Kenyan nun uses law degree to navigate Church through African society

Kenyan Sister Leonida Katunge at the Pan African Congress in Nigeria. (Credit: Christopher White/Crux

Sister Leonida Katunge wears two hats – or habits, rather – spending her days alternating between teaching courses in liturgy and practicing law in her homeland of Kenya.

At eleven years old she knew she wanted to become a nun after being inspired by her cousin who was also a religious sister. Growing up with eight siblings, a father who was in the army, and a mother who was a businesswoman – Katunge developed a hard work ethic and a concern for others. Now, at age 41, she’s one of the most daring and outspoken religious women in Kenya who believes it’s her mission to empower other women to fight for justice.

Working together

Katunge was a delegate to the Pan African Congress on Theology, Society, and Pastoral Life December 5-8 in southeastern Nigeria, where she told Crux that she believes women shouldn’t be in competition with men, but should work together “in the cause of helping each other in a better society.”

After completing studies in theology and philosophy at the Catholic University in Eastern Africa (CUEA) in 2006, Katunge was encouraged by an Italian priest to go to Rome and pursue her studies in liturgy. She agreed and after completing her doctorate in sacred liturgy at St. Anselm’s, returned home to her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Mombasa, where she became a lecturer at CUAE teaching mainly seminarians.

Yet never one to turn down a challenge, when her community was struggling to navigate a property battle over land they had acquired from a Kenyan businessman, she recognized she had a gift for understanding the law.

“I realized we needed someone in the congregation to handle these matters, and so I found myself in a law class at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa,” she recalls.

After taking evening classes, Katunge received her law degree – even managing to surprise some members of her own community with her new role.

“Even my own superior thought I was doing canon law, not civil law!” she said. “Most of the time when I tell people I’m a lawyer, most people don’t believe me.”

“Given the society we live in, and especially here in Africa, people look at me as a nun and think ‘really, she’s a lawyer? What matters can she handle?’” she continued.

The answer, in fact, is many – ranging from real estate to domestic disputes – and she’s already forcing Kenyan legal professionals to examine their preconceptions about who can practice law in the country.

Once – after showing up in court in her habit and not her full robe and wig – a judge refused to hear her appeal, forcing her to return on a separate occasion to make her case.

Yet while the judge may have had trouble reconciling her two vocations, Katunge sees them as entirely compatible – and, in fact, an extension of the work she’s already been doing as a religious sister.

Law and morality

“The first thing we studied was law and morality,” she recalls of her legal studies. “They must go hand in hand given that they are the guiding principles of society.”

Katunge also faced the challenge of navigating life in another boys’ club, of sorts – that of the Catholic Church. However, she isn’t interested in matters of ordination, but wants to spend her time – and her voice – rallying for women to know that they have a voice equal to men and shouldn’t hesitate to speak up or lag behind in their work.

Similarly, she dismisses the idea that Pope Francis has a blind spot when it comes to women’s leadership. “I love the person of Pope Francis,” she said. “He’s exactly what we need in this time,” she said.

“He’s not looking at us as men or women, but he’s focused on the growth of all of humanity,” said Katunge. “We should not be in competition but in the cause of helping each other build a better society and especially a better Africa”