A Discussion with Sister Josephine Anto, A Sister in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus
With: Josephine Anto Berkley Center Profile
April 22, 2023
Background: Sister Josephine Anto, SHCJ, is an experienced educator from Ghana, who has over a long career focused on the specific challenges and potential of educating girls. She lives the charism of her order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ), which centers on the development of an individual’s strengths. She has worked in different schools in Ghana and now, in retirement, is reflecting on her next steps. This conversation with Katherine Marshall took place when Sister Jojoy, as she is known, was visiting Washington, DC, in April 2023 as part of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. During the discussion, she focused on her path and commitments and offered wisdom about the challenges for women linked to the matriarchal traditions of some Ghanaian communities. She also touched on aspects of the history of Ghana’s education system which was largely founded by religious communities but now works in a complex partnership with the government.
This discussion forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters participating in the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. It 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.
I am Josephine Joyce Anto, but do call me Jojoy.
Can we start with where you were born and educated?
I was born in a small village called Tepa, in the Ashanti region of Ghana. I was the tenth out of 11 children. We are mostly girls with only three boys. Between the first born and the last born in my family, there is a generation of 28 years. I don’t know who taught my mother how to space her children, but she did so successfully. The first child was born in 1936, the last in 1964. Those of us of the younger generation would go and live with those in the older generation because my parents were not that wealthy. It was not easy for a catechist to take care of 11 children!
In my family, the girls take precedence over the boys. At times, in some cultural circumstances, you may need the men to go first, but oftentimes we give priority to the person who came first in birth order. An exception comes when my little brother, who lives here in the United States, wants at times to play tricks with me, and will tell me that he finished school before me so I should go behind him. And I tell him, “No. I came to the earth before you.”
We are a pretty close, tight-knit family. My father was a catechist in the church in the then Kumasi diocese. That diocese has been divided into six dioceses, and one diocese called Goaso, is where I am currently working. I’m on the history committee of that diocese and it’s been amazing to find my father’s name everywhere, for all the contributions he made.
How long has your family been Catholic?
Ever since I was born. But there are differences in the family: my younger brother, who is here in the United States, is not a Catholic. At home, if you did not go for Mass, you didn’t ask for breakfast. It was an unwritten rule that was still more so on a Sunday. And if you didn’t go for confession on a Saturday, my father would not say anything to you, but we were told not to go for communion on the Sunday if you had not been for confessions the previous Saturday. That was the way we were all brought up, how the family came together. Currently, three of my siblings are not Catholic, so I think perhaps we got an overdose when we were growing up. You either rebelled and went into religious life or you rebelled and stopped.
My father believed in education. In my culture, at times, women’s education was not really valued as such. But my father had foresight and sent the first girl to school and when she did not disappoint him, that paved the way for all of us to go to secondary school. For my father, until you’ve got your university education—that is, your first degree—he was willing to take care of you. But when you got your first degree, then you could go wherever you wanted. All my sisters went to Holy Child School in Cape Coast. It’s a very famous school, founded by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, of which I am now a member.
How did you become a sister?
At Holy Child School, and from there—working, observing the sisters—the thought of becoming a religious sister came to mind. One day my principal asked me, “Have you ever thought of becoming a sister?” because I constantly went for Mass every day. But it didn’t come on a silver platter, because the Holy Child Sisters, thinking perhaps that I wasn’t serious, wanted me to wait. When I finished my A-levels in 1979, and I could have entered immediately, they told me I should go and find work on my own and do things on my own before entry. As somebody who was eager, it was not that easy to take, but that one year when I had to do things on my own turned out to be the most fruitful time in my life.
I had to come down to Nigeria for the novitiate, to Jos. Most Ghanaians at that time tended to be scared of going to Nigeria, but somehow or other, I was very willing to venture into the dark, if I may put it that way. So, I went to Nigeria in 1980 and had two years of novitiate. I was lucky that my novice mistress had been my teacher at Holy Child School in Cape Coast, so I think she really understood me. I have a lot of idiosyncrasies with food. As a child growing up, my father would always give me what I wanted, though my mother was a strict type who would want to make sure that everything you are doing is correct and perfect, a no-nonsense woman. You could not get your way with her, no matter what. But my father gave me whatever I wanted, perhaps because he named me after himself.
I finished my novitiate training and I professed on December 11, 1982. So I’ve already had 40 years in the religious life.
I was then sent back to Ghana to work, but this time to the northern part. We were three in community at that time: one European, one American, and one African. The American, Sister Barbara, is here, and I would love to visit with her. She was my local superior, and I must say she offered me a lot of understanding. She enabled me to go for meetings and meet with other religious officials. Maybe she thought I was lonely. Sister Eileen, who is a European, had a big dog in the house and I just could not stand it. Gradually, I came to realize that people are different, and you have to accept them for who they are and what they like, not necessarily always pushing your way. But I also realized that both sisters Barbara and Eileen made adjustments in order to suit me. So, we found ourselves in a very lovely community.
Once, someone left us a box of toffees. Barbara asked, “Where are the candies?” And Eileen said, “There are no candies in this house.” So Barbara said, “But Father Tim was here and left some candies.” I went to the fridge and I asked, “You mean these toffees?” Then Barbara said, “Yes, they’re candies.” And Eileen said, “No, they are toffees, not candies.” The incident made me realize that even though they were both white, there were a whole lot of differences in the way they looked at things.
Were you teaching there?
Yes, during the three years in the community I was teaching in a secondary school called Bolgatanga Girls. It is an all-girls school, and I taught them English and religious studies. I took the young girls for YCS, which is Young Christian Students movement. Both Barbara and I were teaching in the school with similar responsibilities.
After three years I was sent to the university in Jos, where I had had my novitiate, for my first degree, along with my counterpart Sr. Louisa Huni-Dadzie, who also moved with me from Ghana. At that time the education in Ghana was affected by the revolution of J.J. Rawlings, so we went to Nigeria for studies. In Jos, my superiors had wanted me to do a B.S. in religious studies, but my French was strong, so the university rather offered me a B.S. in French. There was an initial struggle with the authorities, but eventually we came to an agreement, and I did my first degree in education and French.
After that I came back to the Holy Child School, my own alma mater, to teach. I taught for four years, doing French. Then I was in charge of the students with the chaplaincy. If ever there was something you could lay your hands on, apart from teaching, Sister Josephine was doing it. Going around, I was a house mistress of one house, but then I would check on all the students. I used to get up at 12:00 midnight or 1:00 a.m. just to check on them. I’m sure they had a nickname for me at that time, but I never got to know it.
After four years, I was sent back to Nigeria to do a course in spiritual direction for two and a half years. When I returned to Ghana, this time I was sent not to Cape Coast but to Takoradi, which is a training college where we train teachers to go and teach. I was teaching education courses and was also the guidance coordinator. We have the Holy Child Secondary School in Cape Coast and the Holy Child Training College in Takoradi; both institutions were founded by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus. In both places, we accept people of all faiths. I was there to administer to the young ladies, people who have passed the adolescent age a little bit. Some of them were even married with their own children, but they came to school. We basically train them to be teachers, and thus to be like a multiplier effect. We teach them and then send them out to go and teach others. But even as they do that, we accompany them by going on teaching practices and watching them teach. When they come back, we sit down with them and discuss their plans and what has happened—not so much what has gone wrong, but what could have been done better to engage the students.
I did that for three years, from 1995 to 1998. In 1997, one sister, the first Ghanaian who joined the Sisters of the Holy Child, died. I had lived in community with her, and I was the local superior of the house when she died. That really had an effect on me. Two months later, my own father died. I guess the society thought it was a bit too much for me, so they sent me to Canada for studies, to do my master’s [degree]. There was a professor there in Toronto, Lorna Bowman, who was very interested in women’s issues. She facilitated my coming to Toronto to study.
How did your congregation come to be so involved in educating girls?
You can read about the history of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus online. Our mother foundress was Venerable Cornelia Connelly. She was a married woman, very settled with her five children, but her husband wanted to be a priest. She resisted, but eventually had to give in. And then she founded us, quoting her own words, “on a breaking heart.” So the concept of a child never left her. She then developed an educational philosophy that really helps one to empower the woman and also to put the emphasis on God. In all our schools, this is what we actually emphasize: Cornelia’s vision. She would tell us, “Be yourself, but make that self all that God wants you to be.” In her own educational system, she told her sisters, “Have confidence in the children. Do not let your confidence in them be shaken, because confidence begets confidence.” So, our educational system has always been based on the individual: how I can raise the individual to be a better person of her own self and not in competition with anybody? That has always been our philosophy and charism for the way we train children.
I think I caught that very much having been a member of the society. I gained much from being a past student, trained by the Holy Child Sisters, and having gone back and becoming a sister myself. All my training has been with young girls, and that has been my passion, to make sure that they really become the best of themselves and not a shadow of another person.
From Canada, I went back to Takoradi—that is, the training college—to teach. In 2003, a new head was appointed at Holy Child School Cape Coast, and she invited me to come and assist her in running the school. I had to go back to my congregation and ask, “Is that what you want me to do?” They gave me the approval, and so I went to Cape Coast, first as an assistant head for seven years. The headmistress retired in 2010, and after a lot of interviews and I was appointed to be headmistress of the school.
Are you really planning to retire?
In Ghana, you retire at the age of 60 automatically, so in November 2019 I was supposed to retire. But getting a replacement for me was a bit hard, so I had to stay at post until February 2020. Even then, they wanted me to stay on, but I said, "Enough, it’s better to change." Having done that, I moved out of Cape Coast to go to the Diocese of Goaso. My intention in going there is just to be. I mean that I wasn’t busy wanting to look for work or anything; I just wanted to be.
I have had this secret hope of going out for sabbatical and then coming back, to see what really God wants me to do. But I stayed in my present community for three years when no sabbatical was in sight. So I see that maybe this fellowship is a way of God answering a need. It may not necessarily be the sabbatical I had longed for, but coming here, interacting with others, reflecting, I can go back refreshed. I think that God answers our prayers in ways that at times we don’t truly understand. I may not actually have a true sabbatical, but the fellowship answers a need after my years as a teacher and administrator.
What lessons do you take from your long experience in teaching girls?
At Holy Child School, from 1989 to 1992, I had a lot of fun. I was very strict, but the students also knew that somehow or other, once you speak the truth, you can have your way with Sister Josephine. I remember a day when a student ran away, out of the school compound, without permission. For us it’s a big issue. When she came back, I caught her, and she was trying to be smart by telling me she went to the hospital. Unknown to her, I checked the records and realized that that was not true. So I told the head mistress, “It’s either she leaves the school or I leave the school. And I know I am not leaving. So do what you are supposed to do.” And she was like, “Who is this sister?” I was the only sister on the staff, so she saw me as coming to challenge her authority, if I may put it that way. But when she wanted to implement the rule by letting the girl go home, I went back and said, “Can she stay?” She said, “Sister Josephine, what am I supposed to do with you? On the one hand, you are pushing this, on the other hand...” I wanted them to know that breaking a rule is not the right thing, but we can still treat them with compassion. Once they get to understand that I don’t have a problem.
When I was the headmistress, every year you had to organize what is called a speech day. It’s a lot of money and time consuming. We have very strong alumni of the school who really pride themselves. They’re here in the United States, they’re in Canada, everywhere. Trying to get money for speech days was very difficult. I had a thought. Many girls I had taught had left the school 25 years ago. Why don’t I tap on them? So I called that very first batch who finished in 1988, meaning that they were in Lower Sixth when I went to teach, and I taught some of them, “Why don't you come back and give back to the school what the school has given you? Maybe you can come even to sweep the gutters: it doesn't matter. We are not here in competition with anybody. It’s what you can do for the school.” And it has become a big competition among themselves, with their handing over ceremony. People travel from the United States and Canada just for the ceremony. So I’m happy that I have been able to start a tradition in the school, whereby I call on the young and the past students to give back after 25 years what the school had given them.
Some of them have been able to even contact some of our sisters who were head mistresses in our school and principals in our college and live here in the United States. The U.S. group has been very good. So they visit our sisters and try to be in touch with them. I’m glad I have been able to do something. Although it started on a very small scale, somehow it has had a multiplying effect.
Talking about empowerment of women, you have commented several times that in your culture the children belong to the woman. Can you talk about how that works in practice?
Among the Ashantis, they believe that you get your blood from your mother, your spirit from your father, and your soul, in the traditional sense, from God. The spirit is what differentiates me from my other siblings, but we share the same blood and of course the soul is what God has given us. So, in a traditional setting, the woman is very important. I have often wondered whether colonization made a large difference in changing those traditions that gave a central role to women. I have my own native name and did not need to take my father’s name, but with colonization even that changed. I was baptized Josephine and I had to add my father’s name. Did that experience make for the shift within the cultural setting, where the man now came up in status and the woman’s status was lower? Maybe the people who colonized us brought their own traditions.
Much as the woman is very important, we still need the man who will be the one to go to school and be the breadwinner and all of that. In most cases, the woman is just at home cooking and doing all sorts of things. I come from a family that had a lot of women, and my mother was not chicken feed. She can command my father and my father will obey, even in their old age. I remember once my mother came and told my dad that somebody had had an accident and asked my father to go and see the person and reassure him. When he returned, she asked him how he was. He replied that the accident was very serious and the man was really hurt. She told him to go back and tell the man that he was not really hurt as he had described the previous day. My father had to go back and give the wounded man that message of hope.
That was the power of my mom. She was a woman of deep faith. Every Easter Sunday before I come to any reflections in scripture, I always go back to the stories she used to tell me. She told me that Jesus was lying in the tomb and God came and carried him from the tomb. And I asked, “Were you there as a witness?” She would tell me, “If you pray, it’ll be shown to you.” During their golden jubilee of marriage, my older siblings organized and sent my parents to Italy, specifically Rome, for their jubilee celebration. You would think they went to two different countries. My mother never went to school, but in Italy she made her needs and wishes known. My father was rather at his little corner, just quiet. The pilgrim group was going to Assisi for the day. My mother wanted rice and chicken, as she had no intention of eating the spaghetti. She went to the sisters who were catering for them and made her intentions known, despite the language barriers. The next day, the sisters made a pack of rice and chicken for everybody, through her intervention. On the train (you know how the trains are), she saw an elderly man who had brought a sandwich, but she had her rice and chicken. She divided her food into two and gave him half. He also divided his sandwich and gave her half. On arriving at Assisi, this new friend took her to some places of interest which added to her experience. When she returned to Ghana and shared the story, we asked her what language she used in her communication. She told us that in this world, there’s only one language everybody understands, and it’s the language of love. So she had powerful teachings.
My brother lives here in Virginia and when my father died, he couldn’t come home. So eventually he brought my mother to the United States as a way of getting her out of the situation. My brother told me that she won over the whole neighborhood in Fairfax, Virginia. She got up in the morning with her rosary and took her morning walk in the neighborhood. She said good morning to everyone who passed by. My brother says that when she left, many in the neighborhood came and asked where the old lady had gone. She was the powerful person in the house and even though she never went to school, she was an authority figure for us.
I remember when I went to the religious life and I came home the very first time after my first vows, my father said to my mother that since I am now a sister, she should not let me go to the kitchen and so on. She stood up and said, “Nonsense, I bore her for nine months. Come on, get up and help.” She was a forceful lady. I don’t know how her character was shaped.
In my family there were no tensions about roles of men and women. The men are only three: the fourth, the fifth born, and the last one, who is here in Virginia. For every decision they make they consult their sisters. They would not do something without that. I told Victoria Kwakwa [vice president of the World Bank], “You and I come from a culture where the woman is important. Where have we lost that? Can we do some research to find out? In the traditional setup, the woman is very important and the roles are complementary. In order to choose a new king, you need to consult the queen mother and so on. It seems that along the way we’ve lost that quality because of colonization, and the man’s power has come up a bit. But even so, not withstanding, for some of the past students we have trained, we have enabled them to stand on their toes as women of substance, as we call them.”
Somehow or the other, in the traditions I have come from, I see that empowerment is something we have to do ourselves. All you have to do is to rediscover the basic traditions we inherited.
How do you see the Catholic schools in the overall education in Ghana? How far are they distinctive and special?
I will say that the Catholic schools in Ghana are very good. That means that they are among the top schools. In 2013, of the 10 top schools in the final examinations, seven of these schools were Catholic schools. There are other faith-based schools which are equally good. Victoria Kwakwa went to Wesley Girls High School, which is a Methodist school. During admission time, parents want their wards to go to either Wesley Girls or Holy Child or Saint Augustine’s or one of the other faith-based schools. They are the Category A schools in Ghana.
The government took over the schools and they are in a sort of partnership with the Church. In the Catholic schools and other faith-based institutions, the government allows the bishops and other heads of the various churches to appoint the heads to their schools, while they pay the staff and everything. The government pays, but when they appoint the head, they will consult the bishops.
Not the sisters?
Yes. That’s the point. Not the sisters, but the bishops. The bishops throw it back to us and follow their own preferences. If I am sincere, I would say there have been some struggles here. For those of us in international congregations, the bishops feel that we can be posted anywhere at any time and not be committed to the diocese. People should be able to gain their positions as heads of institutions based on experiences they have had in the past. Some experienced sisters have been moved around, too, by the congregation and have lost the benefits they could have gained. Our SHCJ sisters struggled to put up schools in Ghana and Nigeria. These schools are very renowned in both countries. Now that we have become an African province of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, it is a pity we cannot own and develop what our own sisters have built over the past years. So the struggle is there, I will not deny that.
So it’s a struggle more within the Church than with the government?
At times within the Church, at times, too, with the government and even with the community. For instance, when I was appointed as the head of Holy Child, some past students wanted to rub shoulders: “Where have you come from?” But interestingly enough, nobody even wanted to ask for my surname: all they knew was Sister Josephine. At a function, somebody would just say that I looked very much like my senior sister who passed away, asking “Sister Josephine, are you Christina’s sister? Agnes, Agatha, Millicent, Angie?” When I say “Yes,” all of a sudden their negative impressions turned positive: They go on further to say: “So, if you are an Anto, then what is our problem?” That is because all my sisters went through the school and we have done remarkable things.
I find that sisters from different countries and congregations face similar challenges. We, the African sisters, have gone through the novitiate steeped in the spirit and mission and charisms of our societies. The laypeople coming into our institutions do not have the same experience. We, the sisters, have established these schools with our charism and everything. And yet when we come in, the laypeople sometimes see us as a threat. You have to be able to manage your way very well in order to create a balance. Why should they see you as a threat if you have to lead when placed in that position? During my first few years, some past students came to me and said, “When your predecessor was here, she used to do this and that.” But I am my own person and I have my own vision to carry on. My goal was to make sure that I follow the vision of my Holy Child sisters who were heads of this school. In Holy Child School, Cape Coast, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus were heads right from 1946, when the school was founded, to 1980 when they handed over to a lay headmistress. I had to go back to their vision, that is the educational philosophy of the SHCJ, and make sure that, particularly as the first Ghanaian Holy Child Sister to be a headmistress, I follow the tradition of the Holy Child, but can still be truly Ghanaian as I put the two together.
Many schools in Africa are facing serious quality issues. Is that true of the government schools in Ghana?
To an extent, yes and no. We started facing issues when the government decided on free senior high school education, where everybody should go to school. For the very first year or two, the Catholic schools stuck strictly to performance, but over the years, it’s more like "Who can pay their way through?" As a head I was very stubborn, if I may put it that way. I would tell them I can only take 400 students and I’m not pushing beyond. Meanwhile, my other colleagues were getting thousands, and it is like the more students you have, the more money you get. I was not interested in that. I was interested in giving my students the quality training they deserved. And it’s not just academic; I have to be able to touch them on the physical, social, psychological, and whatever other levels and be able to know them.
I always remember that when the sisters were in charge of the school, they knew everybody’s family. Whenever there was a new birth in the family, they were informed. So I was known before I went to school in 1972 because all my sisters has passed through the school. As a headmistress, I wanted to be able to carry on this tradition, but it was almost impossible because of the numbers given by the government to the schools. Others may not share the same vision, particularly the lay heads. They want to see what they can get out of the situation, but I didn’t believe in that. I used to fight it with the government almost all the time. So, if you are bringing me 40 students, I look at their grading because others would have qualified to be placed in the school. So where somebody has done better and she was not put in the school, I would question before I accept those with the weaker grades. At times, however, I might take about 10 or 15 students who were not necessarily strong, but who came from the remote villages and bring them to the school and allow them to shine.
So you had that capacity and that determination?
Yes, but it wasn’t easy. I always had to fight it out with them. I had to fight hard with the government. But you do it in a very nice way. I would go to Accra and walk to the minister’s office and exchange some pleasantries with him. Then I start my negotiations with him. “Oh sister, I was thinking of sending about 400 students to your school.” “Can you cut it down to about 250? And these are my reasons.” Then we argue. I may not end up with the 250, but maybe with about 300. So there was that give and take. The current minister of education has been my very good friend because of some of these encounters. He comes in, puts in his request and I’ll tell him, “Okay, we go on a negotiation. I’m also looking for admission to my own school. So if I give you five, I’ll also take five.” I used the protocol allocation given to me to help some major stakeholders of the school.