Perseverance paves Tribunal director’s path to citizenship
By Ricardo Gandara
Nwazi Bertha Nyirenda’s journey to America and eventual citizenship started as an 8-year-old parochial schoolgirl’s fascination with a seminary next door.
“During those Sunday Masses I knew I wanted to work for the church in some way but in the background,” she recalled. “It seemed something so beautiful to be able to help people.” Today, she’s the director and Defender of the Bond for the Canonical and Tribunal Services Office at the Diocese of Austin.
Simply put, she oversees a staff that handles annulment petitions, which can be complicated and lengthy. As a church lawyer and Defender of the Bond, she’s an “advocate for the marriage itself, and in this sense my role is like a public defender,” she said.
Like most immigrants, Nyirenda’s path to citizenship has been long, sometimes filled with heartbreak but characterized with perseverance. She grew up in Lusaka, the capital and commercial heart of Zambia in southern Africa. She was raised in a middle class, staunch Catholic home; she was the fourth of five children. This year, her parents, Gerald and Theresa, celebrate 49 years of marriage. Her father was a government employee who rose to become the ambassador to China. Her mother owned a dry cleaning business.
“Yes,” she smiled when asked if her parents set the example. “They always told us we could do anything. But growing up in a Third World developing nation, there’s no means to getting there. Mom led us in rosary nightly, and gave us books on the lives of saints. I liked St. Therese of Lisieux,” she said.
Nyirenda earned a college degree in philosophy and history in neighboring Malawi and in 2002 a master’s degree in philosophy in Nairobi, Kenya. She was driven by the teachings of St. Therese. “She talked of little ways to make a difference. I thought to myself that I can make that a model of my life. In Zambia, to study theology you have to attend a seminary so that excluded me. My ‘little way’ was to study philosophy, which led me to canon law,” she said.
While in college, her mother talked about Nyirenda to local Archbishop Joseph Medardo Mazombwe. The curious archbishop wrote Nyirenda an encouraging letter.
“He said as long as I was making headway, would I be interested in becoming the first Zambian lay person to get a canon law degree? That planted a seed,” she said.
In 2002, she landed her first church job, teaching at St. Bonaventure Franciscan Formation Church in Lusaka, thanks to Archbishop Mazombwe, who became a mentor. “I would tell him I didn’t know how I would make a difference in the world. He said, ‘I don’t know how you cannot.’ He was the smartest, most subtle man I’d met. He said few words, but they were the right words. He had a vision to establish a marriage tribunal in Lusaka, and he wanted me to become a judge,” Nyirenda said.
Thus, she applied for canon law school in Washington and was accepted in 2005.
She sold nearly all her belongings including her car, furniture and clothes — and emptied her savings account to buy the $1,345 plane ticket, equivalent to four month’s pay in her country.
Her life plan was sailing smoothly until Archbishop Mazombwe gave her disappointing news that he was unsuccessful in setting up a marriage tribunal. He told
Nyirenda to remain in America. At age 31 and her student visa expiring, she panicked but flooded the market to get a job. She landed a temporary philosophy teaching position at a community college in Maryland, and qualified for a special permit to stay in the U.S. In 2008, she became a judge with the marriage tribunal in the Archdiocese of St. Paul in Minnesota, a job she held for five years, with the help of a religious worker visa.
“But an African girl is used to tropical climate, and I wanted a position with a wider range of canon law,” she said.
That opportunity opened when she joined the Austin Diocese as the Canonist/Defender of the Bond in 2013. Two years later, she was promoted to become director of Canonical and Tribunal Services.
On March 23 of this year, another dream came true. She became a U.S. citizen.
“That was a joyous moment and my whole life flashed before me, a little girl from a Third World developing country with limited options had made it,” she said.
The lesson was that anything can be possible and following St. Therese’s model of finding ‘a little way’ was a confirmation of staying faithful and determined.
Today, the 41-year-old Nyirenda draws on her time in Minnesota where she was often the first contact for incoming refugees. She helped them assimilate into American culture and that helped her gain the worldly perspective when she now reviews petitions for annulments.
“It helps me stay human as a defender of church law and helps me rigorously defend the process,” she said.
What’s next? She’s learning Spanish. Maybe she’ll pursue a civil law degree.
“Anything is possible. I can retire and go back to Zambia and maybe become a surgeon, or lawyer or pilot, things I dreamed about as a child,” she said.