KEY WEST -- They grew up as poor farm girls from large families in rural Tanzania villages, where houses are made from grass and mud, English is spoken with a British accent and Mount Kilimanjaro looms majestically.
At young ages, Mary Mushi, Marietha Kimaro and Euphemia Kimario all knew they wanted to spend their lives serving God, and joined the Sisters of the Holy Spirit of Tanzania.
They never expected that calling would lead thousands of miles away to a strange island, where people live in air conditioning, burly men dress in short skirts and high heels, and chickens run around everywhere — but nobody eats them.
“Not in a million years did they think they would end up in Key West,” said Father John Baker of St. Mary’s Star of the Sea, the oldest Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Miami that became a Basilica this year.
Now, nearly four years later, St. Mary’s doesn’t know what it would do without the Sisters’ tireless service to the needy, teaching to the kids and ready smiles for everyone. And the Sisters now call Key West their second home. “People say, ‘Thank you a lot,’ ” Sister Mary said. “That is really nice.”
Even Miami Heat supporters owe a bit of gratitude to them. Sisters Marietha and Euphemia are big fans who prayed for the team, and especially for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, during the NBA Finals. “That’s to their credit,” Father John said, smiling. “It shows they are holy and good women. Obviously, the Heat is God’s favorite team.”
Coming to America, and especially the liberal tourist town of Key West, was a culture shock for the sisters. They all said they were a little scared when they first were told about their new ministry. They believed Americans all talked fast, were wealthy and would think they were uncivilized. But they had taken vows of obedience, and their superiors told them that they were needed in Key West.
Sisters Mary, 49, and Marietha, 37 — along with their provincial superior, Sister Inviolata Kessy — arrived in Margaritaville in August 2008. (Euphemia, 46, replaced Inviolata last year).
It did not take long for them to realize that Key West, where the average house price was around $700,000, did indeed need their loving presence, open hearts, religious passion and their much-needed help.
Father John had to think hard to list all of the nun’s continuous good works. Seven days a week, they graciously serve the parish of about 1,200 families, as well as the needy of the Lower Keys.
At the soup kitchen for the homeless, they cook and serve meals, trying to make them tastier “African style.” They also help at the Star of the Sea (SOS) Outreach Mission on nearby Stock Island, where families and individuals in crisis can get free food and clothing.
The sisters teach religion at Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea, the church-run elementary school for children of all faiths up to eighth grade. They also help preschoolers.
They learned quickly that teachers in the United States don’t have the authority to dole out physical discipline like they can back home. “If we did, we would go to jail,” Sister Marietha said.
And just like back home, there are plenty of sick and elderly who need their tender touch. In Key West, they drive around in the church’s Toyota Corolla to make regular trips to the hospital and nursing homes to give communion, provide comfort and simply spend time and listen. They even make house calls to the homebound.