ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

If It Weren’t for Sister…

Sister Mary Gustave continues her tireless work in Lebanon.

When Sister Marie Gustave was assigned to teach high school in Damour, Lebanon, twenty-five years ago, she discovered an apostolate beyond her classroom walls. In the small mountain villages outside the town lived many Christians who were without a resident priest. They had no one to offer Mass and administer the sacraments, or to instruct and encourage them. Spiritually, they were starving to death, and the Faith was in danger of dying out.

Sister saw the situation and set out to change it. One day each week, she would visit a village with a group of her students from Damour. Sister would gather and teach the adults while her student catechists instructed the children, grouped according to age and size. Although Christian in name, the adult villagers knew little about their Faith. But while she taught them, Sister coaxed the Christians in many villages to build churches.

“Before the Sister came, we were not really Christians,” says Abu Najib, a retired policeman. “Would you believe it? I made my first confession the day I was married. We seldom saw a priest. But the Sister taught us and also persuaded us to collect some money, clear the land, and build our church. Just having this church gives us pride and confidence. And the Sister brings a priest for Mass almost every Sunday. They can never make me leave!”

During the troubles of 1975-76, when the villages were isolated, outsiders tried to stir up the Muslim villagers against their Christian neighbors. Abu Najib’s house was besieged, and his living room walls still show the bullet marks, plastered over with new cement. But none of his family was hit. Though other Christian families found it prudent to leave the village temporarily, Abu Najib stayed on, knowing that if he left, the church next door would be ransacked or ruined.

As soon as it was possible to travel again, and perhaps a bit sooner than was truly safe, Sister Marie Gustave was back making the rounds of the villages, consoling the Christians for their losses and urging them to stay. The former Greek Catholic bishop of Saida, who is now retired, says, “The Sister? She was my vicar. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think we would have any Christians still living in that district.”

Sister Marie Gustave, who recently celebrated 50 years in the religious life, now visits nine mountain villages on Fridays to give religious instruction. She goes alone with a driver, for conditions are still too unsettled for students or laywomen to accompany her. The town of Damour, where her student catechists lived, was destroyed early in 1976, and the inhabitants who escaped the massacre now live as refugees elsewhere in Lebanon. As she passes Damour, Sister remarks that it breaks her heart to see the rubble of the town whose people were so generous to her poor villagers.

Every Sunday Sister visits five of the villages in her area with a Jesuit priest from Beirut. In four of them Mass is said, preceded by the sacrament of Penance. Sister Marie Gustave knows everyone by name, and gently prods those who have gone more than a month or so without Confession.

The visit to the fifth village is just for hearing confessions. In some areas, the resident married priest is too close to his people for them to confess to him easily. So he asks Sister to bring another priest once or twice a month.

When the people have assembled in the church, Sister talks to them about their faith and ways to practice it, illustrating her points abundantly with stories and examples. Meanwhile the visiting priest hears confessions. The people approach one by one, often reluctant to miss parts of Sister’s stories.

In one of the villages there is a church in the center of town, adjoining a small house for the caretaker. But the town’s Greek and Maronite Catholics gather in a home to celebrate Mass. They are still cautious in the wake of a tragedy that occurred five years ago.

Just before the troubles of 1975, the church caretaker wrapped LL600 (about $200) in a handkerchief and placed it in a chink in the wall. He told his daughters, “This is where the money is hidden. Remember, if anything should happen to me, it belongs to the church.”

One terrible night the church was sacked, and the caretaker was murdered along with his wife and youngest daughter. A month later, an older daughter who had taken refuge in Beirut before the attack returned to the village. She found the money, still hidden in the chink in the smoke-blackened wall. The next time Sister Marie Gustave visited the village, the woman handed her the money and insisted that Sister take it.

The woman, herself a refugee with 12 children, could easily have found use for the money. But she would not think of touching it, for it belonged to the church.

Last year on Mission Sunday, Monsignor John Meaney of the Pontifical Mission in Lebanon made the rounds of the villages with Sister Marie Gustave. Meeting and talking with the people after Mass, he told them of the role they play in the Church’s worldwide mission, and he encouraged them to confess their faith in the knowledge that they are not alone.

The Pontifical Mission, sister organization of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, helps Sister Marie Gustave with transportation costs so that she can reach more villages. Sister also receives help from the Flame, an organization of women in Beirut. They supply money for travel and for little gifts that Sister distributes: clothing, sometimes food, and always candy for the children.

Whenever Sister Marie Gustave receives a little money, or a coat, dress or blanket, it goes directly to the poorest. Last Christmas a childless widower came home from Midnight Mass to find his small grocery store burned to the ground. Wind and a faulty electric fixture had cause the fire. Even his credit books were destroyed, so he did not know who owed him money.

When Sister arrived in the village and learned what had happened, she replied immediately, “Well, I suppose you are going to take up a collection for the poor man. Here is LL50 for a start.” Out came the money that someone in Beirut had just given her. The other villagers soon followed her example and began to contribute.

Whether her people’s needs are physical or spiritual – and usually they are both – Sister Marie Gustave finds a way to help. For more than twenty-five tireless years she has been caring for her beloved villagers in body and soul, nourishing their faith and hope. No wonder, then, that they lovingly think of her as their mother.

Father McDermott, an American Jesuit, is librarian of the University of St. Joseph in Beirut, Lebanon.

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