Abducted American religious sister freed in Burkina Faso

Sister Suellen Tennyson, a member of the Congregation of the Marianites of Holy Cross, who was abducted in Burkina Faso April 4, 2022. Sister Suellen Tennyson, a member of the Congregation of the Marianites of Holy Cross, who was abducted in Burkina Faso April 4, 2022. | Diocese of Kaya.

An American religious sister ministering in Burkina Faso who was kidnapped in April is free and safe after nearly five months of captivity, according to her congregation and the local diocese. 

Suellen Tennyson, 83, a New Orleans native, has served at a missionary outpost in northern Burkina Faso since 2014. She was abducted by unidentified armed men on April 5 from the small home she shared with two other members of her congregation, the Marianites of Holy Cross. Reportedly abducted without shoes, she also left behind her glasses and blood pressure medication. 

Sister Ann Lacour, the current Marianite congregational leader, confirmed Aug. 30 that Tennyson is now safe and in the hands of U.S. authorities. The FBI had issued a missing person notice for the sister, but until this week there had been no news of her location or condition. 

“She is safe,” Lacour told the Clarion Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “She is on American soil, but not in America. She is safe. She was recovered (Monday) morning. We have spoken to her. She eventually will get back to the United States.”

On Aug. 31 Bishop Theophile Nare of Kaya released a statement saying that Tennyson is currently “in a safe place and in good health," as reported by the BBC. 

Tennyson is a former international leader of her congregation who was moved to start a missionary outpost in Burkina Faso after a 2011 visit to the country. Her congregation requested continued prayers for Tennyson’s recovery, as well as privacy until she is ready to speak publicly about her ordeal. 

“We are so very grateful for ALL the prayers and support these past 5 months. We now ask you to pray for Suellen's complete renewal of body, mind and spirit,” an Aug. 31 Facebook post from Tennyson’s congregation reads.

“She has requested privacy - PLEASE respect her need for time and let her be the one to reach out to you when she is ready. Let the fact that she is safe be your consolation…God does great things for us!”

Though three Marianite sisters were living in the house in Burkina Faso at the time, Tennyson was the only one kidnapped during the assailants’ invasion of the home. Sister Pauline Drouin, a nurse from Quebec, and Sister Pascaline Tougma, from Burkina Faso, were unharmed in the attack. Lacour said she believes the gunmen may have been looking for money and medicine. 

Lacour said the Marianites contacted both the U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso and the U.S. State Department and received assurance that this was “a high priority case for them,” the Clarion Herald reported. The U.S. military disclosed Tuesday that American special operations forces recently recovered of hostage from somewhere on or near the African continent, but there is not yet any confirmation that U.S. forces played a role in Tennyson’s release. 

The Marianites of Holy Cross, founded in 1838 by Blessed Father Basil Moreau, claims about 140 members worldwide, about 40 of whom are based in and around New Orleans. Sister Tennyson was the order’s international leader until she stepped down in 2012. 

Sister Tennyson told the Clarion Herald that after she visited Burkina Faso as congregational leader, Bishop Thomas Kaboré of Kaya asked four Marianites to come to his diocese to help start a parish and build a medical center. Sister Tennyson joined the other sisters at the missionary outpost after stepping down as head of the congregation. 

“You will come here, and God will take care of the rest,” Tennyson recalled the bishop saying to her. 

She told the paper in 2016 that she wanted to stay in Burkina Faso as long as her health and her religious community would allow, saying that she had “never felt so alive in my vocation.” The tiny parish church is vibrant, and according to one report, the clinic is so vital to the area that people walk 50 miles for treatment there. 

Burkina Faso, a nation of 21 million people in West Africa, has been a hotbed of Islamic terrorism and violence in recent years, especially since 2016. Reports of attacks on Christians by gunmen are numerous. In mid-May 2019, a group of gunmen burned down a Catholic Church during Sunday Mass and killed at least six people, including a priest. Four more Catholics were shot and killed the next day. A Catholic priest in Burkina Faso who went missing in January 2021 was later found dead in a forest. 

A military coup took place in the country in January 2022, and the new president has emphasized the importance of restoring security. But in February, at Saint Kisito de Bougui, a minor seminary, attackers burned two dormitories, a classroom, and a vehicle, and destroyed a crucifix.  

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