nursing assistant, helping patients, gathering medical supplies, checking vital signs and assisting them with other needs.     

Sister Mary Esther Catherine Ndambiri, 42, said she felt at home immediately when she entered religious life. During a visit to the motherhouse, while still a teenager, she saw the community praying in the chapel graced with a large statue of the Virgin Mary. The icon, together with the sisters, filled her with a sense of love and belonging, she said. From that moment, Sister Esther desired to join the community. She arrived in the United States in 2011 and has recently become an American citizen. She’ll begin working in a few months at Emory Saint Joseph’s as a registered nurse. 

Sister Mary Jane Kongo shares a smile during a visit with a resident of St. George Village in Roswell. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

Sister Mary Jane Kongo, 47, is the superior of the house. She lost her parents when she was a young child and was raised by her eldest brother. Her ministry during her nearly two decades as a sister has included nursing, education and pastoral work both in Kenya and the United States. Her desire with every patient and school child is “to bring love to them, to know they are loved, God loves them.”  

At St. George Village, a senior living retirement community, their presence helps with pressing healthcare needs, in addition to how they spiritually uplift patients.  

Georgia’s shortage of nurses is dire. Medical Solutions, a nursing staffing agency, listed the state as one of the top five with a shortage of nurses. Estimates are some 5,400 additional nurses will need to be hired a year to keep up with the demand. 

Karen Joseph has worked as a director of nursing since 2002. It’s the first time she’s ever worked with religious sisters.  

The women obviously care greatly for the patients, seeing their positions as ministry, she said. Daily, the women live their faith in a way that comes across clearly to the residents and staff, she said.  

The sisters always attend daily Mass at the retirement home and go out of their way to encourage the Catholic residents to go too, pushing residents in wheelchairs if mobility is a challenge. 

“Any way they have to get them there,” Joseph said.  

In their short time on staff, Sister Jane and Sister Catherine have been celebrated for their work. They earned recognition as employees of the month. And Sister Jane was also awarded the 2024 St. George Village National Nurses Week Above and Beyond Award. 

Joseph said their nursing skills and caring for the residents are exemplary. 

“You have residents that want to have them,” she said.  

Sisters with a joyful spirit 

Their way of life raises questions in grocery stores and in everyday situations. People are curious about their habits; some have asked if they are Muslim. At work, they said, patients talk fondly about seeing a sister in a habit and tell stories about when they were growing up and it was more common to see it.  

Sister Mary Immaculate Njihia offers her hand to Ann Janisch, a resident of St. George Village in Roswell. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

Their fellow nurses are not necessarily Catholic and were unsure how to respond to their new colleagues in habits. Sister Esther smiled as she said they reminded her co-workers they are like everyone else, but simply motivated to demonstrate God’s love through their lives. 

Between the convent and their work, they have explored Atlanta when they can. They’ve visited the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola. They also went to see the film “Cabrini,” a biography of St. Frances Cabrini and her legacy of serving the immigrants. 

Life in the convent is centered on daily prayer, eucharistic adoration three days a week and faith sharing. The sisters attend daily Mass at St. George Village and Sunday Mass at St. Peter Chanel Church, up the street, which they said has quickly felt like home with the welcome from the parishioners.  

Msgr. Peter Rau, pastor of St. Peter Chanel, said parish members are learning from the sisters and he considers it fortunate to have them at the church. 

“The parishioners are so happy to see them as they always have smiles and exude the ‘joy of the Gospel,’ as Pope Francis would say. Because of their joyful spirit, parishioners love to engage them in conversation,” he said.  

Sister Jane said while their work and ministry is nursing focused, they are eager to serve where there is any opportunity in need of attention, from vocational work to evangelizing for the faith.  

As their day began, it also ended in the quiet of the small chapel. Their prayer time is vital, keeping them grounded in their work and ministry, following the example of Jesus, with his care for the ill.   

“It is here that we get inner strength that helps us to give ourselves wholly and committedly in our mission,” said Sister Jane. “Jesus commissioned us to bring his presence to the sick and the suffering, therefore we behold his face in our patients and do to them as we would do to Jesus himself.”