The Noel de Nyundo Orphanage began at Muramba in the Western Province, opening its doors on Christmas day 1954. It was established by Monseigneur Aloys Bigirumwami (first Bishop of Nyundo) to care for babies whose mothers had died in childbirth. Traditionally these living babies would have been buried with their mother.
Rita Van Callie, a Belgium nurse, headed the staff assisted by 20 young women. Orphans taken there stayed until they were about 3 years old before being returned to family members. However, the orphanage was not in an ideal location for looking after children who became ill, being 90km from the nearest hospital.
In 1964, the Governor of the Belgian Province of Limbourg granted financial aid to build a better centre in Nyundo, only 12km away from Gisenyi hospital. The new orphanage buildings were also bigger, accommodating children who needed to stay for longer than 3 years. By the end of 1966 the 52 children living in Muramba were transferred to Nyundo. The official opening of the buildings took place in March 1967.
Originally, in order to gain admission a child had to be orphaned by their mother or both parents, very young and in possession of a certificate of poverty as issued by the competent authority, such as the Bourgmestre (Belgian Regional Official).
Between 1954 and 1973, around 600 orphans were taken in at some point by the Noel. Most of these children were, after time, returned to their families and after care conducted by the local authorities.
In 1991, Rita Van Callie had to leave Rwanda due to health issues and Athanasie Nyirabagesera, a religious sister of the church succeeded her. She became fondly known as Madam Director. By now there was also a new Bishop of Nyundo overseeing the Noel, Monseigneur Wenceslas Kalibushi, who was outspoken in his support of ethnic unity and equality in Rwanda. His compound was one of the first targets attacked by Hutu extremists at the onset of the 1994 Genocide Against Tutsi.
As a result of the 1990-1994 wars, the number of orphans grew significantly. Aided by the Noel’s numerous friends, the children escaped the violence and were evacuated to Goma in the DRC with Madam Director. Before the 100 days of mass slaughters, the Noel was re-established in Nyundo. By September 1994 the orphanage was homing 600 children of all ages.
During the post war struggles (1997-1999), the orphanage was attacked on numerous occasions by the Interahamwe militia. There was no human loss of life, but the attacks led to huge deprivations for the Noel, such as loss of food for the children including the slaughter of the entire herd of cows. Intervention by the Rwandan Patriotic Army eventually prevented continued attacks and Canadian UN soldiers provided humanitarian aid.
Under Madam Director’s management the orphanage continued to provide care not just for orphans, but lost, abandoned and vulnerable children too. She managed to secure aid from NGO’s and international organisations to feed, clothe and educate the children. A crisis point was overcome by further international help around 2007, when funds were so low food supplies were running out and buildings crumbling.
Since its inception, the Noel took in over 3,000 children. In 2012 the Government of Rwanda began to close its state orphanages. At that time there were 700 children at the Noel, a third of them over the age of 18. Rwanda’s National Children’s Commission (NCC) and UK organisation Hope & Homes for Children (HCC) were mandated with the task of reunifying children back to family members or trained foster families. By Christmas 2014 there were no children left at the Noel and after six decades Rwanda’s largest orphanage finally closed its doors.