Sisters, teachers and young visitors celebrate the feast of St. Barbara with song and dance. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Residents of a Sisters of the Cross facility wear masks as they prepare for a skit. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
A Sister of the Cross involves her young friend in interactive play. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
No photos, the nun said. She meant it. She was protecting the feelings of a group of Down syndrome adults cared for by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross of Lebanon.
You are, of course, welcome to visit, the nun added, trying to soften the blow. Waiting for someone to show me around, I tucked my camera deep into my bag in an out of sight, out of mind maneuver.
It was December, one of Lebanons best months. A warm sun energized both the birds outside and the patients and staff. Waiting was a pleasure. Suddenly I heard drums. A van of schoolchildren from a Catholic school had arrived to serenade the sisters on this feast day of St. Barbara.
The feast of St. Barbara, celebrated in Lebanon on 4 December, closely resembles Halloween. Many legends have developed around this early Christian martyr who was condemned and beheaded by her father. One such legend reveals that Barbara fled her family and sought anonymity and safety through disguise.
On the feast, children dressed in costume travel from house to house where they are welcomed by fellow Christians handing out candy and coins. Gypsies, Spanish dancers, ghosts, devils, clowns and ballerinas swarmed around the surprised sisters and their friends.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Cross, a Latin (Roman) Catholic community numbering 242 sisters, traces its roots to Father Jacques Haddad (1875-1954). Ordained a Latin Catholic priest in 1901, Father Haddad also directed the schools of the Capuchin Mission in the Middle East. He expanded the number of village schools and entrusted the care of them to local priests. By 1910 Father Jacques had established 163 schools with 7,000 students. His method of education is as much a model for today as it was then: Choose good teachers, work to ensure a high standard of education and strengthen each child in the Catholic faith.
From 1903 to 1914 Father Jacques preached the Gospel throughout the region, now the nations of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. With a knapsack on his back he bore the heat of summer and the cold of winter to enliven the faith of ordinary people. He composed hymns, published an Arabic magazine, The Family Friend, and organized first communion ceremonies and student rallies. His moments of personal time were spent in silent prayer before the cross and in meditation on the Scriptures.
Father Jacques pastoral mission changed in 1914 after the Ottoman Empire, of which present-day Lebanon was a part, entered World War I. Lebanon was caught up in more that just the fighting: in four years disease and famine claimed one third of the population.
Responding to these troubles, Father Jacques set up soup kitchens, orphanages and workshops. In 1919 he built a chapel, raised a cross and erected a modest building named the Monastery of the Cross.
In 1926 this remarkable priest, a one-man relief organization, encountered an old priest in a hospital who was alone, wretchedly poor and close to death. Father Jacques brought the man to his home. Soon he brought other elderly, ailing priests to this modest monastery. They were cared for by the Sisters of Lons-Le-Saunier and their Lebanese novices. By 1930 they had formed together the nucleus of a new religious congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross of Lebanon.
Since then, the community has followed Father Jacques precise directive: Give your preferences to the most abandoned.
Recognizing their commitment and seeing the need throughout the country, the Lebanese government sent the ill and in-firm as well as those paralyzed in body and mind to the Monastery of the Cross. So heavy was the governments contribution the monastery was dubbed The Republic of the Unfortunate. By 1950 the facility was exclusively a psychiatric hospital.
In 1967 the Holy See granted pontifical status to this community of Franciscan sisters who bear the crosses of those whose own grow too heavy to bear.
The sisters facilities provide shelter for the elderly, destitute, orphaned, handicapped and infirm.
CNEWA through its Beirut office supports three institutions sponsored by the sisters: an orphanage and two hospitals for the mentally and physically disabled. What began as one mans work with the poor is today a network of facilities that includes schools, hospitals, shelters and orphanages throughout Lebanon and Syria.
If there is ever a place where cleanliness is next to godliness, it is a Sisters of the Cross facility. Floors are washed three times a day, and bed linens are always fresh. The elderly and dependent are comfortable, active and enjoy life at the facility. Card games usually follow a hearty and nutritious lunch. These residents havecome a long way since Father Jacques soup kitchens.
The number of people cared for at these apostolates begs a question: Where are the families of these needy people? This question rubs the smiles off the dedicated staffs faces. They are ashamed for those Lebanese who have not taken responsibility for their elderly or handicapped family members. Many mentally handicapped children are brought to the sisters and then abandoned.
Families claim that their children are stillborn if they are born with a handicap, said one social worker. Only one-fifth of our patients are visited by their families, added one of the sisters.
In spite of this astounding statistic, attitudes are slowly changing, and positive reinforcement is underway for those families who participate in their family members care. Social workers who collaborate with the Sisters of the Cross work with patients families to persuade them that family love and participation are vital. Furthermore, a mini-Special Olympics is in the works for the physically and mentally handicapped.
Love thats what they need, my guide asserted as we walked into a room flooded with sunshine and colorful quilts. What looked like four- and five-year-old children in this room were actually teen-agers whose bodies were robbed of growth and whose minds had failed to develop. The room provided a safe, secure playing area for these residents. Toys were often used to stimulate those who could respond. But nothing worked better than a smile and a hug from nuns and staff.
The energy required of this community is replenished by young novices, three of whom I met during my visit. All three young women have sponsors from the United States who, through CNEWAs sponsorship program, contribute to their education and living expenses. Studies are strenuous, separation from family is painful and a future of difficult work could take its toll. But these challenges have created a bond that helps the women persevere. And youth, with its built-in buoyancy, provides extra time for some basic nunsense.
And nunsense was the order of the day after the departure of the Catholic students. As we continued on the tour, a group of Down syndrome adults asked if they could perform a skit for the nuns and their guest. They donned masks and, once safely behind them, they were transformed into happy, dancing characters.
On seeing this, the nuns agreed: photos were definitely in order.
A longtime resident of Beirut, Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor.