We continue our ‘God’s Emeralds’ Irish missionary blog series with the story of a courageous woman from Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, whoserved valiantly on the mission field of war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for over 50 years.
Maud Kells served the Lord in the face of genocide, government corruption, famine and civil war. Her story is one of faithfulness, resilience and complete dependence on God. Reflecting on her time on the mission field, she once wrote, “The Lord has taught me much over the years – and to quote from John the Baptist, ‘He must increase, and I must decrease.’ My desire to glorify Him in all aspects of my life has increased with the years. It is so encouraging to know that He is sovereign in all situations of life and in our world today.”
Born on 1st April 1939, Maud’s entry to the world was anything but routine, when her mother suffered complications during childbirth. Delivered using forceps in the early hours of the morning on the family farm in Cookstown, the local physician offered little hope of Maud’s survival. However, this little life displayed incredible resilience and proved everyone wrong - a quality she would demonstrate throughout her whole life.
Maud grew up on the family farm during the backdrop of World War II, unaware of the events unfolding around the world. She thrived at home alongside her three sisters. Farm life provided structure and a good work ethic through the list of daily chores as well as being the ideal play-setting. As was common during those years, there were no utilities, such as electricity or running water. The kitchen stove provided heat, water was carried from the pump at the well, and toilets were outdoor latrines.
While Maud’s parents were not born-again believers, their Scottish Presbyterian background dictated the family’s strict preparation for the Sabbath. They attended Molesworth Presbyterian Church in Cookstown. Maud, a nervous and apprehensive child, decided she wanted to be a nurse from an early age. After attending Cookstown High School, she was accepted to study Children’s Nursing at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, following in the footsteps of her aunt.
‘You know, the most important thing you can do in life is to invite God to be in control of it'
In April 1957, she started her training in Belfast. It was a tough, demanding environment, but she was determined to succeed. She became friends with colleagues whom she discovered were Christians and was soon invited to attend the Nurses Christian Fellowship on Tuesday evenings. Through engaging with her Christian friends, Maud realised that despite her religious upbringing she had no understanding of salvation. She became more inquisitive, questioning the meaning of life, heaven and hell, whilst trying to read and understand the Bible.
It was during a visit to her aunt and uncle, the latter of whom was a retired Presbyterian minister, that things began to fall into place. At the end of the evening, as her uncle left her to the bus stop, he challenged her saying “You know, the most important thing you can do in life is to invite God to be in control of it.” As Maud waited for her bus, a Scripture verse came to mind: ‘ “ ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’ ” ’. (Revelation 3:20, ESV). At that bus stop in Derriaghy, Belfast, Maud asked God to forgive her for her sins and to take control of her life.
As Maud pondered her future, God gave her the following promise from Isaiah 41:10: “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” She completed her Children’s Nursing Training and went on complete her General Nursing Training. Continually encouraged by the Christians the Lord had placed around her, Maud enjoyed great fellowship. Opportunities arose to share her faith at small gatherings, and while she found this daunting at first, the Lord used each opportunity to strengthen her faith.
When Maud completed her General Nursing Training in Belfast, she moved to Edinburgh with her close friend Mary McCandless to study midwifery. Her continual prayer was that God would show her His plan for her life. God continued to surround her with fellow believers and began to press on her heart a burden for overseas mission. Having attended the Worldwide Missionary Convention in Bangor whilst training in Belfast, and hearing the recent story of the WEC (Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade) missionary Dr Helen Roseveare, (who was held captive by rebels in the Congo), Maud questioned if it was God’s will for her to become a missionary. She doubted herself and considered herself inadequate, but despite this, she couldn’t shake the thought.
Maud decided to fast and pray, asking God for a sign. As she opened her Scripture Union Bible reading notes on her knee, Revelation 3:8 jumped out at her: ‘ “ ‘… Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name’ “ ’. Maud understood that God was opening a door despite her insecurities. She prayed for confirmation within the next twenty-four hours, and as she finished her hospital shift, she found an envelope in her pigeonhole containing information from the WEC Bible Training Institute in Glasgow. Additionally, Maud’s friend then gave her a leaflet regarding the 1964 Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade (WEC). As she prayed, she knew God was calling her to the mission field. She was twenty-five years old.
‘ " 'See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut’ " '. (Revelation 3:8).
The Open Door
Maud completed her midwifery training in December 1964 and was accepted into the WEC Missionary Training College in Glasgow. WEC International was founded by a famous missionary, C.T Studd, who had served in China with Hudson Taylor, and then in India, before finally setting sail for Africa. He ministered in Kenya and Uganda before heading to the Congo, setting up the ‘Heart of Africa Mission’ (now known as WEC International). Maud was inspired by C.T Studd and other missionary pioneers, and as she prayed, the Lord placed the Congo continually on her heart.
For the Easter holidays in 1965, Maud returned to Belfast and attended a memorial service in Wellington Hall for missionaries martyred during the 1964 Simba rebellion in the Congo. At the end of the service, there was an appeal for young people willing to replace those who had died. She instantly knew in her heart that God wanted her to go.
Given instability in the country, the door for missionaries to go there was closed for a time. Maud continued her training with WEC whilst spending the summer of 1966 working with Operation Mobilisation (OM) in France, which helped her brush up on her French language skills. The Lord continued to provide both financially and practically through Maud’s family and friends back in Ireland. Her preparation continued and she travelled to Belgium to study French and complete a tropical diseases course. Then, as Maud finished her courses in 1968, the door to the Congo reopened. She was commissioned by WEC and on Thursday 10th October 1968 she set sail alongside two other missionaries. Two weeks later, their ship was making its way up the Congo River. They had arrived.
Initially Maud and her fellow missionaries spent a few weeks in Kinshasa, the capital, whilst adapting to their new surroundings, the climate and completing specific preparation courses before travelling into the heart of the Congo. She experienced the highs and lows of tropical weather, mud roads and makeshift bridges as she made her way through the jungle to the mission station in Wamba. Maud was amazed at the love displayed by the Congolese people. Despite the living conditions, poor healthcare and the volatile government, they made her very welcome. She began working in the local health centre and started to learn Swahili to allow her to communicate with the vast number of people in need.
From there, Maud moved onto Nebobongo to work in the main hospital in the area. It proved to be a real eye-opener, learning new procedures and skills often conducted by doctors. She had to adapt her skills, training up in anaesthetics and pharmacy. Additionally, Maud found herself not only helping pregnant mothers but dealing with all manner of disease, including leprosy, malaria, pneumonia, polio and worms. The work was intense and tiresome but Maud was happy to endure as she felt God’s strength in all she did. She was able to rub shoulders with fellow missionaries, including Jack and Daisy Scholes (who had worked alongside C.T Studd) and the renowned Helen Roseveare. Church services, prayer times, and continued fellowship with those she served alongside and the local church, all provided the refreshment needed when things got tough.
Airmail provided Maud with news of events at home in Ireland, and as exciting as it was to hear from family and friends, it often reinforced the sacrifice and solitude of being far away. She missed her sister’s wedding and heard of the sickness and death of family members whilst on the mission field, which was very difficult to bear at times. In early 1970, Maud returned to Wamba to serve in the mission station’s health centre. With the experience she had gained in Nebobongo Hospital, she began organising the building of a maternity ward. Before it could be officially opened, Maud received the devastating news that her mother was seriously ill following a stroke.
Reluctant to leave the mission field, she returned home in May 1971 after confirmation from the Lord. Upon her return, the family found out Maud’s mother had terminal cancer. Discharged to the care of the family, Maud and her family cared for her at the family farm. Every night she would delight in hearing Maud pray and share the scriptures until she passed away in August.
Maud’s father was reluctant for her to leave home. Being twenty years older than his wife, he had always expected to depart first and he was now frail and in his eighties. Despite her longing to return to the Congo, Maud decided to stay and care for him. She accepted a short-term post in Magherafelt Hospital, with three weeks turning into seven years. Resistant to the Christian faith all his life, Maud had the privilege of leading her father to the Lord before his passing. Contrary to her initial expectations, the Lord had brought her home to assure her of her parent’s salvation and to give her the comfort of knowing that she would see them in glory.
Return to the Congo
Maud returned to the Congo (now called Zaire) in January 1980, going first to Nebobongo Hospital and taking over the management the maternity unit, as well as becoming the resident anaesthetist. Through prayer and experience gained by working with leading doctors who flew in specifically to conduct operations, Maud found her way in her new role. The hospital buildings had changed since Maud’s first term, with new brick buildings, generators powering electricity and local people being trained up to assist in providing care and surgery.
Twelve hours days became the norm as the provision of medical care was extended to the regional rural communities. Conditions were primitive at best, with mud huts often becoming operating theatres. Reaching such remote locations was only made possible by working in unison with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). MAF chartered missionaries to inaccessible parts of the world in their small single-engine planes, and Maud developed great relationships with the ministry and the pilots who assisted her work. In 1982, Maud was joined in Nebobongo by MAF missionaries Andy and Jan Briggs, who would provide transport to her and other missionaries in the area. Maud stayed in Nebobongo until late 1984.
"Only He and His promises have carried name through the many difficult circumstances in my life"
After a term of leave, Maud returned to Zaire, having been asked to move to Mulita, a remote village in the heart of the rainforest. The hospital consisted of mud huts with roofs made of sticks and leaves, which constantly needed replacing. Mud huts also provided the setting for the Bible school, primary school and leprosy department. Leprosy was rife in Mulita and attending lepers became one of her main roles after midwifery.
The local tribes in Mulita adopted Maud as one of their own. It was an extremely isolated post, 120 km from the nearest missionary base, and although the WEC field leaders were concerned about the lack of support, Maud felt at peace that she was where God wanted her. Conditions were basic, with no electricity or running water, an old oil drum for an oven, and a one-ring paraffin oil stove on which to cook. The radio transmitter was powered by a car battery and toilets were pit-latrines, dug into the ground.
The number of mothers dying in childbirth was a great concern in Mulita and assistant midwives were needed. Maud was horrified to discover the maternity unit was a mud hut with mud floors. With the amount of blood loss in childbirth, hygiene was a big concern – how do you wash a mud floor? The local community and church leaders rose to the challenge by providing two brickmaking machines that they had hidden in the forest from bandits to begin construction of a new maternity unit, leprosy unit, and a house for Maud. Through the process of trial and error, they all worked together to perfect the art of brickmaking. As building work was under way, Maud began training student midwives to support her efforts.
Although her medical work was her main focus, Maud continued to share the gospel with her students and patients, and she was constantly aware of her own spiritual need. Evenings and weekends were spent attending church services, Bible studies, prayer meetings and other services. Maud also assisted in teaching in the local Bible College, training students to become evangelists and pastors to serve the local communities and tribes.
In the early 90’s, political unrest and corruption in Zaire led to a deterioration of the country’s infrastructure. The economy was crippled and inflation was out of control. With the country in meltdown, the people reacted violently, looting and rioting in major towns and cities. Embassies called for all foreign expatriates to leave the country. At short notice, Maud and fellow missionaries would have to evacuate, sometimes for a few days and on other occasions for several months. It was a difficult situation and, unfortunately, it was to become a frequent occurrence.
Disease continued to wreak havoc. Various outbreaks spread due to inadequate medical supplies, leading to many deaths. In addition, people from towns and villages up to 130km away would arrive at Maud’s door asking for help to deliver a baby or for medical supplies. She could never turn them away. Tired and exhausted, Maud, continued to work to help those in need.
As Maud returned to Ireland for leave, the political unrest continued. Attacks on communities were carried out by corrupt military soldiers who hadn’t been paid. With the government in steady decline, Rwanda and Uganda invaded Zaire in 1996 in an attempt to overthrow the government, and so the first Congo War began. Rebel soldiers began looting missionary stations and villages, driving locals into the rainforest. Mulita was pillaged and anything of worth was stolen. Maud’s leave was extended until tensions died down and it was safe to return.
Despite a new government being formed in May 1997, renaming the country the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), tensions remained high. Maud came back to Mulita, defiantly persisting in restoring the village and helping the locals, despite the danger from rebel soldiers. However, in 1998, the conflict returned with the start of the Second Congo War, in which nine African nations ultimately become embroiled. Maud was one of nineteen missionaries rescued by MAF pilots from rebel fighters, with seconds to spare, as conditions spiralled out of control. Maud used her leave to promote the work on the mission field, sharing about the goodness of God, the miracles she had witnessed and the great need of the DRC to hear the Gospel.
" What an honour to identify with Him (Christ),tribal though my experience was in comparison to what He has done for us."
A Different Door
As the conflict in the DRC escalated, an opportunity opened in 1999 for Maud to work with Samaritans Purse in Southern Sudan, where war had been raging for sixteen years. Maud liked the idea as it allowed her to monitor the situation in bordering DRC. She headed up medical provision in a reopened healthcare centre in Akot, to cater for the needs of returning refugees.
Even though it was classified as safe, the centre was still a target for the Northern Sudanese Army and bombing raids. When asked to evacuate, Maud refused. She continued to serve in stressful conditions and enjoyed sharing God’s word during devotions with staff members each morning and at church services.
Having visited the DRC during an exploratory trip in late 2000 while she was working in Sudan, Maud had planned to make a return journey in early 2001. However, President Laurent Kabila was then assassinated, plunging the country into chaos. During the four years of the Second Congo War, two million people are estimated to have died in North-eastern Congo and many were displaced. It was one of the worse cases of genocide ever recorded, with the victims including hundreds of patients who were murdered in their beds in Nyankunde Mission Hospital.
Joseph Kabila succeeded his father and signed a peace agreement in August 2002, along with the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda. Foreign troops began to return to their own countries and were replaced by UN peacekeepers.
" My desire to glorify Him in all aspects of my life has increased with the years. It is so encouraging to know that He is sovereign in all situations of life and in our world today"
Back to the Congo
Maud returned to Nebobongo in late 2002 after four years in Sudan. She was the first missionary to do so. Whilst things were returning to normal in the DRC, there was still some unrest with rebel soldiers in the area. Attempts to return to Mulita were hampered, firstly by Mount Nyiragongo erupting and then by the continued rebel fighting. Therefore, she stayed and worked in the hospital in Nebobongo.
It wasn’t until January 2004 that Maud could come back to Mulita. The village had been virtually destroyed, with many locals killed or forced to flee to the forest for safety. Maud returned to a large crowd who congregated to give her an official welcome, and when news spread of her arrival, many re-emerged from the forest. Together they began to rebuild the village, constructing mud houses, restoring the brick buildings and repairing the hospital, Bible school and airstrip. By 2010, Mulita was thriving again. A paediatric ward was opened to extend the hospital and care for more patients was undertaken with specialist surgeons and consultants flying in to conduct a variety of operations. The area remained peaceful despite a few occasions of unrest. In 2013, WEC celebrated its centenary marking 100 years since C.T. Studd’s first expedition to Africa, with celebrations taking place in both the UK and in the DRC. Work continued in Mulita with a newly built school for over 400 pupils and a nursery school.
One Fateful Night
In the early hours of one morning in January 2015, Maud was confronted by bandits after been lured to the maternity unit by a hoax call. As she returned to her home, two men wearing camouflage uniforms ran towards her. One carried a gun disguised in leaves. Thinking it was only a replica, Maud tried to disarm the robber and was shot through the chest where the bullet narrowly missed a major artery and her spine. She had two fractured ribs and two damaged vertebrae. Miraculously, her spinal cord was not severed.
Maud spent an anxious seven minutes calling for help before collapsing in the doorway of her home (people were afraid to come out of their houses). Eventually, help came with medical staff from the hospital stabilising her before MAF airlifted her to Nyankunde Hospital for further treatment. Maud spent six days there and the next six weeks recuperating with friends, before eventually returning home to Ireland.
During periods of leave in the past, Maud would often share her story in different churches throughout Ireland. It allowed her to raise awareness of the need in the DRC and the work of WEC, and helped provide support for her ministry. On this occasion, her return to Ireland catapulted her into the spotlight, with many people keen to hear about her ordeal. Maud, now 75, was presented with a great opportunity to witness to the faithfulness of God and to encourage people of His power through interviews in the local media. She was crowned Belfast Telegraph’s ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2015 and was awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours List in recognition of her services and commitment to the people of Mulita at a service in Buckingham Palace.
Maud was distraught to hear that, back in Mulita, a night guard had been arrested after been falsely accused of her attack. He had been fending off the other perpetrator when Maud was shot. The guard was arrested alongside the hospital secretary and church carpenter, all of whom Maud knew to be innocent. Despite phone calls to the governor and leader of the army, they were initially released but then rearrested. Maud knew that to ensure justice she would have to return, and therefore, in December 2015, Maud arrived in Mulita to prove the men’s innocence and negotiate their release. Eventually, the authorities relented and they were freed.
Maud served in Mulita until January 2017 when she officially retired from service with WEC International. She handed over all her work and responsibilities to those she had trained and to local church leaders. During her final trip in December 2019, at the age of 79, Maud was awarded the Médaille du Mérite Civique, a highly prestigious honour in DRC. She was the first expatriate to ever receive it. During this trip she delivered medical supplies to the maternity unit in Mulita. She recalls her final goodbye to her friends and colleagues: “On leaving I looked out over the sea of faces and waving hands as I said ‘good-bye’ realising the majority were born in our little maternity unit and most were born again by God’s Holy Spirit in the church in our backyard... truly a precious and wonderful harvest.”
" He (Jesus) has done it all. All Glory belongs to Him"
Maud’s story is one of faithfulness, grit, determination and amazing faith. She survived disease outbreaks, car accidents, aerial bombardments, volcanic eruptions, shootings, hostile soldiers and much, much more. Over the years, almost everything she possessed was stolen or destroyed – her Land Rover, radio transmitter, medical supplies, solar panels, water barrels, bicycles etc. However, God continued to be faithful and supplied her every need. The little baby who was not expected to last the night she was born, ended up living a life many could only dream of: serving the Lord with great distinguish, saving many lives and winning many souls for the Kingdom of God.
At LMI, we salute and honour Maud for her service on the mission field and the inspiration she is to everyone who listens to her. For a more in-depth account of her story, Maud’s book ‘An Open Door: A True Story of Courage in Congo’ is available to purchase online. We highly recommend this fascinating read.
All Bible quotations are taken from the ESV, published by Crossway.