Knights who served in Afghanistan recall the powerful witness of Missionaries of Charity who aided abandoned children in the war-torn country
By Cecilia Hadley 11/7/2022
Maj. Michael Manning was walking inside the military Green Zone in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012, when he was startled to spot six women in white saris decant from a small car. It was a rub-your-eyes moment for the U.S. Army officer. A few weeks into his yearlong deployment, Manning had become familiar with the streetscape of this corner of the Afghan capital: the sandbags and security barriers, the military uniforms from different countries, the Afghan children hawking scarves. Against that backdrop, the sight of a group of Missionaries of Charity sisters was almost surreal.
“Wait — did I just see nuns?” he thought. “That looks like Mother Teresa’s nuns.”
They were Mother Teresa’s nuns. In fact, by 2013, the Missionaries of Charity had been in Kabul for seven years, running an orphanage for abandoned children with disabilities. The sisters would later make headlines when the city fell to the Taliban in August 2021; as military personnel, diplomats and others scrambled to get out of the country, the Italian government managed to evacuate them and 14 children in their care to Rome.
Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly met the Kabul-based Missionaries of Charity in Rome in October 2021 and presented them with a donation of wheelchairs from the Order. He described the encounter in his annual report at the 140th Supreme Convention this past August: “In my first year as supreme knight, I have had some incredible experiences,” he said. “But nothing was more moving than being with these severely disabled children. … I’ve never seen love like I saw in these Missionaries of Charity.”
The Missionaries of Charity in Kabul had a similarly profound impact for Maj. Manning, a longtime Knight of Columbus, and other soldiers who encountered them in Afghanistan. A graduate of Providence College, where he first joined the Knights, and now a professor of engineering leadership at Northeastern University, Manning came to know the Missionaries of Charity well during his deployment. He counts the experience of meeting them among the most impactful of his 25-year military career.
THE WITNESS OF JOY
The sisters drove from their orphanage in Kabul to the Green Zone every day, making their way through multiple security checkpoints to go to Mass at the only Catholic parish in the country, Our Lady of Divine Providence Chapel in the Italian embassy. Manning, who was serving as an advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Defense, went to daily Mass at the chapel as often as he could. There he struck up a friendship with the sisters, particularly their superior, Sister Fortunata.
Manning came to understand that the reasons he had been startled to see them — in a war zone in one of the poorest countries in the world — were the very reasons for their presence.
“They’re all over the world in some very, very dangerous environments, where it can be life and death,” he said. “They’re doing a mission — to go find Christ in his most distressing disguise. And they do.”
“The sisters would literally go to the garbage dumps” to rescue babies with severe birth defects, said Father Paul Halladay, an Army chaplain and major serving in Afghanistan at the same time as Manning. He also got to know the sisters at the Italian embassy, and he remembers being struck by the contrast between them and armored military personnel around them in the Green Zone.
“We can’t go 100 yards without being kitted out,” he recalled. “And you see these little nuns pile out of their car, all joyful and happy, and you think, ‘Who are the brave ones here?’”
Manning and Father Halladay, also a longtime Knight, began looking for ways to help the Missionaries and to introduce other service members to what they did.
“The work they do and the way they do it is so incredible, it puts everything into perspective for you to be around them,” Manning said. “I believed in what we did in Afghanistan, and I still do. What they were doing, though — you wanted a piece of that.”
Father Halladay and Manning set about arranging a delivery of humanitarian supplies from Camp Eggers, the U.S. military base, to their orphanage. The camp had a large stash of clothes, toys, medicine and school supplies collected by Knights of Columbus councils and other aid groups. Where better to send them?
The sisters were grateful to receive the donation — but the delivery, by a conspicuous convoy of U.S. military vehicles, caused some consternation for the head of the Catholic mission in Afghanistan, Father Giuseppe Moretti. Father Halladay recalls that Father Moretti was rightly upset with him for bringing such attention to the sisters.
New plan: For subsequent deliveries to the Missionaries of Charity, Father Halladay and Manning recruited help from a group of Norwegian special operations soldiers who were allowed to move around Kabul more discreetly than U.S. troops. Father Halladay had an ulterior reason for getting them involved as well.
“Religion didn’t mean anything to these guys,” he said. “I wanted them to meet the sisters and see what they did.”
After their first visit, the Norwegian soldiers “came back to the chapel and just kind of collapsed, vacant stares on their faces,” the chaplain recalled. “I asked them what happened and one of them said, ‘Father, I’ve never had an experience like that in my life.’”
The soldier had been moved by the juxtaposition of suffering and love he had seen at the orphanage. “I’ve smelled death before, and I smelled death in there,” he told Father Halladay. “But I’ve never witnessed so much joy.”
Father Halladay and Manning’s efforts on behalf of the Kabul Missionaries of Charity culminated with a project that started out as a headache and became a powerful lesson for them in the workings of prayer and providence.
Vincent Huré, a French soldier who had joined Father Halladay’s prayer group — dubbed “Fight Club” — asked his friends and family at home to collect supplies for the orphanage. Before long they had amassed a substantial shipment. The problem was that they had no way to get the goods from France to Afghanistan.
The more Manning researched transportation options, the more discouraged he became.
“Father Halladay and I were calling back to the States, overseas, different contacts we had. And at every turn we’re being told, ‘No, we can’t do this, this violates policy.’”
The delivery for the Missionaries of Charity became a regular intention when the Fight Club met to pray the rosary together over the next several months. And as he prayed, Manning found himself trying to emulate the sisters’ unreserved trust in God.
“Their surrender is complete, it’s full, it’s total: ‘I am in your hands, God; you take care of it,’” he said. “It was a lesson for all of us.”
Finally, Father Halladay was put in touch with a retired Air Force general who had the clout and connections to help. He arranged for the supplies to be picked up from France and trucked to an Air Force base in Germany, to be flown to Afghanistan through a special government program.
But the Fight Club kept praying. There was no way to know when the shipment would show up, or if it would arrive before they all left. And if none of them were in Kabul to take responsibility for the shipment, there was no telling where it would end up, but it wouldn’t be the orphanage.
Huré redeployed home, then Manning. Only Father Halladay remained in country, and he was only days away from leaving when he got word: A shipment of humanitarian goods had just arrived with his name on it.
For Manning, the perfect timing of the delivery felt like a divine reminder of something the Missionaries of Charity know deep in their souls: “God is going to get this done,” he said. “We’ve gotta do our part, obviously. Then we have to pray. The Missionaries of Charity will tell you that they can’t do what they do without prayer and the sacraments. It’s the same thing with us, but we forget it.”
‘NOTHING TO FEAR’
Father Halladay and Manning continued to feel the influence of the sisters long after their deployment to Afghanistan. For years, they volunteered regularly with Missionaries of Charity, driving several times a month from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to help them serve people experiencing homelessness and addiction in Dorchester.
Manning told family and friends about befriending Mother Teresa’s sisters in Kabul often over the years; however, he had no way of keeping in touch or even getting news of them until August 2021. That month, he watched the U.S. military’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan with dismay. But he also had the relief of learning from international news reports that the Missionaries of Charity in Kabul had been safely evacuated, along with the children in their care.
A few months later, Manning was surprised and overjoyed to see his friend Sister Fortunata for the first time since 2013, when a Knights of Columbus video about the Kabul Missionaries of Charity in Rome appeared on his LinkedIn page.
In the video, Sister Fortunata described the sisters’ initial reaction to the Taliban takeover: “No, we’re not going to leave,” she declared. “Whatever the consequences … we’re not going to leave the children behind.’”
Another sister, Sister Rosarius, explained her desire to come to the war-torn country in the first place: “I requested to go to serve the people of Afghanistan because I thought, ‘I am not going alone. Jesus is with me, so I have nothing to fear.’”
Listening to those words on his computer thousands of miles away, Manning’s faith was again stirred and strengthened by the sisters’ witness.
“The way that the Missionaries of Charity live their faith is life-altering,” he said. “The trust that they have — that if they fully surrender their will to the divine will, amazing things will happen — is a significant challenge to those who encounter them. It’s a call to arms: Have the courage to trust.”