13-year-old finds life-long mission

Julie Filby

A girl in Fort Collins who felt she had everything in life was inspired by a newborn baby in Ghana who didn’t have a chance for much of a life at all.

Precious was born eight months ago with a severely deformed hand and foot. She is what’s known as a “spirit child” in her village—a child believed to be possessed by evil spirits because he or she is born with a physical anomaly or as a twin. Spirit children are rejected by their parents, then abandoned or killed.

Sister Stan Terese Mario Mumuni, called simply “Sister Stan,” a Ghanaian national who has worked as a missionary in West Africa for nearly 20 years with the Marian Sisters of Eucharistic Love, dreamed of establishing an orphanage to care for spirit children in Northern Ghana. While fundraising in Fort Collins in 2008 she met an unlikely partner for her venture: then 8-year-old Whitney Buckendorf. Their first meeting was the beginning of a fast friendship.

“I always loved nuns,” Buckendorf, now 13, told the Denver Catholic Register Feb. 18 following her day at St. Joseph School where she is a seventh-grader. “And I was the only kid at the fundraiser. … Sister Stan loves kids, so we talked all evening long.”

Fast forward to last July when Sister Stan returned to Fort Collins for a month-long visit. After several visits to Colorado since ‘08, the Buckendorf family—mom AnnTheresa, dad Larry and brothers Jacob and Derrick—had grown close to Sister Stan; and Whitney in particular.

“She told me all about the orphans: their names, ages, what was wrong with them,” Buckendorf said. “I memorized them all.”

At that point, Sister Stan had started Nazareth’s Home for God’s Children in a rundown house in the village of Sang. To date, she has rescued 50 children, most with disabilities: seven have died from complications and 43 remain in her care.

While in Fort Collins last summer Sister Stan told Whitney the orphanage had children that needed surgeries that couldn’t be done in Ghana, most urgently Precious, born with Amneotic Band Syndrome. She charged Whitney with finding a Colorado hospital to provide the complex surgery pro-bono.

“I was 12 years old,” Buckendorf said. “I thought she was crazy: how am I going to find a hospital to do surgery?”

But that didn’t stop her from getting on the phone. From August through November, she made call after call until at last she connected with the right person: Joan Bothner, M.D., chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.

“I had two orthopedic doctors that had agreed to do the surgery,” Whitney said of surgeons Francis Scott, M.D., and Travis Heare, M.D. “But she was the one that needed to approve that the hospital would pay for it.”

All it took was a photo: one look at Precious and Bothner agreed.

“It only took a week after I got in touch with her,” Whitney said, “after four months of calling.”

Surgery was scheduled for Jan. 22. For four years, Whitney had been raising money for the orphanage by selling baskets and bracelets and through a letter-writing appeal. Classmates at St. Joseph’s also supported her. With the help of art teacher Joan Kinney they made and sold clay pendants raising $900. Family and friends donated $9,500; enough for airfare for Precious and Sister Stan who arrived in Colorado Jan. 12.

During surgery, Precious’ severely deformed left hand that had grown to nearly the size of her head, Whitney said, had to be amputated. A portion of her foot was removed; however, surgery revealed that her heel was in good condition. She should eventually be able to walk with or without prosthesis.

Precious has been released from the hospital and is living with the Buckendorfs until next summer when Sister Stan will return to take her back to Ghana.

“She brings a lot of joy to our house!” Whitney said of her foster sister. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Whitney has no intention of stopping until she has helped more of those she considers her brothers and sisters in Ghana in need of surgeries: 5-year-old Angela whose hips never formed, 4-year-old Godknows who suffers from severe migraines, and 1-year-old Abraham and 8-year-old Nicholas, both born with hydrocephalus.

“This is never going to end,” she said. “Sister gets 10 to 15 kids a year; as more children come, there are more needs to be met.”

Construction on the new orphanage which began December 2012 is expected to be finished this summer. Whitney hopes to travel to Ghana to visit.

“If I’m able to convince a hospital to do a $300,000 surgery, I hope to find a way to convince my dad we can go to Ghana,” she quipped. “He’s thinking 2015.”

For now, she will continue to serve her family in Ghana from here in Colorado.

“I have everything I need: a family, a home … that has always kind of bugged me,” she said. “Since first grade I’ve wanted to be a nun and ‘give it all away’… it’s something I feel in my heart.”

For more information visit http://sisterstanschildren.org or like them on Facebook.

COMING UP: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.