ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Healers in the Midst of Killing

Three religious women are hospital administrators in Beirut. Their daily courage and compassion let them be called “blessed.”

In Beirut, the routines of life have been shaped by twelve years of warfare. Random violence, political chaos, and personal despair are commonplace. The battle lines are often obscure, and conflicts might suddenly arise where they are least expected – especially within an individual under the stress of imminent death.

By now, Beirut’s population is wary and weary. Each and every day the first goal is to survive. Under the circumstances, there might seem to be little time for compassion or for courageous acts.

The line between cowardice and courage blurs as people do what they must to survive the conflict. Values become victims. Parents willingly sell their children to give them a better chance to survive until adulthood. Militias routinely intimidate the population, which treads the line between courage and cowardice in a desperate balancing act called survival. Usually courage is a matter of distinguishing between what is within one’s control and what is beyond it, and then doing the best with what one can control.

Vital services in Beirut operate only under the worst conditions. In a war afflicting so many people over such a long period, medical services are strained to their limits, even as they suffer damage and deterioration. Courageous individuals, especially among the native Christian community, keep hospitals open while battles literally rage around them. For example, three religious women, each a native Lebanese, serve the victims of that terrible conflict daily with great faith in the mercy and justice of God to lead them and their country to peace.

Sister Pauline Fares operates the 75-bed acute-care facility in the Hadeth sector of greater Beirut. For twelve years she has administered Saint Teresa Hospital, a war-ravaged structure that is in worse shape than most of its patients. It sits so close to the demarcation line between the warring factions that it is savagely and repeatedly bombarded. More than half of the complex cannot be used because it is so heavily damaged and because of its dangerous location.

But there is no cutting back in the amount of care provided there. Twenty-four-hour shifts are frequent, especially when the battles are fierce and the casualties many.

Various armed groups have often occupied Saint Teresa Hospital because of its strategic location. Through it all, Sister Pauline maintained her presence so she could care for the sick and wounded.

No obstacle could keep her from her duties. When an army seized the hospital and physically expelled her entire community, she counterattacked. Alone, she walked back into the hospital and demanded that the troops leave. Stunned by her forcefulness, the troops withdrew, and she reclaimed the hospital.

Sister Pauline has never hesitated to place her own life at risk in the service of others. Twice she has been shot and wounded as a result of her everyday heroism. Still, after running this hospital during the twelve years of war, she does not want to change her responsibilities and move to a quiet place of work. “Saint Teresa is the place for me,” she says. “I can’t imagine being anywhere but with the poor and needy I serve.”

Sister Pauline and her staff show mercy. In turn, her ministry has been shown mercy in an unlikely place and by unlikely people.

In Beirut’s sector called Hazmieh, Sister Simone Abi Deeb oversees Sacred Heart Hospital. This healthcare facility houses 170 beds. Shelling has significantly and repeatedly damaged it since the outbreak of the war. Yet for these twelve years, the hospital continues to operate in spite of physical and financial insecurity.

Sister Simone spent ten years in the hospital’s emergency room – though almost any room there could be called one. Working this “hot spot” often brought her into conflict with the contending factions, who wanted to carry the outside battles into this place of healing. Her quiet strength and steady courage sustained an atmosphere where peace and justice were expected in the midst of the most extreme conflict.

She never turned anyone away, and never hesitated to place herself at risk for the good of the patients. Once she was seriously injured during an emergency run. While she supervised the transport of a critically ill patient to another institution through bombardment and gunfire, her ambulance crashed. Her face still shows the scars of that night of dedication.

Over the years of combat in Beirut, the profit hospitals have gradually closed their units. People just don’t have the money to pay for medical care. In turn, Sacred Heart Hospital serves more patients each week. Sister Simone considers it one of her more important professional responsibilities to keep the expensive kidney dialysis unit operating at the hospital. She finds it impossible to say no to the poor who are sick.

Sister Simone hungers and thirsts for justice, and finds satisfaction in what she can do for the people who come to Sacred Heart.

In Saint Charles Hospital in the Fyadieh sector of Beirut, Sister Marie Leonard Maazroni and her staff of Sisters maintain beds for 150 patients. They are peacemakers on the front line of battle. A previous group which had run the hospital left because they feared for their safety.

Daily life experienced by the hospital’s religious women makes M*A*S*H look like a day at a summer resort. Heavy shelling constantly threatens these nuns and their patients. They can’t control the bombardments, though, and the wounded need care.

During a particularly grim period, battling militias cut all electricity and water to the facility. Sister Marie Leonard had every patient moved to the basement for safety. For twelve days without water or bread, they waited there for relief. Following a severe bombardment, dead bodies could only be placed in the sub-basement until they could be given a proper burial. Amputated limbs were, in desperation, buried in the hospital garden.

Throughout her five years at Saint Charles, Sister Marie Leonard received anyone injured or sick, regardless of military, political, or religious affiliation. Her stance brought threats with it.

Once a militia group surrounded the hospital. They wanted the injured enemy soldiers. As Sister Marie Leonard stood at the hospital entrance, a rifle was pointed at her head to convince her to comply.

She didn’t blink. Hatred and fear have spurred the bloodletting in Lebanon to the point where massacres can be expected, and Sister Marie Leonard would not risk that happening. With a clear, calm voice she insisted that the advancing troops would have to kill her before they could capture the wounded combatants under her care inside Saint Charles.

Despite more threats, the soldiers eventually withdrew. Sister refused to allow the military to “carry the war inside” her hospital except, literally, over her dead body.

Twice her government has decorated Sister Marie Leonard for outstanding service and selfless dedication in health care. She is a peacemaker.

The daily Christian witness of these hospital administrators shows the courage which comes with acts of dedication. Of course, in the struggle for survival each day, no one has time or interest in pinning on labels, whether it be coward or hero. Their actions define who they are, and judgment can wait on the schedule of the one Judge who matters.

Sister Maureen Grady, a Holy Cross Sister, is director of the Pontifical Mission in Beirut. Sister Christian Molidor, a Sister of Mercy, is director of development for the missions of CNEWA.

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