Sister Micheline Lattouff stands in her office in Deir el Ahmar. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Muhammad, from Homs, Syria, talks to Sister Micheline about the needs of his camp in Bechouat, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
With the Year of Consecrated Life now over and the Year of Mercy beginning, ONE’s Diane Handal introduces us to a woman whose work bridges both. Good Shepherd Sister Micheline Lattouff’s mission is mercy, particularly toward the poor and vulnerable in her homeland of Lebanon. Working among the growing population of Syrian refugees settled in the Bekaa Valley, she founded a school to serve the displaced children — almost all of whom are Sunni Muslim. Here, Sister Micheline discusses her life and her vocation.
ONE: Who or what were the major influences in your life?
Sister Micheline Lattouff: When I was in high school, we had a priest. I was very impressed by this priest. He gave his time to students — listening to problems and, sometimes, sharing a day to pray and reflect on our lives. I was very influenced by him and wanted to give to people as he did.
Also, I was very impressed by my family. They were caring and giving to poor people. There was an old woman who used to beg and sell gum outside church. And, I wanted to help her and give her money, and my dad said, ‘don’t take the gum, just give her the money.’
Our house was always open to people in need. During the civil war we would invite people to stay with us. They lived in the basement.
At the start of every day, my mother made the sign of cross, to offer up her day as a prayer.
ONE: What made you decide on your vocation?
ML: When I was 17, the priest in the high school would invite us to do spiritual exercises: praying, reflection. But I wanted to play with my friends. I had my goal, but God had another goal for me. I went anyhow, just to be with my friends. But during one retreat, at the final Mass, we sang a song:
“Leave all and follow me and I will be your only path in your life.”
I felt very touched by this; I listened to the voice of God speak to me through this song. I decided to be a sister. I went home, but didn’t say anything.
My little sister Marcelle did the same retreat weekend with the Good Shepherd Sisters. And then, Marcelle signed up for another retreat. Who should arrive to pick her up but Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf. She is the provincial now, but was responsible for the novitiate then. I was ironing my brothers’ and sisters’ clothes and Sister Marie-Claude said, “Don’t you want to come on this retreat with your sister?” I said yes.
ONE: Did you ever want to get married?
ML: I was a tomboy and used to play football with the boys. I climbed trees with boys. I did have a boyfriend, but it was not very serious. I told this boy I was friendly with that I decided to enter the novitiate. The boy told me I was crazy. My reply was that all people who want to become nuns are crazy because they want to help people. ‘When I do my vows,’ I thought, ‘I will invite him.’ But there was no future for me with him.
I was 17 or 18 years old. My main goal up to then was to study and work. Marriage was not a goal.
ONE: Why did you choose the Good Shepherd Sisters?
ML: In the retreat, there was a visiting sister from Sudan, and she was telling us a story about how she works in Sudanese prisons with women prisoners and how these women are in bad shape — no toilets, no sanitary napkins. I was very inspired by how this sister helped them. And I could not believe a woman would be in this situation in Sudanese prison, losing her dignity with no one there but this one sister to help.
This retreat, the second, was the turning point for me. That is when I told my family I wanted to be a Good Shepherd sister. The decision became very clear to me. My sister came back, got married and had two children; I went into the novitiate for two years.
What really inspired me to join Good Shepherd was the fact that they would work with unrepresented people that needed help. I was inspired that they were not nuns who just prayed; they were nuns who helped the poor people. I could have gotten married and had kids and helped people and had a family, but maybe the person that I would have married would not have the same desire to help others. I did not want to be tied down; I wanted to give my life to help people.
ONE: When did you take your final vows?
ML: I made my final vows in 1998 in Beirut, at my parish. I was 29 years old.
ONE: What motivates you?
ML: I try to find what message God is sending me. I try to learn what God is trying to have me do. In 2005, I started looking at people in the villages and their suffering. The children used to play in a graveyard. Once, they burned the tail off a cat for fun. They had no normal games or activities. Their parents are illiterate and have no resources to rear their children.
I felt the Bekaa region needed support, like sheep without shepherd. I was frustrated; I thought, “What can I do for children in this area?”
ONE: So what did you do?
ML: I started asking teachers in public school, “If I make a center for children to visit after school, will you help?” And the principal offered benches and desks for free, and teachers volunteered. On Christmas 2005, I began a new experiment: From 3 to 5 p.m. an after-school program for Lebanese children from 9 to 15 years of age.
ONE: What have been some of your more rewarding moments?
ML: The best moment for me is when I see the children happy, successful in their studies and their life, when I see them able to pass through the difficulties and continue to achieve.
ONE: What have been some of your more difficult moments?
ML: The more difficult moments are when I have nothing to give the refugees. It is so difficult for me.
ONE: What thoughts sustain you during difficult times?
ML: I believe in human beings and God. I believe that God is capable of changing a person, when I see people improving from work, when I see success of people and developing.
There is a saying: The candle that is just smoking, not lighted, still has a life in it — still has hope in it. I have no right to turn it off. I believe that even if a person is in a very bad situation, my mission is to show him the spark and light it.