By Erik Zygmont
PARKVILLE – As they sit close to each other in the small living room of their two-story apartment, the Mudiays could be starring in a life insurance ad.
The smiles, affectionate hand-pats and organic interplay between generations, however, are the real thing, as the family has earned a security that biannual payments can’t buy.
Annie Mukuna, the mother, offered a word of advice for her son, Valentin Mudiay, a college freshman who is sure of a career in business but not of his major.
“You need to pray, and (God) will show you – ask him,” Mukuna said. “At this point, it’s not Mom; it’s not Dad.”
That’s not to say Mom and Dad have not done their part, or that they didn’t receive a helping hand from multiple institutions in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Four of the five Mudiay children, all graduates of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Fells Point, are in college. The youngest is the fourth Mudiay to attend Mother Seton Academy in Baltimore, which similarly serves students with both a strong academic aptitude and financial need.
“We wanted our children to know that morality exists, and it should be maintained,” Mukuna said of her children’s Catholic education.
Marianist Brother Jesse O’Neill, campus minister at Mother Seton Academy, credited Mukuna and her husband, Claude Mudiay, with setting an impeccable example.
“They are very unassuming and very faithful,” he said. “They take their service hours seriously and serve with a high level of involvement. It’s always a pleasure to be around them.”
Regarding the “graciousness and respect that permeates through the whole family,” Brother Jesse said, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak tree.”
Claude Mudiay makes a point during a recent conversation in his Parkville home. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)
Sometimes a healthy oak is the result of a transplant.
As a young woman, Mukuna enjoyed a promising accounting job in Kinshasa, the capital city of the family’s native Democratic Republic of the Congo. She became caught in the middle of a dispute, however, between her employer, a Belgian-owned hotel, and the government of then-President Laurent Désiré Kabila.
“They didn’t think about their impact on the people,” she said of Kabila’s regime. “Their only thing was, ‘How much money do we have?’ ”
The dispute originated with unpaid-for rooms and migrated to taxes. Mukuna – under pressure to sign a statement that the hotel was in arrears to the government – knew she was in danger. She took advantage of an employee benefit – plane tickets for her, her husband and their four children (the youngest would be born in the U.S.) to a destination of their choice.
That was in 2000. They’ve been in Baltimore since.
“It was a big struggle at the beginning,” Mukuna said, noting that neither her husband’s nor her employment credentials were easily transferable, and they had no idea how to access the funds in their Belgian bank account.
The Catholic family had difficulty finding a church, until they went to St. Matthew in Northwood, where Father Joseph Muth Jr. is the pastor.
“If I can ever win something to give back to him, I will do it,” Mukuna said. “He is our brother, our counselor, our adviser, everything.”
“We did with them what we do with a lot of our immigrant families,” said Father Muth, who leads one of the most ethnically diverse parishes in the archdiocese. “We met them in their uneasy, scared condition and surrounded them with our church until they began to feel more secure and safe.”
One of the first orders of business was addressing the school situation. The Mudiays’ oldest child, Andre, fared well in the local elementary school, but things changed in middle school.
Mukuna noticed that he seemed withdrawn and quieter. Father Muth noticed it too.
Visiting the school, she said, she was shocked by the commotion and language in the hallways.
As Andre finished middle school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High opened in Fells Point. Father Joe recommended that the Mudiays look into it.
“At Cristo Rey, Andre started talking more again, and expressing himself,” Mukuna said. “In Congo, all the best schools are Jesuit schools.”
Andre graduated in 2011 and is in his final year at the University of Baltimore. Three other Mudiay siblings – Anastasie, a sophomore at Towson University; Justine, a freshman at Notre Dame of Maryland University; and her twin brother, Valentin, a freshman at Loyola University Maryland – followed him through Cristo Rey.
Gina King, the school’s director of college counseling, remembers Andre and Anastasie for their work ethic.
“For them, it was just intrinsic motivation to be better,” she said. “They were collaborative, not competitive. The school’s emphasis on being ‘men and women for others’ was natural for them. It came from their family and was fostered at Cristo Rey.”
Jen Ewing, the associate director of college counseling, worked with the twins, Justine and Valentin.
“They were constantly bouncing ideas off each other,” she said, adding that the pair exhibited a “tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness” not seen in all high school students.
The Mudiays particularly enjoyed Cristo Rey’s corporate internship program; Valentin’s internship with Legg Mason inspired him to study business.
“I got to do some of the work that regular employees did,” he said. “The stockbrokers sometimes let me just sit in the room with them and watch, and they would explain things to me.”
Justine said that she appreciated the academic rigor of Cristo Rey. She is enjoying more of the same at Notre Dame of Maryland University, while adding basketball to the mix, saying, “I always thought sports helped by adding structure.”
Anastasie is hedging her bets, studying both health care management and communications.
“I want to find something I enjoy, but if that doesn’t work, at least I can fall back on health care,” she said.
Mukuna gazed at her children.
“They are studying hard and there are opportunities for jobs,” she said. “With their heads well-set, they’ll get where they want to go.”
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