The history of the Church is replete with examples of Our Lady’s watchful and solicitous care for the welfare of her children. A striking recent example, confirmed by the local Bishop, is given us by the events surrounding the Blessed Virgin’s appearance to three schoolgirls at Kibeho, Rwanda, beginning in 1982. The unfolding of the Rwandan genocidal tragedy in 1994, verifying with gruesome exactitude a prophecy given by Our Lady of Kibeho just a few years earlier, invites the reader to a sobering reflection: heaven’s call to repentance must not go unheeded.
The Land of a Thousand Hills
Rwanda, known as the “land of a thousand hills,” is a small country about the size of the state of Maryland, located in Central Africa, situated between Tanzania on the east, Burundi on the south, Uganda on the north and Democratic Republic of Congo on the west. Aerial views of the picturesque country present spectacular lush landscapes, rich green vegetation, remarkable terraced crops on the hillsides, amazing volcanic mountains, and a number of shimmering lakes that reflect breathtaking sunsets. Though Rwanda is situated only a few degrees south of the equator, the climate is fairly temperate (temperatures averaging 70° F / 21° Celsius) because of its location in a mountainous region with an average altitude of 5,000 to 6,000 feet (1,500 to 1,800 meters) above sea level. Average annual rainfall is about 40 inches (100 cm); the country is also blessed with an abundant water supply from a number of rivers and lakes.
Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world, but recently it has been counted among the most successful African countries regarding development and national economy. Most of Rwanda’s inhabitants make a living from agriculture and livestock. Thus, almost all the land is cultivated, with the average property per household being less than two-and-a-half acres. Coffee and tea are the primary cash crops. The natives harvest bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava for their own use throughout the year.
Rwanda and Burundi were once part of the German East Africa, from 1894 to 1918. Like many imperialists, when the Germans arrived in the late 1800s, they began to foment unrest through prejudice in order to tighten their own control. They ruled through the Tutsi king and brought Hutu areas under their rule. However, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to surrender control of the region to Belgium.
Rwanda and Burundi were ruled separately under two different Tutsi monarchs. Both the Germans and Belgians turned the relationship of the two ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu, into a class system which favored the minority Tutsis over the Hutus. The Belgians issued ethnic identity cards in 1926, causing a deepening of prejudice between the two peoples. The dissension between the Hutus and the Tutsis was essentially a class struggle, and not a tribal conflict,1 as is often believed. The Tutsis ruled Rwanda in the early part of the century and were considered the upper class. The Hutus, as part of the lower class, were the object of discrimination, eventually leading them to rebel against the Belgian colonial power in 1959, forcing 150,000 Tutsis to flee to Burundi. In 1960, the Hutus won municipal elections, causing thousands more Tutsis to flee.
When Belgium withdrew in 1962, Rwanda and Burundi became two independent countries. The Hutus continued to attack the Tutsis through the 1960s, killing thousands, triggering retaliation by the Tutsis. Discrimination and struggles between these two classes persisted through the 1990s, as the Tutsis were being excluded from public service and military jobs.
The White Fathers, an international Missionary Society of priests and brothers, arrived in the late 1800s amid all this tension. In 1900, they built (of thatch) the first Catholic Church—The Church of the Holy Spirit of Save. In 1905, they reconstructed it with brick. The White Fathers were successful in their evangelization efforts, generating a fervent, faith-filled people and abundant vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The Bible was translated into the national language of Kinyarwanda, and nine dioceses were created. Catholic Religious orders and the diocesan clergy opened schools, universities and banks. Rwanda became one of the African countries with the highest percentage of Catholics.
Looking down upon all this contention in a country of unparalleled beauty, rife with poverty and tension, heaven breathed forth a message of love and warning. Kibeho, a small mountain village in southern Rwanda, is also the name of a parish founded in 1934, dedicated to “Mary Mother of God.” This parish was well known for its strong Catholic faith and gave a large number of priests and consecrated persons to the Church of Rwanda.
Sixteen-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke was privileged to attend Kibeho High school, an opportunity many poor Rwandan girls did not have. Her single mother was very poor and was not able to provide further education for her after grade school and had always planned that Alphonsine would help her in the fields thereafter. However, as Divine Providence would arrange it, a space had unexpectedly opened up in a government-run all-girl school staffed by religious sisters. Learning of the opportunity, Alphonsine’s parish priest intervened, and she was accepted into the school. Though the school was very poor and had no running water or electricity; Alphonsine was, nevertheless, grateful to be there. She had always attended Mass on Sundays and had a special devotion to Our Lady.
On November 28, 1981, an event happened that would forever change the life of Alphonsine and affect the lives of millions. She had just finished a geography test and was filled with inexplicable emotions: confusion, joy, dread and fear. Calming down a little, she went into the dining hall to serve. As she was filling water glasses, the same apprehension mixed with bliss arose. Then she heard a voice calling her. She went into the hall where she was being drawn; her skin tingled, and her hand trembled.2 A soft, sweet voice called out: “My daughter.” Again the voice was heard: “My daughter.”
“Then, to Alphonsine’s amazement, the most lovely woman she had ever beheld emerged from the cloud, floating between the floor and ceiling in a pool of shimmering light. She wore a flowing, seamless, white dress with a white veil that covered her hair. Her hands were clasped in front of her in a gesture of prayer, her slender fingers pointing toward heaven.”3 The barefoot Lady was so beautiful and had such a perfect complexion that Alphonsine couldn’t determine the color of her skin. Alphonsine fell to her knees and asked the Lady who she was. She responded: “I am the Mother of the Word.”
Our Lady floated toward her without touching the ground. She asked Alphonsine, “Of all things in heaven, what makes you happy?”4 Alphonsine replied that she loved God and His Mother and that they made her happy. Our Lady was pleased with her answer, telling her that she desired her schoolmates to have her same strong faith. Our Lady poured out, as it were, so much love upon Alphonsine that she felt she would be lifted to heaven. The Blessed Mother then asked her to join the Legion of Mary. She told the girl that she wanted to be loved by people everywhere so that she could bring lost souls to her Son Jesus. Then she slowly drifted upwards and disappeared into the cloud’s fading light.
As soon as she disappeared, Alphonsine collapsed on the floor and lay motionless for ten minutes. When she awoke from her stupor, she saw her classmates staring at her; when they all excitedly questioned her, she started to cry because she realized that Our Lady had departed. When she told them that she had seen the Blessed Virgin, they started to laugh at her and mock her as they all crowded around her. One of the schoolteachers, Sr. Blandine, pushed her way through the unbelieving crowd and brought Alphonsine to the school director and to the nurse. The director asked her to apologize to the whole school for her lies, but Alphonse couldn’t deny that she had seen the Mother of the Word. She was sent to the nurse, who in turn sent her to her room to rest. Some supposed that she was mentally ill; others, that she was just trying to attract attention; yet others said that she had been possessed by demons in her jungle home before her arrival at the school.
The next day, one of the students, Marie-Claire, led a group of fellow students in a confrontation with Alphonsine. As they began their attack, Alphonsine suddenly fell to the ground and stared at the ceiling in the same way she had done on the previous day. The change was so instantaneous that some of the girls were confused and made the sign of the Cross. Marie-Claire, the leading antagonist, glared at her in total disgust and disbelief. The others continued their verbal attack, laughing and waving their hands in front of her; but she was oblivious to her surroundings.
When Alphonsine awoke, she was overwhelmed by the love she felt. Even though this apparition was shorter, it took her longer to regain full consciousness. She explained that our heavenly Mother loved her children so very much—far more than their own mothers—and that she wanted the girls to think of her as a Mother who really did love them. The Blessed Mother wanted Alphonsine to be like a little child to her: “Play with me! I love children who will play with me, because it shows me their love and trust.”5
These two visions of Alphonsine were but the beginning of many more. And they were causing increasing furor. Marie-Claire’s confrontations and outright hecklings intensified; she had the effrontery to “test” Alphonsine during the apparitions—pulling her hair, twisting her fingers, pinching her, screaming in her ears, shining a flashlight in her eyes—but the seer never flinched.
The scholastic body was increasingly upset over all the commotion, but they could not prevent the news from spreading to the nearby villages. Soon, the local faithful began to gather at the school grounds, hoping to hear the messages and to see the visionary. Some of the students began to believe her, and they asked Alphonsine many questions about Our Lady: “What did she say?” “What did she look like?” “When will she come again?” Our Lady always told Alphonsine when her next visit would be. What Alphonsine did not tell them was that she was receiving messages for government officials, even the Hutu president. Heaven had directed her to tell the officials to pray, to forgive, and to stop persecuting the Tutsis and sending them into exile. She couldn’t imagine how she could bring that message to the president! She was just a simple schoolgirl with no transportation.
A Second Visionary
Increasingly distressed by the unrelenting attacks, Alphonsine begged Our Lady to appear to other girls in order that they would believe her. Holy Mary answered her prayers. On January 12, 1982, she appeared to Anathalie Mukamazimpaka, another devout seventeen-year-old student. Anathalie was on her way to the chapel to pray when, like Alphonsine, she was overcome with confusion, joy, fear and dizziness. Returning to her room, she started to pray the Rosary with a few of her friends. Then she saw a light in the distance. She found herself standing in a vast meadow filled with a variety of colorful flowers and hovering red bubbles that dissolved into mist. A bright, white, light-filled orb descended, and she heard a very sad woman’s voice that brought her to tears. The voice told her she was sad because no one was listening to her, causing Anathalie to cry even more.
Though Anathalie couldn’t see anyone, she was confident that it was the Blessed Mother who was speaking to her: “My child, you must pray, for the world is in a horrible way; people have turned from God and the love of my Son, Jesus.”6 Our Lady then asked Anathalie if she would help save souls, adding that she would suffer much if she accepted the mission. Anathalie agreed whole-heartedly to this request—a task she continues to this day. “No one goes to heaven without suffering,” Our Lady told her, “and as a child of Mary, you may never put down the cross you bear.”7 Then, holding her rosary, the student knelt and received a blessing from the Virgin Mary before she departed. When Anathalie awoke, she was surrounded by friends and a few nuns who informed her that she had been in the same kind of trance Alphonsine had experienced. However, when Anathalie told them she spoke with Our Lady, they believed her.
On another occasion, the Blessed Mother told Anathalie, “When I show myself to someone and talk to them, I want to turn to the whole world. If I am turning to the parish of Kibeho, it does not mean that I am concerned only for Kibeho, or for the Diocese of Butare, or for Rwanda, or for the whole of Africa. I am concerned with and turning to the whole world. The world is evil and rushes towards its ruin. It is about to fall in its abyss. The world is in rebellion against God. Many sins are being committed. There is no love and no peace. If you do not repent and convert your hearts, you will all fall into an abyss.”8
A New Visionary
It was not long before most of the girls believed in the apparitions, but the school authorities wondered if the devil was the instigator of all these mysterious events. Marie-Claire became increasingly agitated in the matter and began spying on the seers more closely, peeking at their letters and diaries and inventing nastier tactics to unmask the “connivers.” She was sure that the devil was involved, and she was determined to uncover the conspiracy. She went so far as to inform the local bishop, who told her that he was already aware of the events.
Then, on March 1, 1982, Marie-Claire fainted while walking in the gardens. When she regained consciousness, she found herself in a dark place that repulsed her. When she awoke from the nightmare, she found two friends supporting her, questioning her and advising her to return to the dormitory. Unable to answer her friends’ questions, the distraught Marie-Claire began to pen a letter to her mother asking permission to come home. But before she could finish the letter, she fainted again and was back in the gloom. Out of the darkness emerged two ominous figures, warning her that they would return with others. When she awoke she found herself on the floor in the chapel. In spite of this, she maintained that Alphonsine and Anathalie were the source of the trouble.
The next day—March 2—as the class processed into chapel, Marie-Claire again lost consciousness. When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a most beautiful place—a grassy plain filled with sparkling droplets of color. She then heard a gentle voice sweetly inviting her not to be afraid. All her doubts vanished, as she understood that she was speaking with the Mother of God. Our Lady made her aware of her wrongful persecution of the other two seers. When she awoke, she once again found herself on the floor of the school chapel. Thirty astounded students had witnessed Marie-Clare in ecstasy.
Marie-Claire was completely changed. Now she was constantly praying and tearfully asking forgiveness of the Virgin for her previous misdeeds. Under the guiding hand of Our Lady, her feisty, rude behavior ceased. During one of Marie-Claire’s visions, Our Lady told her that she had come to Rwanda because she was still able to find humble souls who were not attached to wealth. “Pray my Seven Sorrows rosary to find repentance,” she said, charging Marie-Claire with the distinctive mission of propagating this chaplet.9
Vision: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory
In 1982, Our Lady conducted Alphonsine and Anathalie on separate journeys to heaven, hell and purgatory. Before she led Alphonsine to the other world, she warned her that she would appear to be dead and that others would want to bury her. A few days later, Alphonsine did not appear for dinner. When one of the nuns went to check on her, she found Alphonsine quite motionless on the bed, like a corpse. Many others soon arrived: the school nurse to take her vitals and assess her medical condition; a Red Cross Official to conduct tests; a member of the Commission of Enquiry to note the facts; Abbot Augustin Misago, the spiritual guide (later the Bishop of Gikongoro, who would officially make a declaration in favor of the authenticity of the apparitions); and two seminarians, along with the entire school staff. She was completely unresponsive and even too heavy to be moved by four men. The group concluded that she was truly with Our Lady on some mysterious expedition; they had no choice but to wait. Eighteen hours later, they were astonished to behold a suddenly wide-awake Alphonsine, smiling and serene. She recounted to her eager listeners her experience of a dark “place of despair” and another place full of laughter and joyous voices ringing praises to God.
Anathalie was likewise escorted on supernatural tours. She was taken to a land of light—a “place of communion”—where she saw seven angels singing indescribably beautiful hymns in praise of God. She was then led to the “place of the cherished of God,” where she saw millions of people with white garments who were happy, but not with the same degree of rapture as the seven angels. They next traveled to “Isesengurwa”—a place of purification where the light was dim—the inhabitants of which were at peace but also suffering. The last place, hell, was a most fearsome hot furnace where the only light was a shade of red that reminded Anathalie of “congealed blood.” Anathalie had to avert her gaze from the horrific scene of anguish and misery. When she awoke, she had to be carried to her bed, where she remained for two days without saying a word: Our Lady had instructed her to spend that time in silence, meditating on what she had witnessed.
Perhaps the most significant vision occurred on August 15, 1982, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By that time, news of the apparitions had already spread far and wide. In eager anticipation, thousands of pilgrims descended upon Kibeho for the occasion of the Solemnity, many looking for miracles, cures for themselves or for family members, answers to prayers or spiritual healings.
Entering into ecstasy, Alphonsine began to sing her accustomed song of welcome to Our Lady, but she stopped abruptly. Six times more she began the song, but Our Lady interrupted her every time. Alphonsine was struck by the deeply sorrowful countenance of Our Lady. The Virgin was silent for some minutes, and then she began to weep. When Alphonsine asked why she was crying, Our Lady shed even more copious tears.
Our Lady told her to sing a song that was to portend the seriousness of this particular apparition. Alphonsine began the song as directed: People are not grateful, / They don’t love me, / I came from heaven for nothing, / I left all the good things there for nothing. / My heart is full of sadness, / My child, show me the love, / You love me, / Come closer to my heart.10 The Heavenly Mother had come to ask for repentance, fasting, penance, prayer; and her children were not responding.
Suddenly the crowd heard Alphonsine’s frightfully piercing screams. She was shown a river of blood, of decapitated heads, of corpses piled high upon each other, of untold destruction, torture, and hatred. “So much blood!” The horror continued to unfold before her tear-filled eyes as she saw a million headless bodies piled up in a vast land, and not a single living person to help bury the dead. As Alphonsine recounted the graphic vision, horrified parents left the scene, fearing that further descriptive words from the seer would traumatize their children. At the conclusion of the vision, the seer sang a song to Jesus, pleading for His mercy. The other two visionaries, Anathalie and Marie-Claire, experienced the same dreadful vision on this day: mass murder, the river of blood, piles of corpses. They reported seeing a tree on fire, an open chasm and a “monster”. The visions lasted for hours. The seers all wept and begged the people to listen to Our Lady’s plea: they had to love and forgive one another, turn in prayer to God, who is more powerful than all evil.
In April 1982, two commissions were authorized to investigate the events. On August 15, 1988 the local Bishop approved public devotion to Our Lady of Kibeho. More study was yet required before official approval, but pilgrims were now permitted to visit and pray at the apparition site. The authentic conversions of the seers proved that the Good Mother had come to reinforce the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bishop had personally witnessed an increase in Sunday and daily Mass attendance throughout the country, and more of the faithful were returning to the Sacrament of Confession. The unmistakable spiritual renewal was also manifested in a deepening of Marian devotion, numerous conversions and an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
The Visit of Pope John Paul II
During his visit to Rwanda in 1990, Pope John Paul II begged his listeners to heed the Virgin’s pleas and pray fervently for peace among political and ethnic factions: “On this feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which marks the dawn of salvation to the world, I ask the Mother of all of us to watch over her children in Rwanda and particularly you, the leaders of the country, to place your talents at the service of all your compatriots.”11
Our Lady had pleaded, but the Rwandans did not listen. In April 1994, President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down. Extremist Hutus blamed it on the Tutsis. Within one hour of the president’s death, a bloody massacre unfolded which was to prove the accuracy of the prophetic visions. The executions spread like wildfire throughout the country. It is estimated that, in just three months, almost one million were killed as the extremist Hutus targeted the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Militias set up roadblocks to slaughter the Tutsis, many with machetes. Neighbors killed neighbors; Hutu husbands were forced to kill Tutsi wives. The “river of blood” seen by the visionaries materialized, as the Kagera River was “used to dispose of corpses as thousands of Tutsis and Hutu political moderates were murdered on the river banks. The river carried the massacred bodies into Lake Victoria, creating a serious health hazard in Uganda.”12 The New York Times claimed that as many as 100 bodies per hour were being washed ashore in Uganda or onto the Islands in Lake Victoria. “Bodies lay crumpled, some hardly visible among the piles of burlap sacks, cooking pots and clothes: a mother whose child was still tied to her back, a young boy thrown over the torso of a man, another curled up in between the ashes of cooking fires. And everywhere there was blood, flies.”13
Finally, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), comprised mostly of Tutsi refugees from Uganda and refugees from Burundi, battled its way through the government-led conflict and slowly gained ground. While the morale of the government deteriorated, the RPF concentrated its fight on Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. They conquered the government forces on July 4, 1994, a date now commemorated as a public holiday.
On June 29, 2001, Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro, Rwanda, wrote a declaration of approval in favor of the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho. When His Excellency was still an abbot, he was providentially selected as a spiritual guide in the early stages of the apparitions. In the 23-page document, the Bishop’s reasons were thoughtfully and systematically penned. He summarized the main points of the message: Our Lady appealed to the world to “repent, repent, repent!” and “convert while there is still time.” She warned the world that if it did not repent, it would fall into the abyss. The sins of her children caused the heavenly Mother such deep sorrow that she cried bitterly as she pleaded for her children to pray and to love one another. She asked the seers to promote and pray the Chaplet of Seven Sorrows of Our Lady. She told Anathalie on May 15, 1982, “A child of Mary does not reject suffering.” Like the children of Fatima, the Kibeho seers were asked to accept suffering and mortifications for the salvation of souls. Our Lady exhorted them to pray always and to teach others to pray with greater zeal and purity of heart.
Bishop Misago affirmed that the message of Kibeho had produced flourishing prayer groups, where the Rosary and the Seven Sorrows were being prayed. Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was established after the genocide; and thousands of pilgrims, increasing in numbers year by year, were visiting the Shrine. The personal transformation of the seers (who passed all the criteria established by the Church), as well as many documents and investigations, were carefully examined. The phenomena of the spiritual journeys of Anathalie and Alphonsine remained inexplicable from a human standpoint. Weighing heavily in favor of approval was the verification of the August 15, 1982, prophetic vision of the mass slaughter.
The Bishop ordered that a chapel be built in honor of Our Lady of Kibeho; the Shrine was to be called the “Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows.” He laid the foundation stone on November 28, 1992, and asked that the Rosary and the Seven Sorrows devotions become an integral part of the spiritual practices of the Shrine. He prayed that it would be a holy place of prayer, conversion, and reparation for the world. The completed chapel was dedicated on May 31, 2003; and on November 28, 2003, the statue of Our Lady of Kibeho was blessed. Improvements to the Shrine continue: electricity was added, a small campsite with facilities constructed, the sacristy furnished, and a pathway for processions established.
Pope Francis Remembers Our Lady of Kibeho
On April 3, 2014, Pope Francis referred to Our Lady of Kibeho when addressing the bishops of Rwanda:
Dear brothers, I want to assure you again of my closeness to you, and to your Diocesan communities, to the entire nation of Rwanda, and I entrust you all to the maternal protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Mother of Jesus wished to manifest herself in your country to some children, reminding them of the effectiveness of fasting and prayer, especially the prayer of the Rosary. I do wish that you may make the Sanctuary of Kibeho radiate even more of that love of Mary for all her children, especially for the poorest and the most vulnerable. May it be a call for the Church of Rwanda, and beyond, to turn with confidence to Our Lady of Sorrows. May she accompany each one in his journey and obtain for him the gift of reconciliation and peace.
The fruits of the apparition are beginning to be realized in the land that witnessed so much destruction, as people turn to their Heavenly Mother. They come to the Shrine from all lands asking for forgiveness, for love, for healing and for strength to cope with the hardships of life. Our Lady promised that millions would come to the Shrine to seek her help, and that they would be blessed and strengthened. As work continues on the Shrine, so may Our Lady work in the hearts of all her children so that she may bring them to her Son, Jesus:
Holy Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, teach us to understand the value of the cross in our lives, so that whatever is still lacking to the sufferings of Christ we may fill up in our own bodies for His mystical Body, which is the Church. And, when our pilgrimage on this earth comes to an end, may we live eternally with you in the kingdom of Heaven. Amen.
— Bishop Augustin Misago
Divine Providence had special designs for the three seers:
In June 2003, Alphonsine entered the monastery of the Poor Clares in Abidjan. She received the habit on July 26, 2004, and made her first profession on July 15, 2006. Her religious name is Alphonsine of the Glorious Cross.
Anathalie remains at the Shrine, fulfilling the promise she made to Our Lady, praying and offering her suffering for souls. She promotes the message of Our Lady of Kibeho and helps the pilgrims in any way she can.
After graduation, Marie-Claire spent years spreading devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady. She married in 1987 and obtained a teaching position. She was killed in the 1994 genocide along with her husband.
1 The Tutsis and Hutus are not “tribes” – they belong to the same Banyarwanda nationality. They share the same language, religions and kinship and clan systems. http://libcom.org/history/articles/Rwanda-burundi-history
2 Our Lady of Kibeho, Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin, 2009, 4th ed, Hay House, Inc., p. 35.
5 ibid., p. 40
6 ibid., p. 49.
9 The Blessed Virgin once told St. Bridget that very few contemplated her sorrows: “I look around at all who are on earth, to see if by chance there are any who pity me, and meditate upon my Sorrows; and I find that there are very few. Therefore, my daughter, though I am forgotten by many, at least do you not forget me; consider my anguish, and imitate, as far as you can, my grief.” (The Glories of Mary, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, p. 478). Our Lady promised special graces to those who meditate on her sorrows.
10 Our Lady of Kibeho, Immaculée Ilibagiza, Hay House Inc., pg 147.