MICHELE JURICH photo
Parishioners at St. Benedict’s in Oakland sent
“helping hands” — 273 pairs, each representing a gift
of at least $5 — to the 128 children who call Mother of Peace Orphanage
in Zimbabwe their home.
The “helping hands” cards filled a corner of the East Oakland church, representing gifts made during the visit of Mama Stella Cornneck, who with her sister runs the orphanage. This was Mama Stella’s first visit to Oakland; Mama Jean Cornneck has been a regular visitor, but her health prevented her from making the trip. On her final day in Oakland, Mama Stella and members of the Mother of Peace ministry at St. Benedict’s unpinned the cards from the wall so she could take them back to Zimbabwe with her.
“Fifty percent of our babies are dumped,” she said. Some, she said, had been left in the fields. “The only place they know is Mother of Peace.”
Their physical needs, as well as their spiritual needs are met there. “We have baptized them all,” she said.
Mama Jean Cornneck founded the orphanage in 1994; she was joined by her sister in 1996. Mama Stella Cornneck had spent 27 years in London, and had also spent time in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. Her ministry, she said, has always centered on “the down and outs.”
In the early days of the AIDS pandemic, she said, “there was a lot of stigma.” Before testing became widespread, if a social worker suspected the child had HIV, the child would be brought to Mother of Peace.
The orphanage’s Bay Area supporters include Allen Temple Baptist Church, St. Lawrence O’Toole Church, Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, New Spirit in Berkeley and Congregational Church of San Mateo United Church of Christ.
It was through the work of Dr. Robert Scott, an Oakland physician and member of Allen Temple, that St. Benedict’s was introduced to Our Mother of Peace Orphanage.
At an international conference on AIDS in South Africa in 2000, Scott heard of the orphanage’s work. When he visited, “it touched his heart,” said the Rev. Jay Matthews, pastor of St. Benedict Church.
Scott established a clinic at the orphanage and visited four times a year to distribute medication. He also brought Mama Jean Cornneck to Oakland in 2003. Her visit to St. Benedict’s was memorable.
“She touched the hearts of so many people,” Father Matthews recalled.
Among them was parishioner Betty Kennedy-Tapscott, who told her pastor, “We can’t let her go!”
So he told her: “Then you do it!” She gathered a committee to help the parish provide assistance to the orphanage, including once filling and sending a 53-foot container of medicine, clothing, school supplies, sports equipment and desks to the children.
They once sent black shoes, with the accompanying tag, “A gift for you.” When Kennedy-Tapscott went to visit, she was dubbed, “The Black Shoe Lady.”
In 2007, a small group, including Father Matthews and Kennedy-Tapscott, accompanied Scott to Mutoko, Zimbabwe.
“I’ve never had an experience like that, ever,” said Father Matthews.
“We arrived on a Saturday,” Father Matthews recalled. “Dr. Scott immediately went to work.” People from nearby areas had made their way to the orphanage, to camp out, waiting for their medical supplies. Father Matthews served as a pharmaceutical assistant as more than 400 patients were seen; given their three-month supply of antiretroviral medication.
On Sunday, Scott ministered to the children of the orphanage.
Father Matthews celebrated Mass for the children. “The little children grab you,” he said. “This is why we’re here.”
The parish is not letting go anytime soon. In addition to the monthly envelope designated for the orphanage, Leo Galloway has a plan.
“This is something we can continue,” Galloway said as he helped to unpin the “helping hands” from the church wall. “We’re going to be needing a table every Sunday.”
Galloway, a retired Army colonel, previewed his next appeal: “My St. Benedict’s family, we have a problem. The problem is these blank boards.”
He is suggesting a friendly competition among college graduates. Which college can raise the most money? Galloway was reserving prime space for graduates of Southern University, his alma mater.
The continuing help will be appreciated in Zimbabwe, where 17 years after its founding, the orphanage is preparing its graduates to go out into the world. “We try to give them a skill,” said Mama Stella Cornneck. A vocational program run by Percy and JoElla Julien, former parishioners at St. Pascal Baylon in Oakland, helps provide training in sewing. Metal workers, carpenters and farmers also develop their skills.
Although there are 130 little graves on the site, the orphanage has become a place more about living.
“We haven’t had a death in four years,” Mama Stella Cornneck said.
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