Sr. Agatha Munyanyi, 69, has spent her life helping others.
That’s how she ended up in, of all places, Moundsville, West Virginia, a town of 8,000 on the Ohio River that is the subject of our PBS documentary Moundsville, but before telling that story, let’s go backwards.
Sr. Agatha was born in Zimbabwe (current pop. 15.1 million) in southern African in the middle of the 20th century at a time when it was called Rhodesia, part of the mighty British Empire. She felt a calling to Catholic religious life. That’s why she entered the novitiate of her order, the Sisters of the Child Jesus, at age 18. “And when you enter religious life, you must be prepared to be posted anywhere in the world where you are needed,” she said.
In 2007, Sr. Agatha moved to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in biochemistry at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. She then got a private sector job at an environmental consultancy. That was a private sector job, and her salary went to her order. Nun takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
But in 2021, during Covid-19, like many people, Sr. Agatha was laid off. Because her order has a presence in West Virginia, it made her available there, and St. Francis Xavier, Moundsville’s only Catholic church, saw a need.
In the summer of 2021, Sr. Agatha moved to Moundsville. She spends her time making home visits to ailing and aging parishioners, and to prisoners, among others. In short, she’s in Moundsville to love and serve people.
I met Sr. Agatha in the basement of St. Francis Xavier, Moundsville’s only Catholic church. She was busy doing laundry. It was election day, Nov. 8, and I was walking around Moundsville taking the pulse.
“I like the hills,” she said of West Virginia. “It’s like the Switzerland of the U.S.”
The poverty and inequality in America, especially in Appalachia, are shocking to her. “I can’t believe there are people who can’t pay their energy bills,” she said. “When I tell that to people back home, they say, ‘no, that can’t be happening in a country as rich as America.’”
She noted a difference in how poverty plays out in Zimbabwe and West Virginia.
“A poor person in Africa can survive all seasons of the year,” she said. “But in America, you have to have shelter.” In Africa, she added, “a poor person worries more about food, whereas in America, food is more plentiful but housing is harder to find”, especially because of the price of energy in winter.
In addition, she said, “in Africa, you are never homeless because you’re always part of a larger, extended family.”
But at the end of the day, West Virginia is Sr. Agatha’s home for now, and she loves America. “America has always been the best country,” she said. “And there is hope for Christianity here, unlike in Europe. In Europe, Christianity is finished.”
What did she make of U.S. politics? “Well, it’s very divided,” she said. As somebody who admires American democracy, she finds that heartbreaking. “I cried the night” of Jan. 6, 2021, when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol building, she said. “I could not believe this was happening in America.”
On a recent visit to an old woman’s home in Moundsville, the woman, aged around 90, asked her to pray for her favorite political party to win the election. Sr. Agatha said she replied: “How about instead we pray for wise leaders who respect the office and the power they’ve been given, and who want to be servants with the right heart?”
The woman said that was fine and so that’s what they prayed for.