An Example of Holiness

Genocide survivor shares merciful message in visits with local parishes

January 14, 2024 at 9:00 a.m.
Immaculee Ilibagiza, left, encourages a woman whose family was killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide to reconcile with her neighbors, also pictured in this 2011 photo, who were believed to have participated in some of the murders. Patrick Dolan file photo
Immaculee Ilibagiza, left, encourages a woman whose family was killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide to reconcile with her neighbors, also pictured in this 2011 photo, who were believed to have participated in some of the murders. Patrick Dolan file photo

EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor and Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent

The following story is part of BE INSPIRED, a new feature of The Monitor reporting on ordinary people who inspire others through their extraordinary stories. 

“I remember going through the 10 Commandments and saying, ‘I can do this, this is not so hard.’ And then I started to open more pages in the Bible, and it’s like every page was saying ‘Love your enemies.’ No, no, no, cross that page – you don’t know my enemies. After five minutes I felt the hand of God was holding me tight, and [him saying] it is up to you how you choose to live your life. Be hateful, or be loving.’”

Immaculée Ilibagiza’s comment, given in a 2022 EWTN interview, hints at the testimony that the survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide has been offering to readers and audiences worldwide for almost two decades.

Videographer Patrick Dolan, far right, appears in this 2011 photo from his pilgrimage to Rwanda for the 30th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho. Left of Dolan are Anatalie Mukamazimpaka, one of the apparition visionaries (in white sweater), and Immaculée Ilibagiza (in black jacket); at far left is Matthew Gorman, independent consultant. Photo by Renee Helmes 

Inspired by her Catholic upbringing and in spite of what she endured, Ilibagiza’s ability to extend mercy and forgiveness to those who act out of evil and hatred is extraordinary by any measure.

Ilibagiza’s memoirs “Left to Tell” and “Led by Faith”  document her survival of the genocide of her people, the terror of hiding for three months in a neighbor’s bathroom and overcoming a natural response of anger at the slaughter of her parents and brothers, ultimately to forgive one of their killers face-to-face.

Visiting recently with several parishes in the Diocese of Trenton as keynote speaker and retreat leader, Ilibagiza has longstanding local connections, even working with former diocesan staff videographer Patrick Dolan on a 2011 documentary project on the events in Rwanda, as well as the 30th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho, Rwanda. 

Throughout her presentations, Ilibagiza remains steadfast in her message: “If I can forgive, in my situation, anyone can.”

Survival by Prayer

Despite the years that have passed, the murders of members of the Rwandan Tutsi tribe by the Hutu majority tribe that overtook Rwanda’s government following the assassination of the country’s president are fresh in Ilibagiza’s mind.

“Any time I think about it today, it is as if it was yesterday,” she said. “But it is not about necessarily the horror and the suffering. It is about the grace of God, the forgiveness that happened to my heart, which happened through the prayer.”

At a November presentation in St. Joseph Church, Toms River, Ilibagiza detailed how the power of prayer helped her survive.

The Hutu initiated a campaign of terrorism and genocide against the minority lasting three months, during which Ilibagiza was hidden in the home of a sympathetic Hutu pastor. For 91 days she lived in silent terror with seven other women in a locked bathroom measuring three by four feet, with little food and the sound of machete-wielding death squads just outside the door.

“When I began to pray…even though I could hear them looking for us, I had peace,” she said. “I prayed, ‘Please, God, don’t let them open the bathroom door.’ They never did.”

With a Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary in hand that her father gave her just before her confinement, she began to learn the most challenging but crucial lesson – to forgive.

“From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. I prayed the Rosary. I could not say the words, ‘Forgive us… as we forgive those who trespass against us’ and mean it. I skipped them. I didn’t want to lie to God. Praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, Jesus’ words, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,’ I learned to surrender, to say, ‘You are God, and I am not.’ I realized God was Father of the good and the bad. Because of the change in my heart, I believed my enemies could change too.”

Ilibagiza spoke of Our Lady of Kibeho, who appeared in Rwanda in the 1980s and directed three teenagers to pray and repent to prevent an oncoming holocaust. “People now say they wish they had listened,” she revealed.

She encouraged the audience to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary on Tuesdays and Fridays and the traditional Rosary on the other days. She said, “Mary will teach you how to get to heaven – hold on and love your Mother.”

Incredible Forgiveness

Ilibagiza’s transformative journey from anger to forgiveness was hard won, she attested to EWTN radio host Father Mitch Pacwa, and largely inspired by the Rosary.

“I would go through the Sorrowful Mysteries [and say to] our Lord, ‘You went through that for me? How did you accept that … You have nails in your body, and yet you forgive people?’ It was really through that journey that led me to forgive, to realize that people … don’t know what they are doing.”

Still, she told Father Pacwa, the transformation “took time.” She explained, “It was a lot of thinking and begging God. But when it happened, it felt like freedom. It felt like I can live my life.”

Ilibagiza remembered asking God during the genocide for the ability to reach people. “I said ‘I wish I could find people and tell them about you, how you can change from this bitterness I was feeling to freedom, to peace, because of forgiveness.’”

Immaculée Ilibagiza speaks to some 300 attendees Nov. 3 in St. Joseph Church, Toms River, who came to hear her story and pray with her to Our Lady of Kibeho. Courtesy photo 

She believes that had she not forgiven, she would not be here today. “I would have been killed or lived a really terrible life, because anger is terrible,” she said.

Since she began speaking about her experience, Ilibagiza has been recognized and honored with numerous humanitarian awards, including The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace, the American Legacy’s Women of Strength & Courage Award and the 2015 National Speaker’s Assocation’s Master of Influence Award. She has received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.; St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y.; Seton Hall University, South Orange; Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.; Walsh University, Canton, Ohio, and the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Diocesan Connection

Having read Ilibagiza’s book “Our Lady of Kibeho” just a few months before, Dolan embarked on a trip in 2011 to Rwanda for the 30th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s appearances in Kibeho, invited by Ilibagiza herself.

“It was a remarkable opportunity to travel with the author, who had such a passion for sharing the story and bringing pilgrims to this sacred place,” he reflected. “It was evident to me and many who interacted with her that she drew incredible strength from her devotion to the Blessed Mother, relying on Mary’s example of mercy and love.”

Our Lady of Kibeho is the only Vatican-approved apparition on the African continent. In 2001, the Holy See and local Bishop Augustin Misago recognized the 1981-1983 visions of Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango as authentic.

Dolan created a short documentary of the 2011 trip, “Our Lady of Kibeho,” and followed that with a longer documentary in 2014, “A Time for Healing,” which focuses on Ilibagiza’s faith journey and experience during the genocide. Both can be accessed at TrentonMonitor.com > Special Projects > In Focus.

“Immaculée’s witness is one of joy, and anyone who reads her books or attends her talks can see that she carries a beautiful message of hope,” Dolan said. “Her decision to forgive those who murdered her family … shows us the immense power of God’s grace – that by choosing the more difficult path to holiness, we can initiate the healing for others as well as ourselves.”

Ilibagiza visited several parishes in the Diocese of Trenton over the past year, including St. Joseph; Holy Innocents, Neptune, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, Bradley Beach. Several who came to listen to her shared their feedback with The Monitor.

Janice Cuttingham of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish worked with fellow parishioner Cindy Wagner to bring Ilibagiza to speak in October. Both women had read her books and knew well her unique story.

“Her courage and her deep faith [are] what I found inspiring,” Cuttingham said. “She has such a calming presence … she spoke an hour and a half with no notes – her message is so ingrained in who she is. … As for people who spoke with her one-on-one, you could tell she was present in your conversation.”

Wagner found praying with Ilibagiza “something I’ll always remember … [she was] really bringing home that [praying] the Rosary is what the Blessed Mother wants us to do to change the world.

“She has such a genuine joy,” Wagner continued. “I think that’s the fruit of her forgiveness; it’s palpable when you are in her presence … Her message of God’s peace … could fall short if she were not such an authentic person.”

“She is such a witness to the forgiveness of God,” commented St. Joseph parishioner Barbara Evan. “We need this message of love and forgiveness, especially in these times.”

“It is stunning how someone can come through adversity with such grace,” said Margaret Boylan of St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro. “I need to work on the process of forgiving. It is hard to say, ‘I forgive’ and mean it.”

St. Joseph pastor Father Scott Shaffer commented, “Through prayer and the Rosary, that which seems impossible to do becomes reality. To see someone speak with such passion is inspirational, refreshing and necessary, especially in this world.”

Ilibagiza offered a retreat in Holy Innocents Parish in October, where parishioner Carol Donofrio encountered her – though not for the first time. Having read her memoir after watching the news of the genocide, she was inspired to go on several retreats Ilibagiza led, and on pilgrimage to Rwanda.

“To say that I continue to find Immaculee inspiring would be an understatement,” she reflected. “Her love for our Heavenly Mother and the stories of miracles upon miracles were captivating. Immaculée’s message of forgiveness does not compare to any, and my wish is that everyone could experience it.”

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.

Related "Be Inspired" stories

Moorestown deacon applies medical training to missions, hospice



The following story is part of BE INSPIRED, a new feature of The Monitor reporting on ordinary people who inspire others through their extraordinary stories. 

“I remember going through the 10 Commandments and saying, ‘I can do this, this is not so hard.’ And then I started to open more pages in the Bible, and it’s like every page was saying ‘Love your enemies.’ No, no, no, cross that page – you don’t know my enemies. After five minutes I felt the hand of God was holding me tight, and [him saying] it is up to you how you choose to live your life. Be hateful, or be loving.’”

Immaculée Ilibagiza’s comment, given in a 2022 EWTN interview, hints at the testimony that the survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide has been offering to readers and audiences worldwide for almost two decades.

Videographer Patrick Dolan, far right, appears in this 2011 photo from his pilgrimage to Rwanda for the 30th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho. Left of Dolan are Anatalie Mukamazimpaka, one of the apparition visionaries (in white sweater), and Immaculée Ilibagiza (in black jacket); at far left is Matthew Gorman, independent consultant. Photo by Renee Helmes 

Inspired by her Catholic upbringing and in spite of what she endured, Ilibagiza’s ability to extend mercy and forgiveness to those who act out of evil and hatred is extraordinary by any measure.

Ilibagiza’s memoirs “Left to Tell” and “Led by Faith”  document her survival of the genocide of her people, the terror of hiding for three months in a neighbor’s bathroom and overcoming a natural response of anger at the slaughter of her parents and brothers, ultimately to forgive one of their killers face-to-face.

Visiting recently with several parishes in the Diocese of Trenton as keynote speaker and retreat leader, Ilibagiza has longstanding local connections, even working with former diocesan staff videographer Patrick Dolan on a 2011 documentary project on the events in Rwanda, as well as the 30th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho, Rwanda. 

Throughout her presentations, Ilibagiza remains steadfast in her message: “If I can forgive, in my situation, anyone can.”

Survival by Prayer

Despite the years that have passed, the murders of members of the Rwandan Tutsi tribe by the Hutu majority tribe that overtook Rwanda’s government following the assassination of the country’s president are fresh in Ilibagiza’s mind.

“Any time I think about it today, it is as if it was yesterday,” she said. “But it is not about necessarily the horror and the suffering. It is about the grace of God, the forgiveness that happened to my heart, which happened through the prayer.”

At a November presentation in St. Joseph Church, Toms River, Ilibagiza detailed how the power of prayer helped her survive.

The Hutu initiated a campaign of terrorism and genocide against the minority lasting three months, during which Ilibagiza was hidden in the home of a sympathetic Hutu pastor. For 91 days she lived in silent terror with seven other women in a locked bathroom measuring three by four feet, with little food and the sound of machete-wielding death squads just outside the door.

“When I began to pray…even though I could hear them looking for us, I had peace,” she said. “I prayed, ‘Please, God, don’t let them open the bathroom door.’ They never did.”

With a Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary in hand that her father gave her just before her confinement, she began to learn the most challenging but crucial lesson – to forgive.

“From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. I prayed the Rosary. I could not say the words, ‘Forgive us… as we forgive those who trespass against us’ and mean it. I skipped them. I didn’t want to lie to God. Praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, Jesus’ words, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,’ I learned to surrender, to say, ‘You are God, and I am not.’ I realized God was Father of the good and the bad. Because of the change in my heart, I believed my enemies could change too.”

Ilibagiza spoke of Our Lady of Kibeho, who appeared in Rwanda in the 1980s and directed three teenagers to pray and repent to prevent an oncoming holocaust. “People now say they wish they had listened,” she revealed.

She encouraged the audience to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary on Tuesdays and Fridays and the traditional Rosary on the other days. She said, “Mary will teach you how to get to heaven – hold on and love your Mother.”

Incredible Forgiveness

Ilibagiza’s transformative journey from anger to forgiveness was hard won, she attested to EWTN radio host Father Mitch Pacwa, and largely inspired by the Rosary.

“I would go through the Sorrowful Mysteries [and say to] our Lord, ‘You went through that for me? How did you accept that … You have nails in your body, and yet you forgive people?’ It was really through that journey that led me to forgive, to realize that people … don’t know what they are doing.”

Still, she told Father Pacwa, the transformation “took time.” She explained, “It was a lot of thinking and begging God. But when it happened, it felt like freedom. It felt like I can live my life.”

Ilibagiza remembered asking God during the genocide for the ability to reach people. “I said ‘I wish I could find people and tell them about you, how you can change from this bitterness I was feeling to freedom, to peace, because of forgiveness.’”

Immaculée Ilibagiza speaks to some 300 attendees Nov. 3 in St. Joseph Church, Toms River, who came to hear her story and pray with her to Our Lady of Kibeho. Courtesy photo 

She believes that had she not forgiven, she would not be here today. “I would have been killed or lived a really terrible life, because anger is terrible,” she said.

Since she began speaking about her experience, Ilibagiza has been recognized and honored with numerous humanitarian awards, including The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace, the American Legacy’s Women of Strength & Courage Award and the 2015 National Speaker’s Assocation’s Master of Influence Award. She has received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.; St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y.; Seton Hall University, South Orange; Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.; Walsh University, Canton, Ohio, and the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Diocesan Connection

Having read Ilibagiza’s book “Our Lady of Kibeho” just a few months before, Dolan embarked on a trip in 2011 to Rwanda for the 30th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s appearances in Kibeho, invited by Ilibagiza herself.

“It was a remarkable opportunity to travel with the author, who had such a passion for sharing the story and bringing pilgrims to this sacred place,” he reflected. “It was evident to me and many who interacted with her that she drew incredible strength from her devotion to the Blessed Mother, relying on Mary’s example of mercy and love.”

Our Lady of Kibeho is the only Vatican-approved apparition on the African continent. In 2001, the Holy See and local Bishop Augustin Misago recognized the 1981-1983 visions of Alphonsine Mumureke, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and Marie Claire Mukangango as authentic.

Dolan created a short documentary of the 2011 trip, “Our Lady of Kibeho,” and followed that with a longer documentary in 2014, “A Time for Healing,” which focuses on Ilibagiza’s faith journey and experience during the genocide. Both can be accessed at TrentonMonitor.com > Special Projects > In Focus.

“Immaculée’s witness is one of joy, and anyone who reads her books or attends her talks can see that she carries a beautiful message of hope,” Dolan said. “Her decision to forgive those who murdered her family … shows us the immense power of God’s grace – that by choosing the more difficult path to holiness, we can initiate the healing for others as well as ourselves.”

Ilibagiza visited several parishes in the Diocese of Trenton over the past year, including St. Joseph; Holy Innocents, Neptune, and St. Teresa of Calcutta, Bradley Beach. Several who came to listen to her shared their feedback with The Monitor.

Janice Cuttingham of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish worked with fellow parishioner Cindy Wagner to bring Ilibagiza to speak in October. Both women had read her books and knew well her unique story.

“Her courage and her deep faith [are] what I found inspiring,” Cuttingham said. “She has such a calming presence … she spoke an hour and a half with no notes – her message is so ingrained in who she is. … As for people who spoke with her one-on-one, you could tell she was present in your conversation.”

Wagner found praying with Ilibagiza “something I’ll always remember … [she was] really bringing home that [praying] the Rosary is what the Blessed Mother wants us to do to change the world.

“She has such a genuine joy,” Wagner continued. “I think that’s the fruit of her forgiveness; it’s palpable when you are in her presence … Her message of God’s peace … could fall short if she were not such an authentic person.”

“She is such a witness to the forgiveness of God,” commented St. Joseph parishioner Barbara Evan. “We need this message of love and forgiveness, especially in these times.”

“It is stunning how someone can come through adversity with such grace,” said Margaret Boylan of St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro. “I need to work on the process of forgiving. It is hard to say, ‘I forgive’ and mean it.”

St. Joseph pastor Father Scott Shaffer commented, “Through prayer and the Rosary, that which seems impossible to do becomes reality. To see someone speak with such passion is inspirational, refreshing and necessary, especially in this world.”

Ilibagiza offered a retreat in Holy Innocents Parish in October, where parishioner Carol Donofrio encountered her – though not for the first time. Having read her memoir after watching the news of the genocide, she was inspired to go on several retreats Ilibagiza led, and on pilgrimage to Rwanda.

“To say that I continue to find Immaculee inspiring would be an understatement,” she reflected. “Her love for our Heavenly Mother and the stories of miracles upon miracles were captivating. Immaculée’s message of forgiveness does not compare to any, and my wish is that everyone could experience it.”

The Church needs quality Catholic journalism now more than ever. Please consider supporting this work by signing up for a SUBSCRIPTION (click HERE) or making a DONATION to The Monitor (click HERE). Thank you for your support.

Related "Be Inspired" stories

Moorestown deacon applies medical training to missions, hospice


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