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Sister Malia Sanele (Katalina Vavahe’a Moahengi)

List of Deceased Sisters

Date of Death 19/10/2019


Katalina Vavahe’a MOAHENGI

30 April 1932 – 19 October 2019


“Confirm, O God, what thou hast wrought in me. O Mary, loving Mother, I am entirely thine; by thy all-powerful prayer assure my eternal salvation.”

Sister Malia Sanele wrote these words from our smsm vow formula in her request to renew vows in 1958. She continued: “I am happy in my vocation. With the help of God and Mary, I will serve Him as best I can, for I can do nothing without them.”

This Tongan woman of big heart and missionary vision was born on 30th April 1932 in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, the oldest of the three children of Viliami and Fonuku Moahengi. The family lived in Lapaha where she went to the parish school of St Theresa’s. Her mother died after Sanele entered the novitiate in Heretaunga, and from her father’s second marriage, she gained a further eight siblings with whom she always remained close.

As a result of a Congregational decision, from 1955 candidates from Tonga and Samoa (where novitiates were established) came to New Zealand for formation. Malia Sanele was the first to do all her first formation at Heretaunga, where she entered as a postulant of 11 February that year. She made profession on 8 December 1957, already with the desire to be a missionary in the Solomons.

Sanele’s first years after profession were at St Anne’s Hostel where M. M. Rachel was heard saying to the young smsm: “Now get those Solomons out of your head, Sister.” But she never did.  

Sister returned to Tonga in 1960, assigned to teach in Vava’u. Then she taught at Ma’ufanga and Nuku’alofa. Missioned to the smsm community in Hawaii in 1967, she was a cook at St Stephen’s Seminary. She left for Corpus Christi College, Suva, in 1969 following a time of study in Ma’ufanga. During her final year of teacher training she wrote to her provincial: “In 1959 I expressed my wish to Mother Joan of Arc and Mother Mary Eva in Auckland telling them how much I would like to go and work in the Solomons.” She had also shared her desire with Sr Mary Keegan who was Regional of the Solomon Islands at the time. In January 1972 Mary welcomed Malia Sanele in Honiara.

With the start of the school year Sanele joined the staff at the Senior Girls’ Primary School at Tangarare. Some years later she told Mary that when she arrived in the Solomons she felt she had been there before. Her dream continued to be fulfilled. After five years of service to education Sanele had her home visit. On her return journey to Honiara in April 1977 she experienced the wonder of her life. She sat next to St Peter Chanel! The Marist Fathers had brought Chanel’s relics to the Pacific and to Honiara. The Fathers asked Sanele if she would like the relics to rest in the empty seat next to her. It took her a few days to come down from this wonderful experience of being with the mentor she so loved.

Once back in the Solomons, she happily took up her task as the hospitality person at the Regional house at Rove. She produced wonderful and lavish meals. The house became alive as she welcomed all who came - from the Apostolic Delegate to the neighbour’s children. She loved animals and gardening and the beauty of flowers; she planted an orchid hedge along the front of the house to hide the bare earth and pipes.

With Sanele there, it was easy to establish a “safe” house. No husband ever came for their wives as they probably knew Sanele would answer the door. Relations would be re-established after a week or so when a husband or relative would arrive at the door with a BIG FISH – for Sanele, of course! She also always knew who was sick and what they might need, at times disappearing out the back door with a pot of food. This great lady had a kind heart, a very definite sense of the right way to do things, and a distinctive presence with her hat, her umbrella and her bag.

After another holiday home she returned to the Solomons to take up a teaching position at the Tangarare Area High School beginning 1981. She spent eight years there. Sanele moved to Tenaru at the beginning of 1989 where she taught part time at St Joseph’s and St Martin’s.

In June 1971 Sanele had written to the provincial of the kind of work she liked: “Beside teaching in the class-room I am interested in the welfare of the people and like very much to work amongst them. For example, forming groups of mothers to help them with sewing and cooking and caring for their babies. Generally helping them to raise the standard of their home life. Catechetics also is something that I am interested in and I like very much to do.”

Over the years she received formation for this: LTSR at Coogee, Australia, in 1976; the Pacific Mission Institute course in Sydney in 1980; the Marist Family Renewal at Marcellin Hall in Auckland in 1989; and a 3 month course in counselling at St Anselm’s in Kent, England, in 1992 after giving 2 years’ service at the generalate.

She returned to Honiara late 1992 to be in community with smsm candidates at Linnane House. In June 1995 she was missioned to Kiribati to be teacher of religion, nutrition, and sewing at St Louis Secondary School and co-ordinator for the vocation awareness team. For a time she was hospitalised with tuberculosis, then, after some rest, she again took up school duties.  

The last mission in the Solomons for this fervent missionary was at Visale, an early headquarters for the Catholic church. From 1999 – 2004 she had ministry with the local Daughters of Mary Immaculate (DMI) sisters, and hospitality. This was the time of “the Troubles”: when Pacific Peace Keepers were sent to re-establish the peace between the warring factions of the two islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal. The Tonga Unit found a benefactor at Visale, and a place of quiet and company and a good meal when days had been difficult. The soldiers helped ensure a safe place for the sisters there. Once when she eventually passed through the blockade and reached Honiara, it was to learn that one of her sibling sisters had died. Sanele came through it all, battered and bruised, but not broken, and returned to her mission at Visale.

The long journey was coming to an end and she was a “senior citizen”. She would have liked to retire in Australia with the many sisters she knew there, but it was not to be. Sanele returned to Tonga in 2006. Transition was made a little easier by activities she could still do: helping out at the Ma’ufanga clinic, and visiting leprosy or housebound patients twice weekly with Sr Joan Marie. She participated fully in the renewal for senior sisters at Mont Mou, New Caledonia, in 2018, describing her experience as “wonderful”.

When her Ma’ufanga community had a meeting on Wednesday October 16, sisters noticed Sanele holding her head. She went to bed early and did not get up next morning. The sisters then called the doctor who suggested to take her to hospital where she was diagnosed as having had a mild stroke. She was still conscious and responsive. On Friday sisters and relatives stayed with her, renewing her vows and calling Fr Tasi, the chaplain. That night and the following day sisters stayed at her side in until Malia Sanele peacefully took her last breath mid-afternoon. The wake for her was held in the Ma’ufanga convent from Monday until Wednesday October 23 when her funeral took place in the Cathedral. With Cardinal Paini away, the Vicar General, Fr Lutoviko Finau, was principal celebrant.

Malia Sanele, Mary came for you on a Saturday to take you to her Son, your missionary life accomplished. May it inspire ours.


SMSM, Tonga