Rhodesian authorities arrested McLaughlin in August 1977 on charges of supporting terrorism
Sister Janice McLaughlin, a Maryknoll Sisters nun who was jailed and later deported by white minority-ruled Rhodesia for exposing human rights abuses, has died.
She was 79.
In a life dedicated to social justice, McLaughlin supported the African nationalist struggle that ended Rhodesia and brought Zimbabwe to independence, and she later contributed to the country’s education system. She worked in Africa for nearly 40 years and later became president of the Maryknoll Sisters.
Born and educated in Pittsburgh, McLaughlin joined the Maryknoll order in 1961. After working elsewhere in Africa for several years, McLaughlin went in 1977 to the southern African country then known as Rhodesia, which was embroiled in a war by Black nationalists to overthrow the white minority regime headed by Prime Minister Ian Smith.
Working for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, McLaughlin used the church’s network across the country to uncover human rights abuses including the systematic torture of rural Blacks and the forced settlement of nearly 600,000 in what Rhodesian authorities called “protected villages.”
She reported that the sites were fortified camps patrolled by Rhodesian security forces, densely populated without adequate sanitation or nutrition, and that more than twice as many people were living in them than the government acknowledged. McLaughlin’s reports were published by the Catholic Institute for International Affairs.
In response, Rhodesian authorities arrested McLaughlin in August 1977. She was accused of supporting terrorism and held in solitary confinement at the maximum-security Chikurubi Prison outside the capital. After three weeks she was deported.
“The Rhodesian regime was trying to silence my work. But the international attention surrounding my arrest created a lot of interest in my reports,” McLaughlin said years later. “My articles were in small, relatively unknown publications. But after I was thrown in jail, all kinds of publications republished my work. Many more people saw my exposes as a result.”
Following her deportation McLaughlin worked for the Washington Office on Africa, a church-based lobby group, educating the U.S. public and Congress about African affairs. In 1979 she joined the Zimbabwe Project, an initiative assisting refugees from the war in Rhodesia, working for two years from Mozambique.
After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, McLaughlin worked with the government to establish nine schools for former refugees and war veterans.
McLaughlin earned a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Zimbabwe, and her dissertation, “On the Frontline: Rural Catholic missions and Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle,” was published as a book in 1995.
She was elected president of the Maryknoll Sisters and headed the Maryknoll, New York-based order from 2009 until 2015.
Lively and fun-loving, McLaughlin made lasting friendships in Africa.
Retiring as Maryknoll president, she returned to Zimbabwe and continued her community development work, including efforts to stop human trafficking.
McLaughlin was critical of the Zimbabwe government — particularly of alleged human rights abuses reported by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe — but she remained widely respected by the ruling ZANU-PF party.
In late 2020 she returned to Maryknoll headquarters. She died there March 7, according to a notice posted online by the order. It did not give a cause of death.
In a message of condolence, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa called her a “devout Catholic for whom faith meant the quest for human freedoms.”
“She chose to leave an otherwise quiet life of an American nun to join rough and dangerous camp life in the jungles of Mozambique where she worked with refugees in our education department,” Mnangagwa said, adding that her activities “helped give the liberation struggle an enhanced international voice and reach.”
The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association said it would urge Mnangagwa to declare McLaughlin a “national heroine,” a status usually reserved for those who fought in the war.
“She wholeheartedly embraced our armed struggle at a time it was unimaginable for an American white woman to break ranks with the establishment in Washington,” association chairman Christopher Mutsvangwa said.
“We view Sister Janice as an example of the unique good that Americans can offer should they decide to promote the positive attributes reminiscent of their historical background of 18th-century revolutionary credentials.”