Mother pleads for return of son's remains from Africa

Six months after the death of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [L.D.S.] missionary in Africa, his mother continues to pray for the return of his remains to Samoa.

Debra Etei Schwenke, the mother of Elder Antonio Schwenke of Vailima, has not thrown in the towel on her wish for her 19-year-old son’s body to be repatriated home for the family to give him a proper burial.

The young missionary died in Sierra Leone in March this year from medical complications, which he developed after he was diagnosed with malaria.

In an interview with the Samoa Observer, Mrs Schwenke said she is patient but will not remain silent on her quest for her deceased son’s repatriation.

“I know it’s been too long but everyone’s doing their job in trying to get our son back in our hands,” she said.

“Of course there are times when we feel weak but we’re more confident and optimistic that our son should be back to Samoa, even if it’s next year or the year after that.”

Mrs. Schwenke confirmed that they visited the Prime Minister’s Office and the L.D.S. in Samoa, whom she claimed are doing their best in the current circumstance. 

“The Government is doing everything they can because I know that his situation is more difficult because he is in a further country but we’ll just wait.

“The church is also doing everything they possibly can, contacting the other branches of the church overseas for an update.”

In response to questions sent by the Samoa Observer, Elder Sapele Faalogo Jr of the L.D.S. Pacific Area Seventy, said the church’s repatriation of the body is work in progress and could not be done sooner due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

"Due to the program of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been impossible to bring Elder Antonio Schwenke's body back home to his family in Samoa for his funeral and services.

"The church continues to work closely with the Samoan Government and contact with Africa to bring his body back home as soon as possible. 

“Out of respect for the family, we will not be sharing more details at this time."

Questions, which were sent by the Samoa Observer to the Press Secretariat seeking comment from the Government, did not get a response at the time of going to press.

Next month will mark seven months since her son’s death, but Mrs Schwenke is adamant his final resting place is in Samoa, and has even turned down offers from L.D.S. church friends to bury him abroad.

“I believe my son should be back to where he came from as a first-time missionary and that’s Samoa as well as his family,” she added.

"Friends of the church also offered to handle his funeral and bury his body at one of the church's cemeteries overseas but I want his body home. As I said, even if it’ll take another year or two, I’ll wait patiently for his return.”

The deceased missionary’s twin brother, Elder Francis Schwenke, is currently in Australia and is expected to return to Samoa soon in a special repatriation flight.

Like his brother, he also had the same dream of becoming a missionary and served in the same region. They attended school together at the Pesega Middle School before moving to Avele College. 

Mrs Schwenke said her sons chose Avele College due to their sporting prowess and had the academic ability to secure entry to the National University of Samoa.

In 2017 the deceased revealed during a family meeting his dream to become a missionary, which was a sentiment that his twin brother also shared. After graduating in 2018 to gain entry to the NUS, the duo were adamant they wanted to become missionaries in Africa and education became a second priority. 

Describing her deceased son as a “mother’s boy”, Mrs Schwenke reminisced on the special relationship they had.

“No matter how many times I beat him up, he [was] always clinging to me and always made my heart warm and at ease,” she emphasised.

Before her son passed on, Mrs. Schwenke received a call from Elder Antonio that he had become ill.

“Because he was so passionate about serving his mission, he very soon regained his strength and decided to serve again, which was where he collapsed and [could have] died,” she said as she cried. 

But she has taken strength from her son’s death and is content he passed on while serving God as a missionary. 

“God saw that he struggled to serve his name and died while living his dream. He was always passionate about so many good things and serving God through missionary, has always been the top on his list,” she added.

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