A Conversation with Sister Josephine Apiagyei, A Sister in the Sisters of Saint Louis Congregation

With: Josephine Apiagyei Berkley Center Profile

April 22, 2023

Background: Sister Josephine Aplagyei, SSL, a Catholic religious sister from Ghana, is an educator with wide experience in Ghana’s Catholic schools. She has been a teacher and school principal with additional experience in teacher training, alongside leadership positions within a woman’s Catholic religious congregation in Ghana and Ireland. She has a strong commitment to education, especially for girls, and has reflected and worked to develop religious education curricula. This conversation explores Sister Josephine’s journey as a Catholic sister, as well as Ghana’s Catholic education systems and the roles of religious congregations, both historically and today. She highlights the history of her congregation, the Sisters of Saint Louis, and its deep commitment to the education of girls.

This conversation with Katherine Marshall took place when Sister Josephine was visiting Washington, DC, in April 2023 as part of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship that works to amplify the visibility, vitality, and voice of Catholic sisters in responding to the complex challenges and opportunities faced by women religious leaders within their organizations and communities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University have collaborated in the design and delivery of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Sister Josephine is a fellow in the inaugural cohort, and this discussion forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters in that context.

Where are you from and what has been your path to where you are today?

Everybody’s life is a story and an adventure! I’m the third of my mother’s children. I should have been the middle child, but we lost one, so two of us shared the middle position. I’m the second girl. We usually say that the first girl sits with the mother and picks up her wisdom. The last one is the pet and runs the errands. And the middle one is left free. I was born in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region of Ghana. But that’s not where I grew up. Ashanti is in the middle belt of the country, but I grew up on the coast, nearer to the sea, and I went to school there.

Was your family Catholic? What did they do?

Yes. We’re a very strong Catholic family from long ago, on both sides, way, way, way back. Interestingly, my mother is one of many children.

Many children?    

Yes, because her father was a chief with about four wives, but when my grandfather turned Catholic and had to let go of the other wives, he compensated them, and made sure that they had enough resources to take care of themselves. My grandmother was one of those who was left to go because he took just the first wife. So I have so many cousins, but I hardly know them because I didn’t grow in that region. I was brought up on the coast and went to school there.

My school was one of the Sisters of St. Louis’. The history of the order in Ghana is one I would love to write about, because it is a wonderful story. My head administrator at the school at the time was a missionary and a historian, and she wrote a lot about the history of our congregation. She also liked to tell us stories and show films. Those days, they showed films on a big screen and they projected them on the wall. It made a strong impression. I remember, for example, one film of a lizard with two tails that had caught her fancy. She was, in a sense, childlike. 

She had a capacity to bring God very near to home, not too far away from us. I can’t readily say what caught my fancy about the sisters, but now as I think back it seems that it wasn’t only the direct stories and teachings. It was more the way I grew up there.

So, I went to secondary school with the sisters, and when I finished I joined them. In my time we did O-Levels, and when you qualified you did A-Levels before you could get into the university. Those of us who were aspiring to go to the university had to do A-Levels. So, I did them in upper six in the same school with the sisters. It was after that I entered with them. So late teens. The school system has since changed.

With the same group of sisters?

Yes. I didn’t know that much about other orders at the time, but I was very interested. I thought their life was very Christ-like. That's how I wanted to live, with God as my center. So that’s why, I think, that I decided to go with them.

We went to the novitiate in Nigeria, because at that time Ghana didn’t have a novitiate. Ghana and Nigeria were actually the same region. We came back and made our profession in Ghana and worked voluntarily for about two years. And then I went to the university. I’m grateful for the path I took.

Where did you go to university?

In Ghana, the University of Cape Coast. Things have changed now, but at the time the university allowed you to do your main program as well as a diploma in education. Thus you had two things when you came out. I wasn’t too sure I wanted to be a teacher, so the sister directress at that time, a very wise woman, said, “Why don't you go to this university, get a degree and a diploma, and then you can decide when you have finished.”

In the course of our training, getting the diploma, we had to do what was called “on-campus teaching practice,” which is peer teaching, supervised. There was also “off-campus teaching practice.” I did mine back at the secondary school I had been. And gradually I saw that I fit in with teaching. So I became a teacher when I came out.

Teacher training college was for basic schools—elementary schools—and the university was teacher training beyond that level. When I finished my university course, there were no sisters in our teacher training college. So that’s where I was posted to go first. At that time, our government gave you a loan to go to a university, and when you finished you did national service. Before I went to university, the national service was one year, but by the time I finished, it had increased to two years. So I did national service for two years and then the college absorbed me. I began to teach in that college for many years, training teachers for the elementary schools.

How are your roles in your congregation and as a teacher linked?

St. Louis, my congregation, began with a basic school for girls in Ghana. Then they moved to establish a secondary school, also for girls. People at the time were, however, questioning: What was the point of secondary school for girls? And then they established a teacher training college where I was to teach.

After some time in the training college, I was nominated as regional leader for Ghana and thus transferred to Accra with a broader role. I went to work in the Catholic Education Unit as a supervisor and a member of the Religious and Moral Education team. For this task, I had to move away from training untrained teachers to working with trained teachers in the field. That’s what I did for some time, as well as working on the curriculum.

I then needed a sabbatical, but my leaders decided that if I was going to go away, then I had better do something that would bring back benefits to them. So, I was to go for a formation program in Ireland so that when I came back, even if I was teaching in schools, I could still help in the formation house.

I was to go to Ireland for the program for a year. But even before I ended this training, a new chapter was convoked. I was nominated to the central leadership team as one member of a team of four. The term for central leadership is six years. But that very year as I was supposed to end, COVID-19 struck. So we had to stay on a little longer till the new chapter.

After the chapter, I came back to Ghana and went to a new school. I still haven’t been there for a full year. I’m in a new administrative role, but one that still has to do with teachers.

Do tell me about your order, the Sisters of St. Louis? Where is it based? What is its history, and where is it now? What is its role in Ghana?

Its role in Ghana is something that is in my heart, and I would so love to write about it.

It’s a French foundation, started in the 1800s. When it began there was actually a male section and a female section. The male section was disbanded after some years because the needs were different: they were interested in different areas, and they were all very highly qualified from the start. The female section, because it was focused on the social work they were doing, had a more unifying purpose and mission. And they survived. The founder’s vision is that of “a world healed, unified, and transformed by the saving wisdom of Christianity.” Our charism is taken from the Lord’s Prayer: “Sint Unum—That all may be one.”

Is it still working in France?

Yes, we are still in France today. But in the early days, there were some Irish girls in the community. They had gone to study in France and then stayed with the sisters, the women. At that time, we were simply called Ladies of Good Works. Some of the visiting women became interested and joined the community. Then an Irish bishop was looking for a teaching order and approached them, so a few (three) of them came to Ireland to establish a school. However, the Bishop of Clogher did not want the sisters in Ireland to be governed from France: he wanted his own. Thus, when the branches began in Ireland, they belonged to the dioceses there, though they were sisters of St. Louis—but “The Sisters of St. Louis of Ramsgrange,” for example. The sisters in France opened foundations in Belgium. 

Then later, an amalgamation happened, because the sisters in France wanted support and some of the sisters in Ireland went and joined them. As this was happening, there were more invitations from other areas. Some sisters from Ireland went to England and then to Ghana, Nigeria, and California. And sisters from California went to Brazil and sisters from Nigeria went to Benin. And then there was an invitation for us from Ethiopia. This time it wasn’t from a particular area to this place, but the Ethiopia mission was decided on by the whole group. And because there were more vocations in Africa than elsewhere, our sisters in the Western world, so to speak, offer to provide financial resources and the support to help to establish this community in Ethiopia. Those of us from the Global South provide personnel and support as well. That’s the present situation! Our generalate is in Ireland.

How many are you in Ghana now?

Almost 40.

And all Ghanaian?

Yes, all Ghanaians. We are not that many, though there are more than a hundred in Nigeria. It’s a bigger country.

And mostly in education?

Mostly in education, though we have health care as well and now are branching off into various other areas like social work. We had been doing a bit of social work, but it wasn’t as full-time ministry: we always had some part of social or pastoral work as part of our main ministry. For example, when I was teaching, I looked to the home-bound who were parishioners of our church but now could not come to church. So I used to visit them. But in the process, those of them who lived nearby would form a community for a communion service on Sundays. At one time in one house we would gather as many as 10 so that their children could have a service and pray. If they needed anything, the children knew how to contact me, as we were not located far away. We would visit them. So it wasn’t a formal pastoral ministry, but it was pastoral caregiving.

What was the issue for the changing approach to religious education that you described?

Half the schools in Ghana are Catholic schools, so the change was significant. But in fact not only the Catholic schools were involved, as it affected all the mission schools. These include the Protestant and Islamic schools, the Methodist schools, for example. All had said that they wanted to retain the practice of religious education. The public schools might stop teaching religion, but the religious leaders basically said, “We won’t.” To enforce this, the regional manager put together a team that was to draw up a syllabus for teaching religion in the Catholic schools. I happened to be on that team, with a role that went beyond the Catholic students.

You have spent considerable time thinking about the religious curriculum. How, in Ghana, is the teaching about religion (that is, understanding different traditions) linked to the more traditional religious education? Is there a shared approach in Ghana to what we might call religious literacy?

Everyone knows something about Islam and something about Catholicism and Methodism, and so on. But teaching for religion is more what I would understand as the catechesis, so that you are a good Catholic.

In the government syllabus, the teaching about religion is part of cultural studies, but it has been what I would consider mostly academic. Students have to write examinations, and thus it was largely academic. Teaching for religion came at different times, more instilled in what we called “in-service training” for the teachers and co-curricular activities for the students. These co-curricular activities, for example, concentrate on different approaches to prayer or life—as in, for example, a drama on some Bible stories—and then the children discuss what they would have done in such instances and what teaching it represents for them.

Is this kindergarten through eight level?

No, kindergarten to JHS. JHS is junior high school, what for you would be middle school.

You said before that half the schools in Ghana are Catholic. So how does the history and the present of the Catholic education fit into the national system now?

Many (most) of the schools actually began from missions. So you would hear Sister Josephine Anto talk about Holy Child, which is Catholic, and Wesley Girls where Victoria Kwakwa [World Bank vice president] went is Methodist. Then at a point in the history of Ghana, the government decided to take over all those schools. While they were taken over, they retained their names, because that’s the name they were and still are known by. But it also meant that the government gave the schools the syllabus for teaching in the school. So, the missions didn’t have a free run of the schools anymore. And the government gives the teachers to the school. Schools accept whichever teachers were assigned there.

When you say the government gives a teacher, you mean that they are appointed and paid by the government?

Yes. Appointed by and paid by the government to the schools. That was what the government meant by taking over the schools. So our schools have Muslim teachers, and some are Presbyterian. There are people with no religion at all.

But you still call them “our” schools?

We still call them our schools.

And what does “our” mean?

It means that the school has our name, and it has our motto, too. It’s supposed to have our charism, but it does not necessarily. We call them our schools because at a certain point the government and the religious leaders came to an agreement. The religious leaders had a say in the appointment of the administrators of the school. Not so much the teachers, but the administrators of the school. That’s what has happened in the course of our history. It has involved a working out of modalities with the government, as the schools are state-owned. When the bishop draws up his programs, his itinerary for the year, it includes visitation to these schools. He goes and meets with the staff once or twice a year. There are programs we can incorporate, especially for the boarding schools. My current school now is a day school and that part is less pronounced, but in the boarding schools the Saturdays and Sundays are managed by the Church.

Going back to religious education and the bishops’ insistence that it be included, how did that work?

It was accepted eventually, but initially it wasn’t. The government had said that religious education is in the syllabus as part of cultural studies. But the bishops or the missions wanted religious and moral education to stand on its own. We were doing it through the co-curricular activities, but more talks went on over a period of time. There was a cordial back and forth; most of those in government have some religion. After the exchanges, the religious and moral education curriculum was brought back in all the schools. That was the conclusion.

What about how much is civic education, and how much has that been linked to the religious or the cultural? Ghana has less conflict than many other countries, but every society has tensions, its own conflict.

Yes. When I was growing up, there was civic education on our curriculum, but now we don’t have the term “civic education.” It comes in bits and pieces. In our present syllabus it is called “Our World, Our People.” The subject has a bit of religious education, a bit of the history, a bit of the geography.

How much recognition would there be of ethnic and religious difference?

Among the children that I take care of in my school, there’s very little intolerance. You don’t get them disputing with each other about differences. It’s the older people who make distinctions.

So you think that’s a generational change?

No, I don’t think so. I think that when the children leave the school and go out or into the society, they begin to see discrimination, and they get caught up in the story.

That’s an interesting observation. You should write about that!

In the primary school, people come from different places. However, by secondary school, people begin to talk about where you’re from and differences. In the primary school, sometimes we celebrate something like the cultural days, and people wear the clothes from their culture and maybe bring food from their culture to be shared. But it’s once in a year, once in a while.

What about language?

While you are in school, you all speak English. The Ghanaian language you learn to read and write would be the language of the locality. If you were living in my area, you will learn to write my language. And if I were living in Accra, I would have to learn to write that language through primary school.

For example, I’m Ashanti, but because I was brought up on the coast, I read the language of the Fanti. Language is versatile. Sometimes I look at the word and read the Ashanti version.

You have said that during the fellowship you saw the issues of domestic violence more clearly and are determined to do more to address the problem.

It was not something I was very much aware of. Such matters are not spoken about; it is a taboo topic to an extent. There were many things that I did not know, or simply did not see. But the problem is there and is something that school administrators should pay attention to. The COVID-19 crisis also put those issues into sharper focus.

Do you see yourself continuing as an educator? Is that your life and your passion?

I would say that’s my main ministry now. I’m in administration, but it’s in an educational setting. I always say that I just love the school environment, whether I’m a student in it or I’m teaching. That’s just where I like to be. It wakes me up in the morning. I love that. But I also know that that’s not the end of life. And there are many other things to do and accomplish.

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