Sister Marlene embraces her “little prince,” Rotem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Sister Katharina and a friend enjoying a few moments of physical recreation. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
A volunteer occupational therapist from Australia stimulates the children to work their muscles. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
We try to give good care to the children, explains Sister Katharina Fuch, D.C. We try to assure good health and good food. We try to make life as agreeable for them as we can. We try to find what each child likes music, play, laughter, television, radio, video. We want these children to feel good.
The children are some 60 severely mentally and physically handicapped boys and girls, aged from newborn to 16 years. The place is the Maison du Sacre Coeur the House of the Sacred Heart in the Israeli port city of Haifa. The care-givers are Sister Katharina, three other sisters, a number of local specialists and other staff.
Sister Katharina is the Austrian-born superior of the House of the Sacred Heart, established by the Daughters of Charity, the religious community founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul.
In addition to caring for the resident children, the sisters also maintain a day-care center with 240 children, assuring working mothers that their children are well cared for during the workday.
Sister Katharina outlines all these activities as we sit in her neat office. Administrative responsibilities, keeping track of the staff and all the activities, are in efficient hands.
But it is when we go down to see the children that she really comes alive. It is with them that Sister Katharina feels most at home. As we walk between the cots she greets each child in turn, stroking their heads lovingly and talking to them affectionately. As she walks past, some grab at her hands, wanting to feel her touch.
A swollen-faced young girl takes staggering steps toward us. Her name is Rana and she is clearly Sister Katharinas favorite. Ranas father and grandparents were killed in a car crash and her mother could not cope. The youngster had a tumor; an early operation was only partially successful. When Rana came to Sacre Coeur, no one thought she could do anything but lie in her cot all day. Since coming to the House of the Sacred Heart, however, thanks to the love and hard work of the staff, she has learned to walk.
Lebanese-born Sister Marlene is all smiles as she shows me her little prince. He is Rotem, now two years and five months old. Rotem was abandoned soon after birth, although just recently his mother, grandmother and aunt made a surprise visit. He suffers severe asthma attacks. Sister Marlene wants to take him out of his cot and give him a cuddle, but he is asleep. She kisses him softly on the head and reluctantly leaves him.
All the children are princes, she explains, but this one is an extra special prince.
The rooms are bright and clean and the cots, many with mobiles hanging above them, have multicolored sheets. Changing and feeding areas are all spotlessly clean. But even more striking is the attentiveness and love of all the staff, not just the sisters. Along with the care-givers, the staff of specialists helps the children develop their genetic conditions, perhaps because their parents are related. Others are handicapped because of accidents during birth. Still others are disabled because they contracted meningitis in very early childhood.
Sacre Coeur was founded in 1899 as an orphanage and girls college. After the creation of Israel in 1948, much of the Arab population fled Haifa. Sacre Coeur was closed and the sisters withdrew. In 1976, however, four Daughters of Charity returned to reopen it as a home for mentally and physically handicapped children. At first there were 30 children, but this number has now doubled.
The children come from all over Israel. Some are Arabs Christian, Druze or Muslim while others are Jews. The sisters try to keep in contact with the youngsters families, but some want nothing to do with their children.
The other part of the sisters work, the day-care center, was opened in 1984 to meet the needs of local mothers.
But it is work with the handicapped that takes up most of the sisters time and energy. They have to care for these children while they are there and also think about their futures after they leave the House of the Sacred Heart.
The children stay until they are grown up or more developed perhaps able to walk, says Sister Katharina. Then we try to find another place for them. Ours is the only center for severely handicapped children. The state is getting better at providing services in this area, but they still give us the most difficult children. It is often the parents, however, who want to place them here.
With children in this condition, deaths are sadly a common occurrence.
Last year was about average, with six deaths. Some years there are only one or two deaths; in other years there can be as many as eight.
Its a hard moment when a child dies here. We love these children and are connected with them in a special way, Sister Katharina confesses.
Sacre Coeur receives some support from the government of Israel for the care of the handicapped children, but does not receive assistance for the maintenance of the building nor for special projects like the construction of the new playroom.
In the past, through CNEWAs sponsorship program for children in need, CNEWA benefactors supported some of the handicapped children and some of the children at the day-care center who were from poor families.
CNEWAs Jerusalem office has also supported a number of special projects. Sacre Coeur, however, has no other source of regular financial assistance.
I think our house is necessary, Sister Katharina explains, as this care doesnt exist in many other places in Israel. In other places mentally and physically handicapped children just sit in chairs all day. These children need love and affection.
Maybe theyll never get better, but as long as they live its important that they are as happy as they can be.
Felix Corley is a London-based journalist.