By Fr David Harold Barry SJ

Alice left us on Christmas day. She had been ill for some months and had alerted me when she found herself in Belvedere Hospital where I visited her on 15 October. She was cheerful but told me her condition was serious. She was peaceful and ready for whatever would happen. She did not want an operation as she knew it would not help and would drain the family finances. I visited her at home on the 27th with Chipo Chagweda and anointed her and gave her Holy Communion. She was deeply grateful and I felt there was some sort of finality in my visit. Again I sensed a spirit of readiness on her part for her last journey. But it was hard for her family and she knew it and perhaps held on so as to help them come gradually to accept what would happen.

I was able to celebrate the Eucharist at her home the day after she died as I had to leave the next morning for a planned trip. Shine, David, Fadzi and many relatives and friends including members of l’Arche were there and Joseph was in attendance from Canada. I tried, in a rather hurried way as it was getting late, to speak of her life and mission.

I met her around 1980 when, as a young applicant to the LCBL sisters’ community, she was searching for her vocation in life. She was not sure being a sister was what she was called to and my task was to accompany her in her search. I was involved at the time in the founding of Faith and Light and l’Arche and I felt her being involved might help her reach clarity about her life. She threw herself into both movements with generosity and imagination and spent time in the l’Arche community in Lambeth in the UK. She immediately understood what l’Arche was all about.

At the same time it became clear to her that being a sister was not what she was called to and she left the sisters and trained as teacher. She rose rapidly in the service becoming a head teacher in Musami and eventually held a senior post in the Ministry. Meanwhile she met Shine and I had the joy of celebrating their wedding in 1991 or thereabouts. The arrival of her three children gave her immense joy and she seemed set for a wonderful married and professional life.

But she did not forget l’Arche and when we eventually established a community in 1997, she followed our progress with interest. We had a crisis in 2002 when our first director, Colletta Dalikeni, had to leave as her husband was going abroad, and Alice came to hear of it. She must have thought long and hard – the job would mean a substantial drop in salary – but eventually applied. The Board held interviews and chose her.

She immediately brought her own blend of infectious confidence, initiative and humour to the task. At one point, members of the City Council, threatening all sorts of sanctions because of some supposed unpaid bill, visited the house demanding to see the owner. Alice introduced them to Moses then aged about eight who had severe mental and physical disabilities. He was, she said, the owner but he did not even deign to look at them! They decided to leave their mission unaccomplished. Alice’s ability to face all sorts of crises with humour astonished and inspired us. She was also a hard-headed planner and got things done sometimes crossing the boundary line of prudence. She went ahead with the purchase of the second house at a time when those who were responsible for the final decision were hesitating. She made other decisions too, some more successful than others, and gradually put the community on a solid basis so that it was able to weather storms that arose in the second decade of the present century.

It would give a false picture to say everything she did turned out well. Some of her decisions were ill-advised and there were members of the board and assistants in the community who differed with her. But her heart was always solidly founded in the community and the welfare of the assistants and the core members. So much was she appreciated that when the l’Arche International was looking for and international co-ordinator, or ‘envoy’ as they called her, in 2012, their choice fell on Alice.
She began to travel widely and to reflect a great deal about what it means to be l’Arche in Africa. She struggled to express her conclusions and I, for one, never quite understood what she really wanted in practice though I knew she was passionate in wanting a l’Arche ‘brewed in an African pot’.

Her parting with l’Arche came in December 2016 and it was a painful moment based, as far as I could see, on misunderstandings on every side, including mine. During the past four years she has been quietly, courageously and prayerfully coming to terms with a situation which was very unfortunate and the last way in which we would have wanted her to leave l’Arche. It is hard to understand what exactly went wrong but I have known other long-term assistants at l’Arche whose parting was also in some ways unhappy. They, like her, also came to terms with their situation and moved, through forgiveness, into a new space. ‘Fragility’ is a word we often associate with l’Arche and perhaps it is not only the core members but the assistants and maybe the whole federation which experiences it.

Alice worked through it all: the joys and sorrows, the hopes and griefs of a human community. She died in peace and, together with many people, I rejoice that I knew her and will always be grateful that she animated the growth and the confidence that the community now enjoys.

May she now rejoice with God in the eternal community on which her eyes were always focused.