Sister Janice McLaughlin, an American nun who was imprisoned by the white minority government in war-torn Rhodesia for exposing atrocities against its Black citizens, then returned to help the new country of Zimbabwe establish an educational system, died on March 7 in the motherhouse of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, near Ossining, N.Y. She was 79.
Her religious order, of which she was president for a time, announced her death. It did not provide a cause.
Sister McLaughlin spent nearly 40 years ministering in Africa. She lived much of that time in Zimbabwe, starting in 1977, when the country was still known as Rhodesia.
She arrived in the midst of a seven-year struggle by Black nationalists to overthrow the white minority apartheid-style regime headed by Prime Minister Ian Smith, a fierce opponent of Black majority rule.
As the press secretary for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, a group of laymen and clergy that opposed the government, Sister McLaughlin helped expose human rights abuses across the country. These included the systematic torture of Black people in rural areas and the shooting of innocent civilians, including clergy. She also wrote about the forced resettlement of nearly 600,000 Black citizens, who had been held in heavily guarded camps in overcrowded conditions lacking proper sanitation and food.
Just three months after her arrival, she was charged with being a terrorist sympathizer and locked in solitary confinement for 18 days. She faced a penalty of seven years in prison, but the United States interceded, and she was instead deported.
Her writings had been published in obscure journals, but her imprisonment drew widespread attention; the Vatican, the United Nations and the State Department spoke out on her behalf. On the day she was thrown out of the country and walked across the tarmac to the plane that would take her out of Rhodesia, a group of about 50 Black and white Rhodesians, many of them priests and nuns, gathered at the airport, cheered her on and sang the Black nationalist anthem, “God Bless Africa.”
On the flight out, Sister McLaughlin told The New York Times that she was not a Marxist, as the Smith regime had alleged, but that she did support the guerrillas.
“I think it’s come to the point where it’s impossible to bring about change without the war,” she said, “and I support change.”
She went back to Africa two years later, working from the forests of Mozambique, where she was able to help refugees and exiles from the war in Rhodesia.
After Rhodesia’s white leaders ceded power to Black Zimbabweans in 1980, Sister McLaughlin returned to Harare, the capital, where she joined in celebrating the installation of Robert Mugabe as the new president. Before he would plunge the once-wealthy nation into chaos, corruption and economic ruin, he asked for her help in rebuilding the educational system, and she readily agreed. Among other things, she established nine schools for former refugees and war veterans.
When she died, she was eulogized by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor.
“She chose,” he said in a statement, “to leave an otherwise quiet life of an American nun to join rough and dangerous camp life in the jungles of Mozambique, where she worked with refugees in our education department.”
Her presence, he added, “helped give the liberation struggle an enhanced international voice and reach.”
Janice McLaughlin was born on Feb. 13, 1942, in Pittsburgh to Paul and Mary (Schaub) McLaughlin and grew up there. She graduated from high school in 1960 and attended St. Mary of the Springs College in Columbus, Ohio, for a year, then entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation in Maryknoll, N.Y., near the Hudson River village of Ossining, north of New York City.
The order, founded in 1912, was the first American congregation of Catholic nuns dedicated to overseas missions.
“We were trained to be independent, to take initiative, to respect local cultures, local religions,” Sister McLaughlin told The Times in 2013. “We try to live simply with the people. As Mother Mary Joseph said to us, ‘If anybody’s going to change, it’s going to be us.’”
She worked in the Maryknoll Sisters communications office from 1964 to 1968 and organized a “war against poverty” program in Ossining. Moving to Milwaukee, she earned her bachelor’s degree in theology, anthropology and sociology from Marquette University in 1969.
Then came her dream assignment — to work in Kenya, where she ran courses in journalism for church-sponsored programs. At the same time, she studied the anticolonial struggles going on across the continent.
Much of her work in Rhodesia consisted of documenting massacres. When her office was raided by the government, two colleagues who had also been arrested were released on bail, but she was held as a dangerous communist subversive. “If I had Black skin,” she had written in her diary, “I would join ‘the boys,’” using the common term for the Black freedom fighters. She believed in the redistribution of wealth to redress past injustices.
Returning to Zimbabwe, she earned a master’s degree and doctorate in religious studies from the University of Zimbabwe in 1992. She wrote her dissertation on the role of rural Catholic missions in the fight for freedom, and it became a book, “On the Frontline: Catholic Missions in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War.”
She was elected president of Maryknoll in 2009 and went back to New York, where she wrote another book, “Ostriches, Dung Beetles and Other Spiritual Masters: A Book of Wisdom from the Wild” (2009), about what she had learned from the animal kingdom. She served one six-year term, then returned to Zimbabwe in 2015, devoting herself to combating human trafficking, environmental destruction and H.I.V./AIDS. She left Africa for the last time in 2020.
Among those paying her tribute was the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, which told The Associated Press that it would urge President Mnangagwa to declare her a “national heroine.”
As the group told The A.P.: “She wholeheartedly embraced our armed struggle at a time it was unimaginable for an American white woman to break ranks with the establishment in Washington.”
Sister McLaughlin had looked back on her time in prison as the most important “retreat” of her life.
“I felt part of something bigger than myself,” she said, according to a recent remembrance by Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, an imprint of the Maryknoll Order.
“I was suffering for a cause, and the pain and fear no longer mattered,” she added. “I was not alone. I was with the oppressed people, and God was there with us in our prison cells.”