On the 17th of September 2006, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a Consolata Missionary Sister, was ambushed and shot by two gunmen in Somalia’s war torn capital of Mogadishu.
This dedicated Missionary Sister had spent about 30 years of her life in Africa. Born near Piacenza in Italy in 1940, Sister Sgorbati’s only desire since a teenager was to become a Missionary nun. At first her mother was opposed to this idea and told her to wait until she turned twenty. At twenty her resolution to become a nun was still strong, and so in 1963 she joined the Consolata Missionary Sisters. During the years 1966-68 she took a nursing course in England. After this she was appointed to Kenya, where she arrived in September 1970. In November 1972 she took her perpetual vows.
From 1970 to 1983 Sister Leonella served in the Consolata Hospital Mathari, Nyeri and Nazareth Hospital, on the outskirts of Nairobi. In 1983 Sister Leonella started advanced studies in nursing, and in 1985 she became the main tutor for the nursing school attached to the Nkubu Hospital Meru. In 1993 she was elected Regional Superior for the Consolata Missionary Sisters in Kenya, a post she held for six years. In 2001, Sister Leonella spent a few months in the Somali capital of Mogadishu looking into the prospect of opening a nursing school in the hospital run by the organization SOS Children’s Village.
In 2002 this project was realised and Sister Leonella was placed in charge of the nursing school, a position she held until her death in 2006. Her first students graduated in 2006, sometime before her death. Sister Leonella fought a long bureaucratic battle to obtain internationally recognized diplomas for her students; she succeeded and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued internationally recognized diplomas to her students.
Following this, Sister Leonella returned to Kenya with three of her students, whom she enrolled at the Medical Training College. Her aim was to have these three students form the nucleus of the future tutors at the school. Getting these students into Kenya, and sorting out the registration and financial difficulties in enrolling them into the college was another struggle, but as soon as Sister saw it through, she headed off to Uganda to scout for hospitals willing to train her other students in operating theatre work.
Sister Leonella had difficulty returning to Somalia due to the new laws imposed by the Islamic Courts Union running the region around Mogadishu at that time. However on the 13th of September, just days before her murder, she managed to re-enter Somalia.
On the fateful day of the 17th of September, Sister Leonella crossed the road that separates the hospital from the accommodation of the Consolata Sisters. Hiding behind vehicles and kiosks that are found along this road, two gunmen attacked the Sister. The first shot hit her in the thigh, her bodyguard, Mohamed Osman Mahamud, opened fire on the two gunmen. They fired back killing him and hitting Sister Leonella twice. One of these bullets entered her back and severed an artery causing a severe haemorrhage. Sister Leonella was rushed into the nearby hospital where she died shortly after. Her dying words were in Italian: “Perdono, perdono” “I forgive, I forgive”.
The then Holy Father, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a public address some days after Sister Leonella’s death, praised her for her Christian witness in pardoning her killers:
"Some are asked to give the supreme testimony of blood, just as … Sr. Leonella Sgorbati, who fell victim to violence…This sister, who for many years served the poor and the children in Somalia, died pronouncing the word 'forgive,'…This is the most authentic Christian testimony, a peaceful sign of contradiction which shows the victory of love over hatred and evil."
Sister Leonella Sgorbati’s cause for Beatification is in process; may she soon be raised to the Altars as a sign of humble and determined Missionary effort in the face of hatred and hostility to the Gospel. And may her prayers hasten the coming of peace and the growth of the Church in war torn Somalia and to the long suffering people of this land, whom this good Sister loved even unto death.
The closing paragraph is taken from the Consolata Missionary Sisters' website and is a beautiful testimony to the life of Sister Leonella:
“Sister Leonella was well aware of the danger surrounding her. As she used to say, she knew that there was a bullet with her name engraved on it just waiting for her in Mogadishu. But this never deterred her or discouraged her. She was certain that God wanted her in Somalia. For her, that was the will of God. So nothing could stop her in the mission undertaken, not even the knowledge that she could be killed any time. For this reason she dedicated herself completely, sparing no effort and truly turning every stone to accomplish the mission of setting up the school of nursing, to give hope and a future to a country ravaged by war. Her love for God and the Somali people was stronger than any fear, and she strongly believed in the people she was serving.”