It’ll be 26 years this summer that Deacon Jim and Henrietta Nistler boarded an airplane to Africa and took what they call a “leap of faith.”
In July 1990, Bishop Kinney sent the first team of missionaries to lay the groundwork and start the Bismarck Diocese Mission in Africa to serve the poorest of the poor.
In a way, the decision to go was both the easiest and the hardest of their lives. “We discerned and prayed about it,” Jim said. “As the time got closer it just felt right, so we left our jobs, cleaned out our house and got on an airplane.”
The Nistlers will be honored by Catholic Charities North Dakota with the Caritas Award at a special luncheon on May 10 at Spirit of Life Church in Mandan. The annual award is given to those who exemplify the bringing of faith, hope and love to the least of God’s people.
Timing was right
Despite the difficult decision to leave their family behind, the couple said the timing was right. Their kids were grown and had given their blessing.
“We had talked about the possibility of mission work,” Henritta noted. “But then after Jim joined the diaconate program we heard more about Bishop Kinney’s intensions. We just felt we had been blessed in so many ways in our lives that it was time to give back to mankind.”
The decision was easy, but still difficult at the same time. Henrietta said she’d never forget what it felt like to board that plane and leave everyone and everything behind. “I still tear up when I think about the noise that airplane made that day. It was like it was working really hard to pull me away from my family.”
It was a life-changing mission that the couple knows was meant to be. “It was both exciting and scary,” Jim added. “The four of us were ground beakers.”
That first team included Fr. Bruce Krebs, currently pastor at Our Lady of Grace in Minot, and Kathy King, a teacher who left her job in Dickinson to become a missionary. The mission first began in East Africa, but after continued violence near the Somali border was relocated to western Kenya (the present-day location).
The Nistlers had intended to serve for three and a half years, but ended up staying for nine.
After the initial intended stay, the couple felt they should remain there longer. “We were just starting to learn the culture and our work so we decided to stay with the blessing of Bishop Kinney and then later Bishop Zipfel,” Jim explained “But then at about eight and a half years, our children wanted us back. We were missing a lot of their lives and our grandchildren’s.”
Henrietta said the biggest impact was to see how simply the people lived and how happy they were to do so. That, along with their genuine hospitality made it a beautiful experience.
“They had a wonderful saying in Swahili that basically translated to ‘no matter how bad, God is here,’ ” she said. “They were so carefree, living free of possessions and instead, just cared for each other. We were truly blessed to be part of their lives.”
Jim said that same carefree attitude allowed them to learn from each other. “I went over there thinking that I was going to teach them all our ways, but I quickly became the student watching and learning from them. Sure, I tried to help and improve things, but we made a lot of mistakes and they’d just laugh, correct it and move on.”
Support from the diocese
The love and acceptance from the locals made it easy for the Nislters to remain in Africa for so long, but the support from the diocese is what made it possible.
“We’d receive cards, letters and packages from people that we didn’t even know,” Jim said. “We couldn’t have done what we did without the support of our bishops and the generous people of the diocese who give to the mission. I guess it reminds me of that old saying, ‘some give by going and some go by giving.’ ”
The Nistlers know the big commitment for mission work and encourage anyone considering it to really examine the idea. “It has to be someone willing to extend themselves and just take one day at a time,” Jim said of the next missionary.
Henrietta added, “If it might be you, follow through and find out.”
All are welcome to attend the luncheon May 10 from 11:30-1 p.m. at Spirit of Life Church in Mandan to honor the Nistlers. The luncheon is free, but RSVPs are required by April 29. To learn more and reserve your seat please visit
, or call (701) 235-4457.