Topeka Catholics to host retreat by genocide survivor

From left, back row, Lannie Buford, Sharon Hassett, Susan Papps and Ellen Brentine stand around Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza, who will be leading a retreat at Most Pure Heart of Mary Church in Topeka Aug. 23-24.

by Carolyn Kaberline
Special to The Leaven

TOPEKA — Even though it was about 10 years ago that Susan Papps, a member of Most Pure Heart of Mary Church here, first heard Immaculée Ilibagiza speak, she remembers the impact that the Rwandan genocide survivor made on her quite well.

“It was at a retreat in Kansas City,” said Papps. “I didn’t know anyone on the planet like her. 

“I felt I was in the presence of a true saint on earth.”

In 2017, Papps and two close friends and fellow parishioners Lannie Buford and Ellen Brentine went to St. Louis for a retreat Ilibagiza was offering. 

“Ellen’s first words once we got back into the car were: ‘We’ve got to bring her to Most Pure Heart,’” said Papps. 

When Ilibagiza spoke in St. Louis a year later, all three women were again in attendance.

“She was amazed that we had driven twice to St. Louis to see her,” said Papps.

Out of this second retreat grew Ilibagiza’s upcoming retreat at Most Pure Heart on Aug. 23-24.

“The next day when I attended Sunday Mass, I was able to share with Father Greg [Hammes] after Mass a little about our Immaculée experience,” said Brentine.  “He seemed interested and, early in October of last year, Susan, Lannie and I met with Father Greg in his office and further explained about the Immaculée retreat and requested his permission and blessings to plan for one. 

“Father Greg was very enthusiastic about hosting the retreat at Most Pure Heart of Mary.” 

“Our parish coordinator helped us select three possible dates in the summer of 2019 to submit to Annette, Immaculée’s event coordinator in New York City,” Brentine continued. “Annette, in turn, gave us Immaculée’s available date . . . and we moved forward with retreat planning from there.”

What makes Ilibagiza’s retreats so special?

“We are all on our own faith journey, so each time I’ve gone [to one of hers], it’s like she’s speaking to me alone,” said Papps. “She speaks from the heart. It is so powerful when others share their spiritual journeys.”

“I was struck by her devotion to the Blessed Virgin, especially her devotion to praying the rosary,” said Buford. “She tells of her experience of being hidden in a 3 feet by 4 feet bathroom with seven other people. She found her safety there through the courage of the man, a minister, who hid them for 91 days, while the men who had killed her family were looking for her. 

“She found her strength and her hope for the future for those 91 days through prayer.”

 “I had never heard of Immaculée,” explained Buford. “But when Susan invited me to go with her to St. Louis that first time and told me of Immaculée’s story and Susan’s own experiences at previous retreats, I said, ‘YES!’ 

“And it was everything she had promised — a transformational two days that have stayed with me ever since.” 

“When I went to retreats in 2017 and 2018 in St. Louis, I thought she was someone down to earth but in a different place on her spiritual journey,” said Papps. “I could tell she was a very holy woman. 

“She likes to give retreats; her days are devoted to this,” Papps continued. “Her one surviving brother was away from Rwanda studying at the time of the genocide. Her story was so heartbreaking, since both tribes got along before the genocide.”

All three women agreed that both Ilibagiza’s book, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” and her retreats also emphasize forgiveness — how she could give unconditional forgiveness to those who destroyed her family. No money was paid to her in reparation for her loss of home and family. 

Although she now lives in New York City, she has returned to her homeland several times. To help her village in Rwanda, she displays and sells quilts made by women of both tribes — Hutu and Tutsi — who got along so well before the genocide. 

Like her retreats, it is just another way to help heal the wounds of the tragedy so many endured.

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