They were five nuns from eastern Illinois who felt called to do good works in Liberia — founding schools, caring for orphaned children, offering medical care to families — when a bloody civil war seized the country and the nuns were brutally gunned down.
This month marks the 29th anniversary of their deaths. Now, a local woman hopes to keep the nuns’ memory alive by helping thousands of Liberian nationals become American citizens.
“They knew themselves that they were going into danger, and they still went,” Alissa Connelly said of the nuns. “They went there because of the people.”
Connelly, 44, of St. Louis, first heard the story of the nuns in 2017. She has long worked in the social services sector and has written several children’s books. She wanted to write another that taught children about notable people of each religious faith. While searching for a Catholic figure to profile, she found the story of the nuns who had lived in a convent an hour’s drive from St. Louis, “right in my backyard,” she said.
Once she started researching the women, she found she couldn’t stop. She read every article she could find about their deaths in 1992 and dove deep into the details of the bloody war that stole their lives as well as the lives of nearly 250,000 Liberians.
“As I started looking into the story of the nuns — their life’s work, their love for God, their love for the people of Liberia, the families they left behind — I knew I had to put every effort into finding out what happened, why and how, to see to it that these women are not forgotten about,” Connelly said.
‘They saw a need’The five nuns were with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ order and were based in a convent in Ruma, Illinois. Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, Shirley Kolmer, Mary Joel Kolmer, Agnes Mueller and Kathleen McGuire felt called to minister in Liberia.
“Those five women were very passionate about their relationship to God (and) serving and accompanying God’s people, wherever that takes them,” said Sister Janet McCann with the Adorers Leadership Team. “They came with a variety of gifts, some in education, some in health care, and they worked with parishes empowering women. They saw a need and thought maybe they could help.”
Then war broke out. Warlord Charles Taylor had ambitions to take control of the country and sent an army to fight other factions. The sisters traveled to the United States in 1991 as the war raged, but as soon as the gunfire quieted, they returned.
“They felt strongly about returning,” McCann said. “I don’t think they ever thought they’d be killed. They wanted to be with the (Liberian) people because their relationship with them was so strong.”
On Oct. 20, 1992, sisters Muttra and Mary Joel Kolmer left their convent in Gardnersville, Liberia, to take an employee home. They were stopped by soldiers who opened fire and killed everyone in the car.
Three days later, the remaining nuns hadn’t heard from Muttra and Kolmer and feared the worst. Then soldiers arrived at the convent. Sister McGuire opened the door and was immediately shot in the arm, then in the back of her neck. The remaining two sisters, Mueller and Shirley Kolmer, were pulled outside and fatally shot.
“It cost them their lives,” Connelly said, “and there’s no information, no justice or anything for them or their families.”
No one was ever held responsible for the deaths of the nuns. The warlord eventually became president of Liberia but was later sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes; he remains imprisoned.
‘I want justice’Connelly put her children’s book on hold and began digging into every official account of the killings she could find. She found an ally in retired Air Force Col. Fred McGuire, brother of Kathleen McGuire.
The Adorers “are the ones that are ‘forgive and forget,’” McGuire said. “I’m the military type. I want justice.”
Connelly reached out to Liberians who lived through the war, including people she knew to be close to Taylor. It wasn’t easy to find an associate of his who was willing to talk frankly with her.
But eventually, she found one.
Roy Belfast Jr., also known as “Chucky Taylor,” is Charles Taylor’s son. Belfast is serving time in a federal prison in Florida for war crimes that include torture, which he carried out for his father’s regime in Liberia.
“I contacted him and said … I believe that you and I are two completely different people from different worlds and societies, and I think that the two of us can really learn from each other,’” Connelly said. “I started out really soft, like, ‘Tell me what Liberia is like. What’s the atmosphere, what’s the smell? I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.’”
During the three years they corresponded, Connelly got information she considered valuable enough to turn over to authorities, she said, though she hasn’t heard back.
‘Big step forward’The details of who is responsible for the nuns’ deaths might be lost to time, so justice may never be done. But Connelly is determined to make something good come of the women’s sacrifice.
Through personal connections, Connelly found a private donor willing to give money to cover the sponsorship fees for many Liberian nationals who became U.S. citizens.
Thousands of Liberian nationals have lived, worked and paid taxes here without the ability to vote — and without the ability to leave the country — since they arrived.
Connelly says she is trying to get the money to the people who need it. She’s contacted government agencies as well as organizations meant to help Liberian refugees across the country but hasn’t heard back.
The entire effort, she said, is in the spirit of the Ruma Five, who gave their lives for the Liberian people.
“The nuns, they didn’t want publicity, but the effort and the kindness and the improvement they were trying to give to a third-world country should have been acknowledged more,” McGuire said. “You don’t find people that do that today, really. … Theirs is a very spiritual effort to devote their life to something that good, and that’s amazing to me.”