Maud Kells: The woman who took a bullet for the Lord
Cookstown woman Maud Kells was working a missionary in war-torn Congo when she was shot and seriously injured trying to disarm a robber, but it hasn't shaken her faith, she tells Laurence White.
At a tiny airstrip in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo a group of 19 missionaries, including four children, anxiously scanned the skies for the aeroplane that would take them to safety. Among the group who had been attending a conference at Isiro, 70 kilometres away, when Rwandan and Ugandan forces had invaded the country was Cookstown woman Maud Kells.
The borders were sealed and their only possible means of escape was by air. Kenyan pilots had promised to come for them but they were late.
Maud recalls: "We had been told to lay white sheets on the airstrip so that the pilots would know it was safe to land but rebel supporters had removed them.
"Suddenly we heard the sound of two planes approaching. I was wearing a white anorak and one missionary grabbed it from me and threw it on the ground. It was the signal the pilots were waiting for and they landed.
"It took only seven minutes for all of us to get on board the planes and take off to safety. It was only later that we were told that American spy satellites had spotted rebel forces approaching the airstrip apparently intent on taking us prisoner and using us as hostages. They had told the pilots to get us out."
That was one of several times that Maud, now aged 75, was forced to leave the country where she had devoted her life to bringing aid to desperately poor people on behalf of Christian charity WEC International.
It was a narrow escape but she had an even closer brush with death just 10 weeks ago when she was confronted by two bandits at her home in Mulita in the north east of the vast country. She had been lured from her home by a bogus call to the maternity unit, which she had helped build and where she trained local nurses and midwives.
On her return to her home, two men wearing camouflage uniforms ran towards her. One was carrying a gun covered in leaves to disguise it. She thought it was a piece of wood and tried to disarm the robber.
"He fired a shot and the bullet went right through me. It just missed a major artery in my shoulder and passed centimetres from my lung. The exit wound was even closer to my spine. I am very lucky to be alive. I could have bled to death or been left paralysed," says Maud who is back home in Cookstown recovering from her ordeal.
As it was, Maud spent an anxious seven minutes calling for help after being shot. She collapsed in the doorway of her home but people were afraid to come to her aid after hearing the shot.
Eventually police were summoned - again a protracted exercise due to the lack of any telephone network - and Maud was airlifted to hospital for treatment.
Today her bullet wound and a fractured rib are healing.
"I believe the man above was looking out for me. I believe He was in complete control of the whole situation," she says.
"Many people have asked that if He really cared for me, why did he allow this ordeal to happen. I always reply with the story of Daniel in the lions' den. God put him in there to show that He had the power to stop the lions killing him. I believe that He preserved my life in the same way, even though I was shot."
To say that Maud is a woman of deep faith does not really do justice to her beliefs.
For she says that it was a sign from God which led her to do missionary work in the Congo since 1968.
She says: "I had trained as a nurse at the Belfast Children's Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast between 1957 and 1963. I was inspired to go into the profession by the aunt after whom I was named and who was also a nurse.
"While there, I became friendly with other Christian nurses and was influenced by the Nurses Christian Fellowship. After Belfast I trained as a midwife in Edinburgh.
"I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do after my training. One day I decided to fast and pray and ask God for a sign.
"I went up to my bedroom, closed the door and asked God to show me if He wanted me to be a missionary.
"I believed if He did I would get a sign.
"The next morning I received a letter containing information about the WEC International missionary training college in Glasgow.
"Apparently someone had noted my Christian outlook and had sent me the information anonymously."
That letter convinced her to begin her missionary training.
One of four sisters born in Cookstown - one of them died a few years ago in Canada - Maud admits that she did not come from a particularly religious family, but faith has guided her ever since.
"Every time before I set out for the Congo (she spends six months there and six months at home in Cookstown each year) I ask God for a sign that he wants me to continue His work and I always get it. That is why I keep going back."
But will she go back again? Contrary to some reports, she has not yet made a firm decision and will talk over the options with her family and friends.
War in the Congo has played a big part in determining her life's work. During a rebellion against the colonial Belgian authorities in 1964, several missionaries were martyred and WEC International later decided to send some new young missionaries to replace them. Maud was among them.
"I decided that God would keep me safe and after going to Belgium to learn French and do a tropical diseases course I set out for the Congo. It took two weeks to get there by boat," she says.
The country had a fine infrastructure, with roads well maintained by the owners of the coffee, tea, cotton and rubber plantations, who also gave employment to local people and sourced goods from them. There were banks and post offices and other essential services.
But war and a corrupt regime destroyed much of that and Maud found herself helping local people to build new facilities using brick-making equipment left behind by the Belgians.
Travel was difficult and mostly achieved through using tiny airstrips dotted around the country.
Because of the lack of banks Maud had to bring considerable amounts of money with her each time she visited the country - even up to the present day - and that, she believes was the motive for the attempted robbery at her home in January this year which nearly cost her her life.
She has tried to alleviate the grinding poverty endured by many of the local people by employing them to clear sites for facilities, making bricks and constructing buildings including a maternity unit, operating unit, surgical ward, primary school and an office block.
Maud has also helped train Congolese nurses and the charity funds potential doctors to go to university and medical school. "Some don't come back but those that do are a great help to the local population," she says.
The maternity unit near her home in Mulita handles about 30 deliveries a month. Before it was built many women died in childbirth. Some of those who use the unit walk 20-30 miles to reach it because of the lack of transport.
Maud, who received an OBE in the New Year's Honours list for her charitable work, is typically modest about what she has done: "My contribution is very small but it means a lot to the people I have been able to help. They really appreciate what we do. If it was not for us they would not have any help."
It is certainly a difficult environment to work in and Maud has contracted malaria, hepatitis ("thankfully not the most serious strain") and several tropical illnesses during her decades in the Congo.
She also broke her arm once while cycling to the hospital with cold drinks for a doctor in the operating theatre.
"I had an Alsatian dog with me and it decided to chase a goat, which ran right into my bicycle, throwing me off," she says.
Once, when working in Sudan - she again had to flee from war in the Congo - she broke her wrist. "I had brought footballs out from Ireland for the children. I was taking photographs of them kicking it about but they got so excited they didn't notice me and knocked me down."
But Maud keeps bouncing back and certainly her missionary zeal has not been dimmed, wherever it takes her in the future.
Our other notable missionaries
- Born in 1867 in Millisle, Amy Carmichael's missionary service took her to Japan and then India, where she devoted herself to rescuing children from the Hindu practice of temple prostitution. She died in 1951. Two special Blue Plaques from the Ulster History Circle were unveiled to her in 2006 and 2007
- In 2007, Belfast-born Passionist priest Father Kieran Creagh was shot and badly wounded during a robbery at the South African HIV/AIDS hospice he had helped set up. He recovered and continued his work
- East Belfast man Fred Orr travelled to Brazil in 1954, where he spent six decades living and working. The former shipyard worker went on to marry a Brazilian, with whom he had two children. He died in 2011, aged 86