Father Donald F. Sybertz, M.M, died on Sunday, 19 April, 2020 at the Assisted Living Center at Maryknoll, New York, USA. He was 91 years old and a Maryknoll priest for 64 years.
Donald Francis Sybertz was born 23 July, 1928, in North Weymouth, Massachusetts, the son of Frank W. and Helen Bronder Sybertz. He had three sisters and one brother. He attended Bicknell Elementary School and Weymouth High School (where he played second base on the varsity baseball team) and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Boston College before entering Maryknoll in September, 1950.
After his ordination in 1955, Father Sybertz was assigned to Maswa-Shinyanga, Tanzania, where he served in the Kilulu mission in Shinyanga Diocese, the plains region of northern Tanzania. Father Sybertz built the first home there to provide shelter and care for aged persons lacking families and housing. He was later assigned to Gula Parish, a large sprawling parish undergoing expansion geographically as well as in the number of parishioners. Eventually the parish was divided into several parishes, and Father Sybertz moved from Gula to Mwanahuzi and developed that center into a separate parish.
Over the years, Father Sybertz was one of the Maryknollers most proficient in the Sukuma language. His facility in the language, interest in the culture and knowledge of how to inculturate Christianity among the Sukuma people led him into a continuing study of how to relate Scripture and the African wisdom proverbs, sayings, stories and parables of the people. This study resulted in the publication of several books in Swahili, Sukuma and English as evangelization materials for the Tanzanian Church.
Don Sybertz spent a lifetime (1955 to 2020) researching, writing about and using Sukuma (Tanzania) Proverbs. So far there are 19 Sukuma “African Proverbs of the Month” on our African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website (www.afriprov.org). Some of his favorites:
- June,1998: I pointed out to you the stars (the moon) and all you saw was the tip of my finger. NOTE: This was our very first proverb on our website.
- October, 2003: The hen with baby chicks doesn’t swallow the worm.
- February 2014: The hoes of two people cultivating together in a field sometimes clash (hit) against each other.
- October, 2018: The salesperson (seller or merchant) does not have only one door.
- February, 2019: The medicine for a rising river is to go back.
- October, 2019: Even an elephant, that is, an important person, can be sent.
These and many other Sukuma proverbs and stories are published in Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz, Towards an African Narrative Theology, (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1996 (1st Reprint 1996, 2nd Reprint 1997, 3rd Reprint 2000, 4th Reprint 2005, 5th Reprint 2012) and Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997, (many reprints, New Cover 2012). Available as an Ebook on Amazon (for Kindle) and Google.
Orbis Books Website:
Paulines Publications Africa Website
All this research and writing culminated in the creation of the:
Sukuma Legacy Project Website
The Sukuma Legacy Project promotes the history, culture, oral literature — Proverbs, Sayings, Riddles, Stories, Myths and Songs — and visual representations of the Sukuma People in Tanzania in East Africa. There are various examples of SCCs and community values. This website is dedicated to Father Don Sybertz, MM who stayed among the Sukuma people for over 50 years in Shinyanga Diocese. While staying in Ndoleleji Parish he researched the rich folklore and culture of the people. See a short film about him HERE. The research committee that he created at Ndoleleji Parish (known as the Kamati ya Utafiti) is still working up to today.
Father Sybertz spent his entire missionary career in Tanzania. He served as Pastor of the Mwanahuzi Catholic Church until it was turned over to a diocesan priest.
Although Father Sybertz was given Senior Missioner Status in the Africa Region in 2001, he continued to work full time in Maryknoll’s inculturation and evangelization apostolate in Shinyanga, Tanzania.
In 2015, Father Sybertz was assigned to the Senior Missioner Community and took up residence at Maryknoll, New York. He was appointed to the Mission St. Teresa’s Prayer Partners Team in 2016.
Don was a huge sports fan – following closely every Boston, Massachusetts, USA team. He was a good winner and a good loser. We had a lot of fun over years talking sports. Sports was second to spirituality in his priorities. Years ago Don and I traveled to Ethiopia, Amsterdam and on to Newark. The first night home we stayed at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in New Vernon, NJ. After arriving at their house, within minutes the first thing we did was start watching the Red Sox – Orioles playoff game on TV! Don never got tired of baseball.
Many stories have grown up around Marehemu Padri Don Sybertz. Here is one: When Maryknoll priest Father Ed Hayes, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Susan Nagele and Maryknoll priest Father Joe Healey were preparing for the 1990 Maryknoll Society General Chapter we distributed a written questionnaire in the Tanzania Region. All answered but two Maryknoll Society Members including Father Don Sybertz who was “notorious” for never answering anything. After a weekend of a Red Sox – Yankee baseball series, I called Don in Ndoleleji Parish, Shinyanga from Musoma on the radio call phone system that we had between parishes. For all to hear I said, “Don, I will give you the results of the Red Sox games only if you promise to send in your questionnaire.” He answered, “I promise,” for all to hear. Then I gave him the results of the Red Sox winning two games to one. The next day he sent in his questionnaire!
Father Sybertz was the brother of the late Dolores Hoyt, Loretta Sybertz, Ruth Hyland and Norbert Sybertz. Father Sybertz is survived by many loving nieces and nephews and his extended family in Tanzania to whom he devoted his life.
A Funeral Mass (Mass of Christian Burial) was celebrated in Queen of Apostles Chapel at Maryknoll, NY on 23 April, 2020 at 11:15 a.m. Father Michael Snyder, M.M., was Celebrant. Father Daniel Ohmann was homilist and Father Edward Davis read the biography, Scripture and the Oath. Burial followed in the Maryknoll Society Cemetery.
In the Memorial Mass for Marehemu Don Sybertz, Mwana Helena, in Nairobi, Kenya on 23 April, 2020 we tried to inculturate some Sukuma values in the liturgy. The “Prayer of the Faithful” ended with:”…in the name of Jesus Christ, our Eldest Brother/Chief Intercessor.” This is the Sukuma people’s name for Jesus Christ. It is the eldest brother, the firstborn male who offers sacrifice to the one God in the Sukuma Ethnic Group tradition. Compare Colossians 1:15: the beloved Son who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We used Preface III of Easter on the theme: “Christ living and always interceding for us.” It includes the words: “Christ never ceases to offer himself for us, but defends us and even pleads our cause before God.”
In this Memorial Mass we had a Dialog Homily when the homilist promoted interaction with the congregation participants using questions, invitation to make comments, proverbs and sayings (first and second parts) and open discussion. This was Don Sybertz’s favorite way of preaching. More of a conversational style. Example: Don: “I pointed out to you the stars (the moon)…Congregation: and all you saw was the tip of my finger.”
Some tributes: “We pray for and with our dear Marehemu Padri Don Sybertz, MM. He is now one of our ancestors in Christ, one of our “living dead.” The Sukuma people in Shinyanga Diocese, Tanzania loved him very much and called him the endearing name “Mwana Helena” (‘Child or Son of Helena’) after his mother.” “Padri Don Sybertz’s other Sukuma name was LUKALANGESE that means the one who finishes all the weeds in his field. Meaning: Take away all that is against the will of God in one’s life and put into practice the Lord’s commandments. Don prepared nicely his spiritual life by putting into practice the teachings of Jesus. That is why we consider him as a “Saint.” He also helped others in weeding their fields that spiritually means developing their lives by living according the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. He taught us on how to live a holy life.” “He was a living saint. What a blessing to have known him. Enjoy your heavenly reward.” “Raha ya milele umpe ee Bwana. Na mwanga wa milele umwangazie.” “Pole sana mwanajumuia Ng’wana Helena ametuaga yangu juzi tunatoa mistakes ajili yake Mungu ampokee. Kazi zake njema zimpeleke kwa Baba akayaone yale aliyotamani kuyaona. Namatumai ikwamba ataiobea kazi yetu ya utafiti. Siku ya mzishi yake nitaongoza misa hapa kwetu.” “May the good Lord rest his soul in heaven. This is yet another African elder who has left us. Fr. Don pumzika kwa amani.”
“His co-edited book on African Narrative Theology was a wonderful resource to tie in with scripture reflection in Tanzania. Helped bring the readings to everyday life.” I never met Padre Don, but this book was a great tool for me and my friends when we were studying theology at Hekima College. Even now as a communicator this is a great resource to appreciate our ancestors’ practical wisdom.” “Going through the African proverbs work, Father Don Sybertz really liked and invested his time in the proverbs collections and in sharing. A lot of work and enthusiasm in the project is truly seen.” Yes, Don was a great missionary. I remember him from the time that I was working in Shinyanga, and later from the Sukuma research. Accept my condolences to you and your confreres. May Don rest in peace.” “He was committed to the SCCs Model of Church and promoted SCCs in his ministry of evangelization in Shinyanga Diocese, Tanzania. He integrated Sukuma proverbs and stories into his SCCs ministry as part of inculturation.” “My heart hurt yesterday when I heard this news. I bet I can tell some great Sybertz stories too. He was a faith filled priest. I will miss him.” “We can honor Don by promoting the Sukuma Legacy Project.”
“You and Don had unconditional love and esteem for the African culture and people. Together you compiled African verses. You both spent a life time in East Africa. Don loved what he was doing each day out in the bush. Several year ago, I visited Don and his brother when he was staying with his family in Weymouth, Massachusetts. His niece and family lived next door. It was a wonderful Sybertz compound. His brother also has passed away. Don never forgot his roots namely, New England, Weymouth, Boston College, Red Sox and Patriots. He never lost his enthusiasm for the games. Perhaps these and other aspects of his life made you and Don soulmates and at the same time adversaries in the world of sports. Don witnessed to us all what is the very best of a Maryknoll vocation. Now he has finished the race, may he receive the prize of eternal life and sit at the heavenly table with many friends from Tanzania who went before him.” “We loved Don very much. He will always have a special place in our hearts.”
During his last years Don would listen to St. Therese of Lisieux’s famous book Story of a Soul on his Alexa listening device given to him by his niece. In these sorrowful times we can be consoled by the words of St. Therese of Lisieux on her deathbed: “I am not dying. I am entering into eternal life.” RIP
Complied and edited by:
Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
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