Tribute to Sr Milburga Fernando of the Salvatorian congregation in Sri Lanka

“For God is self-emptying love who is enfleshed in the neighbour, through whom God becomes really present.” – Fr. Michael ‘Mike’ Rodrigo, OMI

It feels absurd writing this now that she is gone. But my grief also feels absurd if I don’t channel it into something useful, as Sr. Milburga would have done. I wish you had all known her so you, too, would have this beacon of service to emulate, to remind you that you can always, always be doing more for others.

Sr Milburga Fernando was a Catholic nun in Sri Lanka of the Salvatorian congregation. I would call her an activist though I’m not sure she would – she was involved in people’s struggle but that was her acting naturally on her Christian calling. She lived in service of others and nothing was too daunting or too small to act on. She would be out and about working at a structural level, openly dissident of political and religious leaders, researching and writing for the public, but also made time to photocopy an entire book because one girl in rural Buttala needed it for her upcoming O/Ls.

I met Sr. Milburga, like many others, on a quest to find out more about Fr. Michael Rodrigo. I then stayed in touch helping her where I could but largely I was deployed by her in service of others. Honestly – it was exhausting. Every time she called she had some new request of me. I myself might organize my life so that my ‘work’ is mostly knowledge production (writing, researching, teaching). So spending 3 hours photocopying something seemed to me an inefficient use of time. What arrogance of me! At 60+, 70+ she worked with the vigour of a fresh 25-year old novitiate, while at 26 I had the jaded fatigue of a middle-aged man. Seeing Sr. Milburga make time for everything she did put me to shame and made me demand better and more of myself in service of others.

Sr. Milburga had accompanied the Catholic martyr, Fr. Michael Rodrigo, when he set out to work in Buttala. She always made herself a footnote to the greater story of Fr. Mike and dedicated so much of her life to writing more of his story and his ideas. She prayed and worked for justice for the people of Buttala – a rural agricultural village that has been cyclically ruined by aggressive pro-agrobusiness policies. The people there, when I visited in 2016, were still shackled to agribusinesses, having had their own farming livelihoods wiped out and their waters polluted. Now, the most she and many others could do was support individuals from the town. She connected me to a young girl who had my exact name – Annemari – and asked that I help get her resources to pass her O/L English Literature exam. I did, and earlier this year Annemari emailed me to tell me she got through and was sitting for her A/Ls. That is all because of you, Sr. Milburga. And I can’t imagine how many, many others you must have helped this way.

And she helped me too. I was a broken spirit in 2017, unable to go back to being my bright, energetic, happy self. I was terrified that this feeling would be my state for life. Sr. Milburga noticed I had changed and spoke with me, prayed with me and for me, offered a pranic healing (yes, she was unconventional!). Her faith in God, His healing, and her faith in me helped me get through that time. It is hard to not have faith when you are face-to-face with the kindness and impossible belief that Sr. Milburga had.

I imagine Buttala is grieving her. Kanya D’Almeida has also written a beautiful tribute to her. If you come across research and writing about Fr. Michael Rodrigo, know that she was a major reason all of it is available. She was such a force and she reached so many. But there is hardly anything written about her because she minimised herself, erased herself from the grand narratives – she was only ever there to serve. In that, she embodied perfect Christliness. While Christians are called to be Christ-like in our actions, we would all benefit from being more Milburga-like in our lives. Rest in power sister. May perpetual light shine upon you.

Written by Annemari de Silva