Sister Emanuela Betham - 2017 Samoa Observer Person of the Year

Sister Emanuela Betham is our Samoa Observer Person of the Year for 2017. 

For more than 62 years, she has been making a difference in the lives of hundreds of ordinary and extraordinary Samoans.

Serving as a Teacher, Principal and a Sister of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (S.M.S.M.), Sister Emanuela has been a guiding light that has shaped the lives of many Samoans – some of them going on to become leaders in government, private corporations, multinational companies, churches, villages and all over the world. 

The 82-year-old hails from Leagiagi Aleipata and Leone. She is the daughter of the late Gus Victor Betham and Sesilia Betham.

From her humble beginnings at Saleaumua Primary School, Sr. Emanuela’s life has been one well lived.  In serving her God, she has spent time in Rome, many European countries as well as the United States of America. But her heart has always been for Samoa. 

Sister Emanuela was among many outstanding nominees recommended by members of our community for this honour.

The Samoa Observer Management and Staff discussed the recommendations and the decision was made to choose additional individuals and some companies as our "People of the Year." 

The undeniable truth is that there are many other outstanding individuals who are not on this list. But it is impossible to have everybody included. 

For today, we are highlighting the stories of just some of the people who have made a real difference, inspired people in this country.


Sister Emanuela Betham - Teacher, Mentor a Guiding Light

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi

When the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (S.M.S.M.) came to Samoa in 1864, it was their mission to spread the Gospel and to provide all people, regardless of race, creed and socio-economic background, with a quality education that incorporated Christian values.

To choose a Catholic education for your child then was to give him or her virtue driven education based on a fundamental principle of the Church’s social teachings - the dignity of every human person. It is an institution that demands high academic standards but seeks to form the whole human person by focusing on developing character and fostering virtues.

It was in the spirit of this tradition that Sister Emanuela devoted her life to being an Educator and Sister of the Order of S.M.S.M. at the tender age of 19. That was in 1955 when she entered the Convent. 

At the time, the daughter of Gus Victor and Sesilia Betham, from Aleipata and Leone, believed that it was vital for Samoa and Samoans to be educated, informed and become resilient people who could stay united to overcome crisis and adversaries. 

Today, 62 years later, Sister Emanuella is still going strong at St. Mary’s Savalalo. At 82-years-old, she has shaped the lives of thousands of Samoans – many of them having gone on to become leaders in government, private corporations, multinational companies, churches, villages and all over the world. 

Still, she does not show any signs of slowing down. These days, her focus is on being a Mentor and providing spiritual direction from Savalalo to members of the community, irrespective of their religious affiliation. 

To be in the presence of Sister Emanuela is be soothed by her softly spoken words and gentle mannerisms. It’s hard to imagine that Sister Emanuela was once called “Amin” by her past pupils from St. Mary’s College. Yes, that is “Idi Amin” the Ugandan dictator. It is a story Sister Emanuela re-tells with a giggle. She is a woman who wears many hats and don’t be fooled by her gentle smile. 

Her reputation for being a tough Educator precedes her. She has been identified as an exemplary teacher by her past students fortunate enough to have experienced the tough love approach she is famous for. Many of these ex-pupils have gone on to live exceptional lives based on the school’s spirit of “Agaga Kerisiano”

“Catholic education is a combination of the morality aspect, the Catholic Christian teaching and academic,” she said. “I think if they have Christian values, then the academic follows."

 “They go together and it’s up to the student. In teaching of young women, we value the Marian aspect of women. I think that the combination is always there with our lady being our model in our Catholic education and parents appreciate that.”

Part of being a good educator means, that one is also eternally a good student. Sister Emanuela herself credits her past teachers and mentors for influencing her teaching style.

“I think my teaching style is very much influenced by my best teachers and my superior Sister Emeritiana, the first  principal of St. Mary’s College. She helped me when I came back as a sister,” she said. 

“If I ask students to do something, I really need to make sure that they follow through, that’s why I’ve always been strong on students doing their homework. If it’s not done that’s when I get very angry and they have to get their homework done because it’s the only way to help them."

 “I think I do a lot of pushing, I don’t take anything lying down; I encourage them to do the best that they can do. That’s why they find sometimes that Sister is too hard and they call me sometimes “Amin.”  I really don’t know why they call me that, I think it was because I was really tough on them,” she laughs.

Many might be surprised that Sister Emanuela’s reputation of being a tough disciplinarian was one borne out of necessity rather of her own natural inclination. Her belief that discipline must always be ‘just’ is a quality about her that has kept her endeared to many of her past pupils who eventually came to see the wisdom and principle of her actions. 

 “When I first took up being principal at St. Mary’s College, it was a challenge because you want to keep up the academic reputation of the College and everything else that is attached to that College." 

“I used to hate it when someone would call to tell me that my girls were doing this and doing that because I hated calling them in to discipline them but you have to do it. I always value justice in my discipline and I think that if you are ‘just’ no matter what - even if you put somebody out of school but if it’s a just reason, that person will appreciate you. They don’t hate you for putting them out but if you do something not just they will never forget.”

Sister Emanuela’s weapon of choice when it came to discipline did not come in the form of a rod but rather in her words, which had the ability to both empower and wound. However there were some amusing times where she tells the Samoa Observer she found hard to keep a straight face.

“Sometimes when something would happen and I would scold someone, I would never use a stick or my hand – I use my words. So I don’t know what’s stronger and usually when I would use my words, I would say something quite biting with a bit of humour." 

“I remember one girl came to school with her eyebrows and finger nails painted and I said to her 'oh what a Christmas tree you are. Go and get the knife and scrape out those nails and wash your face'.”

“Then after saying something sarcastic like that, then I would go to the back room and laugh and laugh then I come out and look serious. Sometimes it’s very funny to me but I can’t laugh in front of them so I usually go to the storeroom, that’s my escape.”

One thing for sure is that Sister Emanuela is consistent. Underneath her nurturing and calm countenance is an unnerving steel resolve in the belief that fairness and equality must always prevail even if it challenged the status quo. 

“When I became the Principal of St. Mary’s College in 1969, one of the things that I changed was the no Samoan speaking policy, we had to speak English as soon as we stepped onto the grounds. It was a way to help us with our English speaking skills. But it went on so long so much that when I came in as Principal it was still there."

“On day one, I went from room to room and told the girls why we still needed to speak English because it was important for their future but from now I told them we can speak Samoan. For me I am Samoan and my language is me. And to forbid the Samoan language, it doesn’t make sense. Of course this angered the non-Samoan Sisters but I said that as a Samoan, I can’t forbid my own language. However I keep on emphasizing to the girls to keep up their English speaking to help them for the future.”

“When I took away that rule, it made the girls think ‘what are rules for?’ I mean you don’t make rules if they don’t make sense. Rules are meant to help us, not degrade us.”  

That sense of justice and determination almost spelt out the end of sister Emanuela’s calling to enter the Convent while she was still a novice in training in New Zealand. 

She spoke about the one time she ever felt like she wasn’t going to go through with it. 

“At that time, when I was a novice (especially in Samoa) whatever the Father said, what ever the Sister said about religion or about us was always correct - we never questioned. But this was the first time and I put up my little hand when a Senior Sister said something that I considered a generalization of the people of Samoa. I said that’s not right! My two companions next to me were whispering to me “sit down, sit down” but the more they said sit down the more I wanted to stand up and I did."

“But they still told me that the generalization was right. Then afterwards I went to my room and I cried, I was very angry. I thought I’m not going to be a nun anymore so I stormed out and went to the office." 

“I knocked on the door and told the sister “I want to go home” and then she told me to sit down and she said to me "take your tears outside and water the potatoes.” And I thought that was so funny that I came out and that was the end of that. But that was the only time that I ever mentioned that I wanted to go home.”

It is very hard to coax Sister Emanuela to speak on the good works that she has done, the highlights of her religious life or even to pinpoint some of her most high profile students who have come under her exceptional tutelage. Instead she prefers to speak on the collective achievements and spirit of past students who have been taught by S.M.S.M. sisters since the beginning. 

“I think that the women that went there – they are really something. At the 150 years celebration, the spirit of the woman was something that I marveled at. They have some kind of link that binds them, it’s beautiful to see." 

“They have become a part of something and they celebrate it. I feel like it’s the Christian formation that holds them together with the academic and also the very presence of the sisters is another aspect.  I think these women are ones who never give up." 

“They give it their all even if they land in a situation where it might not have been their dream.”

So what defines a Marian student from others? 

“She does whatever she can with what’s there and being in command and leading the community in whatever way she can. That’s all part of being Marian in one way or another, I mean there are naughty ones – but sometimes it’s the naughty ones that I remember the most.”

On a personal level, Sister Emanuela has had to overcome many challenges.

In the early 1990’s, she hit a bump on the road when she discovered that she had breast cancer, which resulted in a mastectomy and a three-year course of chemo.

“I had just come back from Rome when I noticed a symptom in my breast but I kept pushing it back because in those days you never really heard much about cancer,” she said.

“On a plane ride back from New Zealand I read a Women’s Weekly magazine and I saw a write up about the symptoms of breast cancer and there I saw one of the signs I had glaring back at me in this list.

“I came back to Samoa and saw the doctor and I asked him about this symptom and he told me to go back to New Zealand straightaway. I didn’t want to tell anyone but my sisters and I told them not to tell my mum because in those days when you mention cancer – everyone thinks you’re going to die – even I thought the same. 

“When I went back to New Zealand I was told that I would need to have a breast removal and I was afraid.”

For the first time in her life, Sister Emanuela admitted she felt afraid for herself but it didn’t last long because predictably, she became distracted with the pain of others,

 “I remember that,” she said. “I wanted to come back to Samoa and I want to shout it out to all the young women to go out and test themselves because while I was going to get my x-rays done, I saw a couple of beautiful young women crying and I thought to myself - this is terrible for them.

“I mean for me, I am a Sister and I don’t have a family or a husband or anything like that to be concerned about. But these women have their families or a boyfriend. They were in tears, my heart went out to them, if mine was so small I must warn the young women of Samoa to test themselves because I think you take it for granted that it wouldn’t happen to one of us.

“When I look back in my long life and most of it has been in the Convent, I really feel that God has done great things. So many, many great things that happened to me in my life that I cannot say anything but thank you.” 

Ask anyone to identify what stands out about Sister Emanuela and they will tell you it is her great love and pride for Samoa. 

All together the time she spent in Europe covered seven years of her life and during that time, she pushed the Conventional norms in a place steeped in tradition which eventuated in the acknowledgement and inclusion of Samoa and the Pacific at the Vatican. 

Together with a group of Samoan Missionaries of the faith, they organised a gathering of all the Bishops which included a mass. Sister Emanuela was the only female in the group and she organised a taule’ale’a and a taupou to be a part of the mass which not only drew raised eyebrows but it changed how Rome viewed the Pacific. 

“I was so proud of being a Samoan over there in those countries. They are so big and we are so small. At the Vatican, they lump Samoa together with Asia and Africa or South America because it’s so small.

“In Rome if you go there, you can’t go there with your bare shoulders or shorts so sometimes you feel sorry for people who want to get into the big Cathedrals. 

“This time we had four Samoan men who were tulafale who were in traditional Samoan attire. We had the Bible being processed up with them. We had a young man with a pe’a and it was something different because they’ve never seen this before in the Basilica in Rome. So this young man is wearing a sulu siapo and I told him pull it down a little more to show his pe’a because it was too high.

“I remember he came up the back of this huge Cathedral full of Catholic Bishops at the start of mass and he called out Chooohooo! You know it ran through the Basilica because it was so quiet! 

“For some it shocked them, some of the people in Rome were happy and some were not happy because they think ‘who are these naked people coming in!’

“I was so angry when they mentioned ‘naked people’ because if you go to Italy, you will see all those naked statues around because it is art! So here we are, the real art because God made us beautiful. I think it was because for the people of Rome, we came out of nowhere and here we are strutting around showing our beautiful skin.

“People came up after and asked whether we had painted him before the mass but we explained it was our tatau. So that day all of the cameras were on the pe’a instead of the Cardinals.”

“From then on - Oceania was mentioned and we were no longer lumped with Latin America, Asia or Africa. Because we exist on our own.”

Sister Emanuela has a life of stories to tell.

These days, she is contented with her life. 

Still, she is still willing to help where ever she can. 

“There are so many people nowadays who need a listening ear.  They have problems and sometimes they need somebody that they can share what’s bothering them. I help with spiritual direction, Counselling is more problem solving whereas spirituality is more to do with your relationship with God and what you are seeking with that relationship with God.

“I pray with that person and see what is stopping them from leading a good Christian life. But you don’t tell people what to do. We want them to be their own person and to help them to find their own way but we know that you need some help and with the Holy Spirit you can help that person.”

There is something to be said about the power of a name. In Hebrew, Emanuel means ‘God with us’ which in the case of Sister Emanuela is quite appropriate given that in her life she has been a guiding light for many of her past pupils during her teaching career.

 At a time when the world realities have left many with a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty causing suffering among even the toughest of us. It is during those vulnerable times where we may need to reflect on one of God’s many names to be sure that like Sister Emanuela, he will be faithful to his name.


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