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COLUMN ONE : 5 Seekers of Good Find Evil : They were country girls from Illinois who grew up to be ordinary women of extraordinary faith. In their 60s, they worked as missionaries in Liberia, where even their best intentions could not protect them.

5 Seekers of Good Find Evil. FIRST OF TWO PARTS

December 26, 1993|RICHARD E. MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She organized a literacy class for the women of Kle. Each evening, she and Toni Cusimano visited the surrounding villages for prayer services. When Barbara Ann left, they doubled as health care workers. But Agnes had just recovered from cataract surgery before leaving the United States, and Toni worried about her. "These were terribly bumpy roads," Toni says. "She didn't want to give it up." Agnes returned from every trip with a headache. "I felt terrible," Toni says, "but she wanted to do it."

At the Gardnersville convent, Shirley Kolmer worried about Agnes too. "We talked at our place," says Sister Alvina Schott, who was there at the time. "And I said, 'Well, there's room here for her to work.' " So Shirley invited Agnes to move into the Gardnersville convent. She accepted, and within weeks she began a literacy class for women in Gardnersville. She taught religion at St. Anthony's parish, and she helped Alvina run the parish school.

In the spring of 1990, however, her sight began to fail. She flew to Illinois for more surgery. Like Barbara Ann, she immediately requested permission to return.

*

On Christmas Eve, the annals at the Gardnersville convent had recorded an event of unforeseeable portent. An expatriate named Charles Taylor had invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast. Taylor was 42. He was born near Monrovia and had gone to Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. After college, he had returned to Liberia to take a job in the corrupt Doe regime. Taylor was accused of taking nearly $900,000 for himself. He fled to the United States. At Doe's request, he was arrested near Boston . He cut his way out of jail with a hacksaw blade, slipped down a rope made of bedsheets and fled. Later he was reported to be in Libya as a guest of Moammar Kadafi. Now, with apparent backing from Libya, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, he had entered Liberia with 100 troops. He recruited disaffected Gios and Manos and called his group the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) . He proclaimed himself president.

*

Not long after Barbara Ann and Agnes left, Charles Taylor's rebellion reached Kle. He enlisted boys, some of them barely teen-agers. Many were drugged or drunk. All had assault rifles. "The situation in the country is getting worse," say the Kle convent annals. "It is difficult and dangerous."

In Monrovia, Shirley closed St. Patrick's high school. "(It) is too vulnerable being located so close to the capitol," say the annals at the convent in suburban Gardnersville. "The rebel forces could attack Monrovia at any time." The U.S. embassy arranged planes to evacuate Americans. Sister Alvina Schott, due for a vacation, took one of the flights.

"Don't you think," Toni Cusimano asked, "that we ought to think about leaving too?"

Shirley said no. Closing a school for the sake of the students was one thing, but letting Taylor scare her and her sisters out of Liberia was another. "We're staying," she said.

On June 11, however, Shirley sent all of the aspirants home to their families. St. Anthony's parish had a clinic, and she and Joel kept it open should it become necessary to treat the wounded. "Killings kept being reported every day," the Gardnersville annals say, "and gunshots are heard at night." In July, Taylor finally laid siege to Monrovia. Electricity and water were cut off. Gasoline ran out first, then meat and fish.

In Kle, the rebels threatened to kill Toni Cusimano. They took her car and her food. Then they showed up at the convent in Gardnersville. They searched it and asked Shirley and Joel if they were hiding government troops. "Gunfire, machine guns and explosives were going on all this time," the annals say. Bullets whistled through the convent windows and hit the walls and ceilings. "We stayed low near the floor . . . ," says one entry in the annals, in Joel's handwriting. "We could not speak, so we were whispering."

Shirley and Joel and two Liberians who had sought refuge in the convent were the only people still in the neighborhood. Word spread throughout Monrovia that some of Doe's soldiers had massacred 600 Gios and Manos at St. Peter's Lutheran Church downtown, including women and children.

Finally, Shirley began to waver. At 7:30 p.m., on July 31, 1990, she reached Toni Cusimano by shortwave radio in Kle. She suggested to Toni that she leave for Sierra Leone and go on to the United States. Six days later, Toni did.

At 7 a.m., on Aug. 1, Shirley reached fellow sisters who were still in Grand Cess and told them to consider leaving, first to Ivory Coast and then back home to Ruma. Seventeen days later, they did.

On the afternoon of Aug. 1, Shirley and Joel packed a few belongings and some food. With one of the aspirants, who had decided she would flee too, they walked out of the convent.

"We felt we had to leave," Joel wrote in the annals, "to save our lives."

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