From Edina to Guyana: Sister Nikopoia finds joy in missionary calling

| October 9, 2020 | 0 Comments

Sister Maria Nikopoia, who is serving as a missionary in the village of Charity, Guyana, poses in September with children from a nearby village after she helped them make rosaries. COURTESY SISTER MARIA NIKOPOIA

Therese Klobe never imagined spreading the Gospel in a foreign land. Her vision for life was much simpler.

“I grew up in Edina; I went to Our Lady of Grace grade school,” she said. “Honestly, I never thought of being a missionary… . I never thought I would move than 5 miles from my house in Edina in my whole life.”

But, as she says today: “God’s plans are not our plans.”

She made this remark during a Sept. 30 phone conversation from her current home in a small village called Charity in Guyana, South America. Now named Sister Maria Nikopoia, she is the superior of a small group of sisters from the religious order Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, founded in 1988 as a female branch of the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word in San Rafael, Argentina.

Sister Nikopoia joined the order in 2008 and served in the U.S. until 2018, when she was asked to be the superior in Guyana. It was a task she didn’t feel capable of, she said, but she has found joy in the midst of poverty, hardships and cultural values opposed to her Catholic faith.

“Here, it’s not necessarily a Christian society,” said Sister Nikopoia, who will turn 40 Oct. 21. “The bar is right across the street, always playing really loud music. And, they’re selling drugs on the back street. You just see the drug deals, and the alcoholics are walking drunk down the street, and prostitutes are doing their work.

“You can see the lack of dignity and the lack of respect that they have (for themselves). They just don’t know their own dignity. The scene is very real, but you can also see, in some sense, the mercy of God.”

Sister Nikopoia leads four other sisters as they serve the village, located on the northern coast of Guyana. Many of the residents are farmers, with rice and coconuts the two main crops. With priests in the country spread thin, Mass only takes place twice a month in her village, as is the case in other villages. Priests often travel by boat down the Pomeroon River to reach villages sometimes located half an hour apart.

The sisters do most of the catechesis in their village, serving the parish of St. Francis Xavier, which includes nine communities in the region. They work with people of all ages, with programs for girls and young women at the center of their outreach.

“There are many broken families, a lot of abuse, a lot of suicide, not so much hope, at least where we live,” Sister Nikopoia said. “Once a girl graduates from high school, that’s about all that she’s going to do. … So, we try to work with the girls — (teaching) human values, human virtues. We teach catechism and we have girls over sometimes, have girls’ groups (and camps).”

The vision is expanding with a plan to build a new convent. They are hoping to break ground on the proposed $400,000 structure this month, pending approval of a grant they have applied for. Not only would it provide housing for the sisters, but it could accommodate guests, including young women from the region who wish to help the sisters, and even women from countries like the U.S. who want to explore missionary work and the Servants community.

Sister Nikopoia knows well how effective personal interaction can be in drawing women to both religious life and missionary work. After working in both the corporate world and in Edina public schools, she met members of the Servants while chaperoning a group of high school girls on a vocations event at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul in January 2006. The connection was strong and immediate.

“There were probably 10 orders of sisters there,” said Sister Nikopoia, a 1999 graduate of St. Agnes School in St. Paul. “And, there were two (Servants) sisters that were super young, really joyful, and they were in a habit. And so, I said to myself, ‘That’s where I’m going to enter. Whenever I have the courage to enter, I’m going to enter that order.’ I knew nothing about them at all, but I just knew that’s the order that I was going to enter.”

She made a visit to the Servants, whom she calls “blue sisters” because of their blue-colored habits, at a convent in New York in August 2008 and joined one month later, at the age of 27. At that time, she didn’t realize the Servants serve in eight countries around the world, and that she might be sent out someday. It took 10 years before the call finally came.

She didn’t expect it, but she also understands missionary work in a broader sense. That made her ready to accept the invitation.

“We’re all called to be missionaries,” she said, an idea Pope Francis explored in his message for this year’s World Mission Day, Oct. 18. “In our baptism, we’re called to be missionaries. In our own neighborhood, in our own families, we’re called to be missionaries. That’s part of our baptismal promise.”

“In our particular order, the Servants of the Lord, we actually are missionary and Marian,” she added. “So, we go out to places where nobody wants to go to preach the Gospel. That’s just where God planted me, so I just have to be faithful to whatever God is asking of me.”

Sister Nikopoia has learned that the job often entails things far beyond ministry and catechesis, like fixing broken water pipes and broken-down cars. She has become as familiar with hand tools as she has spiritual tools like the Catechism and the Bible.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s exciting to come to Guyana,” she said. “It’s exciting to be in the missions, it’s exciting to go and to use your vocation to bring souls to Christ in a place where very few people are Catholic.”

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