Sister Sophie introduces CNEWA’s Michael La Civita to a young resident of the Creche in Bethlehem. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Even at the age of 83, the indomitable Sister Sophie Boueri is ready and willing to take on a new mission in a new place; after nurturing orphans in the West Bank for 30 years, she now cares for abandoned elderly women in her native Lebanon. Her community, the Daughters of Charity, has a worldwide charism to help the poor and the marginalized. But Sister Sophie, a highly qualified pediatric nurse — and something of a maverick — pursues her own special apostolate wherever she goes. CNEWA sat down with her to learn about her early life, her calling and what keeps her strong after so many years of ministry to the poor.
ONE: Tell us about your early life.
Sister Sophie Boeuri: I was born in Jounieh, Lebanon, in 1931. My father died when I was 8. My mother was just 28 and couldn’t support four children, so I was sent to live in an orphanage. When I was 13, I had a dream I saw children crying. I asked them, “Why are you crying?” They said, “It is because the sisters do not treat us very well.” I decided to be a religious sister, to take care of orphans. My mother was against it, but I became a sister at 19.
ONE: How did you become a pediatric nurse?
SS: I went to France and spent four years studying at the Université de Lyon. I specialized in hospital management, pediatric nursing and psychology. I excelled at my studies and because of this I was able to get my papers to go to the Holy Land. I started out working in one of our hospitals in Nazareth. My mother superior then sent me to Bethlehem in 1988, during the first intifada. Our hospital had an intensive care unit and a neonatal unit, and cared for 360 newborn babies per month.
ONE: Tell us about the home you started for abandoned infants in Bethlehem.
SS: In 1989, I started caring for abandoned babies in the corner of a run-down hospital. A wing of the hospital was renovated with the help of CNEWA and we made that the Creche. Some of the children were left anonymously at the hospital, some were the victims of child abuse. Some were given up by unwed mothers, others had parents who could not take care of them.
ONE: How were you led to reach out to unwed mothers and abandoned children?
SS: I had an ambulance and I used to travel to the villages by myself. One day, I found two girls who had been stabbed to death because they were unwed mothers. It was then I decided to prepare a department to receive unwed mothers. After delivery, we took care of their babies until we could find parents to adopt them, often in the U.S. and Europe. We didn’t tell the families of these women; their lives were at risk, and so was mine!
ONE: What was it like to live in the West Bank in the middle of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
SS: I was not afraid. People were wounded in the streets. Israeli soldiers would capture someone and I would intervene. The soldiers knew me. They allowed me to pass because they respected my work with the children. At the time there was no Palestinian government. The Israelis helped me to file the papers so the children could travel. I had help from both people — Israelis and Palestinians.
ONE: You spent a total of 40 years in the Holy Land — working first with unwed mothers in Nazareth, then abandoned children in Bethlehem. Why did you come back to Lebanon?
SS: As sisters we are not allowed to stay in any one place for long; we change positions about every 10 years. I was allowed to stay in the West Bank because my work was so effective. But my mother superior sent me back to Lebanon two years ago to take care of the elderly — and because my health is not so good. But now I get no rest! I miss my babies in Bethlehem very much, and it hurts my heart to see the elderly here in Lebanon who have no one to care for them.
ONE: Tell me about your work in Lebanon.
SS: We have 40 elderly women who live in our home. Some are sisters and others are women who have no families or who have been abandoned by their families. We have one doctor and ten staff members. I am the only sister. All the women are Christians, and we accept all rites — Maronite, Orthodox, Latin. We ask only that they be Christian because we take them to Mass every day.
ONE: What kinds of activities do you provide for your residents?
SS: I take them to daily Mass and to receive the sacraments. I walk with them and I am present with them all the time. Once a patient gets better and they can move, I take them on little field trips to places such as the Marian shrine in Harissa or St. Sharbel Monastery.
ONE: What are the needs of the St. Cecile Home?
SS: We need wheelchairs and hospital beds. I also want to renovate the third floor, where we house our residents. If I can renovate that area I can receive 13 more women. We want to install skylights so the residents will have natural light, which they don’t have now.
ONE: What kinds of resources are there in Lebanon to help the elderly?
SS: In Lebanon there are many institutions to help elderly Muslims, but Christians don’t have these kinds of resources. Some are good, but they are expensive. But we don’t charge our residents anything.
ONE: Are you given any help by the Lebanese government?
SS: The Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs gives us $10 a day for each person — enough to feed them. But we are given nothing for medical care. For a person to be well cared for, we have to have at least $1,000 per month for medical treatment. In Bethlehem, I had lots of grants; in Lebanon, I always have to search for donations. People are left alone in Lebanon to find their own solutions. I want to go on TV and address the politicians! “Where is your conscience? Don’t your hearts tell you to do anything for the poor and the elderly who are dying with no assistance?” They call themselves Christians, but this is not Christianity.
ONE: What keeps you strong enough to help the elderly when you are elderly yourself?
SS: Only him! I promised Jesus a long time ago I would help all people. This is a promise I cannot break. All my life I have seen the poor and I cannot see them without helping them. Do you see how poor they are? And Sister Sophie also is very poor.