Category Archives: Charity

A Catholic priest and a parishioner team up to rescue Ukrainian orphans 

Father Jason Charron with an orphan from Ukraine. | EWTN News Nightly

A Ukrainian Catholic priest, who is married and a father of seven, recently accompanied one of his parishioners on a journey to Ukraine, where they rescued 22 orphans. 

Father Jason Charron is pastor of Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Ukrainian Catholic Church in Wheeling, West Virginia. Several weeks prior to the start of the conflict in Ukraine, he had helped a couple from his parish, Alan and Anita Sherwood, adopt a daughter from Ukraine. 

In an interview with EWTN News Nightly Charron explained, “My wife knows people back in Ukraine. So we put them in touch with some people back in the homeland, so to speak.”

They eventually brought a little girl over for a home visit. Charron said, “She stole not only their hearts, but the hearts of everyone in my parish.” 

“After about four or five weeks of the visit, at the end of it, Alan said to this beautiful little angel, ‘If anything bad ever happens, if you’re ever in danger, I’ll come and I’ll rescue you,’” he related. 

Little did he know that weeks later Ukrainians would be fleeing the country as Russian forces invaded. The same day the conflict began, Alan rushed to the church to tell Charron that he had to go to Ukraine. The two flew to Poland, where a taxi drove them to the border. 

“As you get close to the border, you’re walking across, you see this sea of humanity, just as far as the eye can see, of people lining up to get out,” Charron detailed. “You kind of get that feeling in your stomach, like, ‘how am I ever going to get out of here?’ Once I cross this border I don’t know what awaits me.’”

After crossing the border, the two made their way to the orphanage and were able to get the orphans to safety in Lithuania. 

Charron added how fortunate Ukraine is to have Poland as a neighboring country. “Catholic Poland is alive right now,” he said. “The meter of that activity in fervor is the way they treat their widows and orphans. We see that in the first chapter of James. That’s the measure of true religion. If you take care of widows and orphans.”

Dr. Paul Farmer, aka ‘kenosis man,’ emptied himself in love and service to others

Dr. Paul Farmer sits with a young leukemia patient, Marta Cassmand, in Cange, Haiti, in January 2004. Marta’s father, Sanoit Valceus (foreground), had cut a tendon in his hand with a machete and was asking Farmer for advice. (Newscom/PSG/St. Petersburg Times/Daniel Wallace)

In the early morning hours of Feb. 20, 2022, a band of angels and saints, among them some familiar faces, made their way to a humble room in rural Rwanda to bring Paul Farmer home to God. The room was filled with light and peace and there was much joy and rejoicing in the heavens as God’s good and faithful servant entered the kingdom of God.

As the word of Farmer’s death quickly spread around the world, thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life were shocked and heartbroken as they received the news of his untimely passing at the age of 62. Many knew Paul as friend, colleague, doctor, mentor and teacher, and, yes, as a personal hero. Still millions of others knew him through his exemplary reputation.

For his wonderful close-knit family — his mother, Ginny, his wife, Didi, his children, Catherine, Sebastian* and Elisabeth, and his siblings Jim, Jeff, Katie, Peggy and Jennifer — he was just “Dad” or “PJ” or “Bro,” and his death is a searing and irreversible loss.

The news of Farmer’s death has been reported widely in every major news outlet including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and social media feeds in many languages. The accomplishments of his extraordinary life have been reported in detail using words like visionary, genius, humanity’s hero, a radical pioneer, fighter, poet and healer — just to name a few.

I have seen his 120-page curriculum vitae that details his educational successes at Duke University and Harvard Medical School; his exemplary academic, teaching and administration career; his prolific publishing history with a dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles; and the long list of the many prestigious awards he received over the years, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and most recently the million-dollar Berggruen Prize (which he promptly gave away to the poor and then cheerfully quipped, “I was a millionaire for almost a week!”).

And of course, among his greatest achievements is the amazing nongovernmental organization Partners in Health that Paul founded more than 30 years ago with the late Tom White, and his dearest friends, Ophelia Dahl, Jim Kim and Todd McCormack. Partners in Health provides high-quality health care globally to those who need it most and strives to ease suffering by also providing access to food, transportation, housing and other key components of healing. It established clinics in Haiti and Rwanda and later expanded to Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Sierra Leone and the Navajo Nation in the United States.

I was Farmer’s spiritual director (or as he liked to joke, “his interior decorator”), and I can tell you that even these most impressive credentials pale in comparison to his interior life. To put it quite simply, Paul Farmer was a man of great faith who loved God wildly and with his whole heart, and he set the standard for loving his neighbor as himself.

Paul loved to give nicknames to his friends and even his patients. He affectionally called me his “BFF,” but sometimes his nicknames could be cryptic or could have even come across as irreverent if one didn’t understand the context and the love with which they were used. For example, “pus boy” was a young patient with a severe infection, and “land mine boy” was a young man injured by stepping on a landmine in post-genocide Rwanda — but these nicknames were always with said with an affection that mirrored the tender care he offered his patients.

Since Paul died, the quote from Philippians at the beginning of this essay keeps running through my head. The passage, of course, refers to the way Jesus did not cling to godliness but emptied himself unto death out of love for humanity — an emptying best expressed by the Greek word kenosis. And now “kenosis man” is my nickname for my beloved friend Paul, because he did not cling to prestige or wealth or reputation — no, he emptied himself, each and every day, in love and service to others, especially the world’s poorest people. Kenosis man, indeed.

Dominican Sr. Barbara Reid, president of Catholic Theological Union, told me it was her great privilege to moderate a discussion between Paul and his great friend and mentor Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, to launch their best-selling book, In the Company of the Poor.

Reid recounts, “The synergy between Paul and Gustavo was electric. There were more than 2,000 people at that gathering and most of them lined up to talk with Paul after the panel presentation. He stayed until every person who wanted to talk with him did so.”

That was Paul. I was with him on many occasions as we closed out many venues late at night after book signings or speeches where he stood for hours, for as long as he could, and then finally sat down when his leg — injured long ago in an accident, would start to ache. He always chatted in an unhurried manner with every person who had patiently stood in line to meet him, and now I am so glad for the thousands of pictures of Paul I took with young people — whom he often referred to as “his retirement plan.” I am sure these photos are now treasured relics.

Paul loved to be around nuns and priests and he very much admired Reid for her graciousness and her academic rigor. Sometimes he would say, “Wow! Did she really edit a hundred-volume Scripture series?”

Reid was right on point when she noted, “Paul had a way of making every person he ever met feel like they were among his best friends. He gave everyone that kind of attention, a most extraordinary gift. He truly had an enormous impact on me and I’m sure everyone else who was part of his life in any way would say the same.”

The last years of Paul’s life were very happy. The pandemic gave him long stretches of months at a time at home with his family engaged in ordinary activities — making dinner and playing Scrabble with his children, watching movies, and sometimes grocery shopping and driving his daughter to her swim lessons. He even spent a few weekends away with his beautiful wife, Didi, whom he greatly admired for her work with the Women and Girls Initiative she founded in Haiti.

In between endless Zoom sessions for teaching and meetings, he was able to carve out long hours of silence, of planting in his garden, of sitting at his koi pond nurturing his contemplative leanings. In the past months, I sensed a profound growth of his religious imagination.

He was in Rwanda for the last month of his life doing want he loved best: teaching and seeing patients. The comments and emails that he sent me during the last weeks of his life were filled with pictures of his patients with requests for prayers and updates on their conditions. The last pictures he sent me showed him sitting on the bed with a beautiful little girl named Josiane who was being treated for cancer. He was so happy that he had made her smile.

He had lost a patient just a few days ago, a young man named Faustin. He had sent me a picture of him a few days earlier to ask for prayers and told me there was a “sliver of hope.” He was so sad when he wrote and told me, “We lost Faustin at midnight.”

He sent me a picture of him with Faustin’s father and a forlorn image of four men carrying Faustin’s casket. I told him that his accompaniment of Faustin and his family was a sign of God’s love and mercy.

I was supposed to have been on this trip with Paul, but we put it off because of the omicron situation. When I said I wished I was there with him and asked if he was OK, his response was: “But you are here because you know. I am OK deep down and love this work so much.”

There are so many images throughout the years of Paul with his patients throughout the world — young and old people — many of whom he gave many extra years of life. His love and his compassion for all of humanity is the subtext of all these beautiful photos. Really, is it any wonder that his heart gave out?

Paul loved his work, his patients, his wife and his children, his mother and his siblings, and his many friends around the globe fiercely and unconditionally. Both publicly and privately, thousands of people are grief-stricken by trying to imagine our lives without Paul. For me, I know with great certainty that he is with God, and I actually know, too, that he is happy and in good spirits.

Jesuit Fr. Jim Keenan of Boston College was a great friend of Paul’s for many years and they shared much in common — they were both gifted intellectuals and writers with deeply moral compasses, and an especially an uncommon dedication to their students. When I asked Jim for a comment for this obituary, I was not surprised how he captured the essence of Paul’s spirit.

“From the very first time I met Paul some 20 years ago, I always thought of him as playful; it was that playfulness that made him so accessible. By that playfulness, he made you believe that you were fun to be with. He helped you, wherever you were, to laugh. That playfulness was infectious. He helped each of us to be childlike,” Keenan said.

“I am not trying to romanticize his work or his death,” he added. “To know Paul was to know a man who faced disease and death more than anyone we knew. He was fearless; if for instance, you read his recent book on Ebola, Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds, you knew how incredibly courageous he was.”

“It is said that what makes us vulnerable to one another is when we recognize the child in each other,” Keenan said. “Paul saw the world as a world of children. Against the backdrop of disease, threat and death he wanted the children to flourish. And that was all of us. I imagine he is right now playing with God. And, I imagine, everyone else around the kingdom of God is watching. And they are probably thinking that he’s helping God to feel that God is fun to be with.”

Although I believe that Paul is happy and in good spirits, I also know that for me, and so many others, his passing leaves a massive void. We will miss Paul for the rest of our lives. I pray that we can all dig deep and enter this void with grace and courage by trying to emulate Paul, so we too, might someday laugh with him in the kingdom of God.

What now? For sure, we must go forward with hope and courage — Paul would expect nothing else and, believe me, no one in his orbit would want to disappoint Paul. But I feel I must share some comments that I have received in the three long days since Paul died. More than one person has told me that when they started to pray for Paul, they felt themselves shifting and beginning to pray to Paul.

One of these people, the internationally known Dominican theologian Fr. Vivian Boland, wrote to say: “I was very saddened to read about the sudden death of Paul Farmer. It was one of the highlights of my time at St. Louis to learn about his work and then to have the honor of meeting him. I remembered him and his family at Mass this morning. In fact, I prayed ‘to‘ him and not just ‘for‘ him, believing him to be already among the saints, asking him to intercede for a little girl called Martha, whom I was also praying for this morning: she is just 2 years old and has been living with cancer for practically all of her short life. I hope her recovery might be Paul’s first miracle!”

In the Catholic tradition, we know that one of the signs that mark a saint is when people begin to pray to them for their intercessions. Paul would be the last person who would ever have thought of himself as a saint. He was far too aware of his faults and human failings, and, like most of us, he knew he had many.

He would likely have chuckled and shrugged his shoulders, but then turned serious and said something like, “Hey, if it will make people think how they make a preferential option for the poor and work together to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, call me anything you want.”

Rest in peace, kenosis man. Thank you for drawing all of us closer to the kingdom of God. And please, Paul, pray for us so we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Nuns in Ukraine rescue, escort stranded foreign students to border

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Saint-Marc at Mukachevo, Ukraine, serve food to rescued foreign students before helping them to cross the border. (Courtesy of Ligi Payyappilly)

An Indian Catholic nun and her associates are working round-the-clock to help stranded students and others fleeing war-torn Ukraine.

“God is using me to save people from death in Ukraine,” said Sr. Ligi Payyappilly, the 48-year-old superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Saint-Marc in Mukachevo, Ukraine.*

Payyappilly, who is Indian, and 17 sisters of her congregation are giving shelter and food to the distressed students, besides helping them cross the Ukrainian border to escape to countries including Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

“Being in Ukraine for over 20 years, I have a lot of contacts and networks that helped me carry out this mission so far,” Payyappilly told GSR by phone after midnight March 3, just before her scheduled two-hour sleep. Her convent in Mukachevo in western Ukraine is some 480 miles southwest of the national capital of Kiev.

People helped by Payyappilly’s team profusely thanked the nuns.

“We never thought we would be alive now,” said Vignesh Suresh, a third-year student of medicine who hails Payyappilly as “God’s angel who came to help us when we were totally lost.”

Speaking to GSR en route to Bucharest by train, Suresh said he and 45 other Indian students were stranded at the Polish border for 15 hours when Payyappilly and Sr. Christina Tymurzhina, a Ukrainian, came to help them.

“The sisters took us to their convent in their vehicles, hugged each of us with their love and warmth, gave us food, a warm hall to sleep in and escorted us in the morning to cross the Romania border,” Suresh said as his friends slept on the train.

Payyappilly said Suresh was among about 1,000 foreign students her convent has helped so far.

Other congregations are also involved in rescue operations but they mostly help fleeing Ukrainians, whose numbers have reached more than 1 million, according to U.N. estimates.

Other congregations have shared Payyappilly’s contact numbers with the foreign students stranded at various locations. “Since there were many to support Ukrainians, we opted to help foreign students, a lot of them being Indians,” Payyappilly explained.

Since the start of the war Feb. 24, the Russians have targeted Kiev and Kharkiv, the second largest Ukrainian city, killing at least 752 civilians and triggering mass exodus, according to the U.N. estimates. Unverified reports from the Ukrainian government put the toll at several thousands.

Russia, meanwhile, confirmed March 2 that about 500 Russian troops have died and 1,600 have been injured, National Public Radio reported.

Payyappilly said she could reach out to the stranded students because she knows “every nook and corner” of Ukraine.

India initially helped the rescue operations for about 20,000 Indians, many of them students, through its embassy in Kiev, which was closed as the two cities were targeted. It then asked students to reach the border on their own. Many students have walked at least three days to reach the Polish border, but they were not allowed to cross.

“There were cases of police stopping foreigners from boarding trains to help Ukrainian women and children reach safer locations first,” Payyappilly said, quoting students and media reports. She acknowledged that she could help evacuate the foreign students only because of aid from Ukrainian citizens.

Payyappilly is also a retreat preacher; people throughout Ukraine used to come to her convent and an adjacent retreat center for prayer. “People know me well,” she said.

Many Ukrainian refugees stay at the convent, which they consider a relatively safer place, instead of going to another country.

The Ukrainian government had recognized the contributions of Payyappilly, a native of Kerala state in India, and made her a citizen.

Payyappilly says all her sisters in Ukraine are involved in helping the stranded. “Some work in the field, some cook and others bring the students to the convent and the border in vehicles.” Many arrange for the fugitives to stay at the convent.

Tymurzhina has coordinated several evacuation tasks through her contacts with government officers and volunteers.

“Both of us drove the students to the border, coordinated with the volunteers and the Indian embassy officers at the borders of Romania, Hungary and Slovakia and facilitated their easy passage to those countries,” Payyappilly said.

The superior said about 100 Ukrainian fugitives are staying with them. “We are not sure when they would return to their places,” she said. “But the students stay with us for only a night,” she added.

She said most students reached them in a desperate state. “They had not bathed for many days or eaten food. They were mentally shocked and physically weak. So, our first priority was to give them a comfortable stay before taking them to the border,” Payyappilly said.

Their convent, which is two or three dozen miles to the border with Romania and Hungary, has been so far.

Payyappilly said the sisters are flooded with phone calls from panicked parents after a Catholic website in Kerala published information about their services.

The students have shared the nuns’ hospitality and support through audio and video clips on social media platforms.

In an audio clip to the nuns, the mother of Vishnu Manoharan, a Hindu boy, says she is indebted to them for the “motherly loving care for our children” when they were in deep crises.

She also hailed the nuns as “truly God’s messengers” on whom God’s blessings will remain always.

Meanwhile, Suresh and his team reached Bucharest in Romania and was on the way to a shelter home. He said another convent inside Romania helped them with food, water and immigration procedures. “It was another miracle,” he added.

Payyappilly said once the people cross the border safely, they consider the mission accomplished and look for other lost ones in Ukraine. “So, we never attend their ‘thank you calls,’ but attend only the calls in distress,” she said. “God had saved me from death 20 years ago and is using me now to help others from deaths in Ukraine.”

Payyappilly was severely affected by chronic spinal tuberculosis and was suffering in bed for almost a year until “God touched and healed me.”

She recalls praying almost 10 hours a day before the Blessed Sacrament during her illness. “I have enough strength to attend to many more people in Ukraine now,” she said during the hourlong telephone interview.

The convent in Ukraine was started in 1998; Payyappilly has served there for the past 22 years. Her preaching at retreats has drawn many young Ukrainian women to her congregation. Currently, 15 Ukrainian nuns serve in various ministries.

“We have never done any vocation promotion camps or recruitments, but they came on their own,” Payyappilly said. All Ukrainian nuns are professionally qualified in various fields, she said. The convent also has two more Indian nuns.

‘They pray all day long’: How religious sisters are helping people in need amid the Ukraine conflict

Religious sisters in Ukraine deliver supplies from Caritas. | Private archive.

For Sister Franciszka Tumanevych, the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion was the most difficult.

The 42-year-old member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth told CNA that fear spread in Zhytomyr, the northern Ukrainian city where her convent is based, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to attack on Feb. 24.

“It was a shock, panic broke out. People were lining up for food, medicine, gasoline,” she recalled.

“But everything calmed down in the evening. Then the next day, we understood that we had to learn to live in war conditions, and we took up concrete work. For if you remain idle, it’s terrible. Now, we keep praying.”

Ukraine is an Eastern European country of 44 million people bordering Belarus, Russia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.

Since Russian forces began their advance, more than 368,000 people have fled Ukraine, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have fought fierce battles in the north, east, and south of the country. Facing military setbacks and international condemnation, Putin told defense chiefs on Feb. 27 to put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert.”

Zhytomyr came under attack on the same day, when a Russian ballistic missile fired from nearby Belarus struck the city’s airport.

Tumanevych, who was born in the city, graduated in psychology, gained a doctorate in canon law, and served in the diocesan ecclesiastical court. Before this month’s Russian offensive, she organized meetings for families and worked with the Catholic charitable organization Caritas-Spes.

She is one of three sisters at her convent. The Caritas-Spes center where the sisters used to work is now closed, so they spend their days praying and making sandwiches for the city’s civilian defenders.

Tumanevych said that there was a great spirit of solidarity in Zhytomyr, which has a population of more than 260,000 people. The sisters have received phone calls from locals offering transportation and other forms of help. When Tumanevych went to donate blood for Ukraine’s wounded, she found more than 100 people waiting in line, so she vowed to return another day.

While performing their daily tasks, the sisters seek to pray constantly.

On Feb. 16, a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, the sisters in Zhytomyr connected with 25 families through the videoconferencing app Zoom. Afterward, they decided to hold a communal prayer every evening.

“Now more and more people are joining for the rosary. Yesterday there were already 72 families, as well as our sisters from America, Italy and Great Britain,” Tumanevych said.

“And at the end of the rosary, we say that we can now go to sleep because sisters from America are taking over the duty,” she added.

Many local parishes host perpetual adoration, while priests hear confessions from morning to night.

The sisters pray the rosary especially for the conversion of President Putin, who was born on Oct. 7, 1952, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Tumanevych said that her mother, with whom she is constantly in touch, prayed as many as seven rosaries a day.

The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth was founded in Rome in 1875 by Franciszka Siedliska, a Polish blessed also known as Maria of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The congregation, which is dedicated to education and ministry to families, has six houses in Ukraine. But one was forced to close shortly after the invasion began. The two sisters in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, had to flee their convent and are making their way to Poland, where more than 150,000 people from Ukraine have sought refugee since Feb. 24.

In the besieged capital city of Kyiv, the congregation has a community of seven sisters. They have taken refuge in a church basement, where they are caring for around 100 people forced to evacuate their apartments.

“The sisters are with the people all the time,” Tumanevych said. “They pray all day long, and one of the nuns from the convent in Kyiv has lost her voice because they constantly pray.”

Although shops are closed, the sisters have been able to buy blankets and disposable plates. They also provide food, but fear it could run out.

The sisters continue to dream of life after the war. They hope to open a dormitory for female students that would help young women to discern whether they have vocations to marriage or religious life.

Tumanevych said: “I’m staying. This is my country, and I will defend it. With the rosary and sandwiches, and everything that can be done in these conditions.”

In Burkina Faso, Muslims and Christians show how to live as one

Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, distributes food to internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Nouna, Burkina Faso. (Courtesy of Janet E. Deinanaghan)
Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, distributes food to internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Nouna, Burkina Faso. (Courtesy of Janet E. Deinanaghan)

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country bounded by Mali, Niger, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The country obtained its independence in 1960 from France and was then known as Upper Volta. The name Burkina Faso — which means “Land of Incorruptible People” — was adopted in 1984. The capital, Ouagadougou, is in the center of the country.

Burkina Faso is a predominantly Muslim country (61%), with 19% Catholic, 15% following traditional religions, 4% Protestant and about 1% nonreligious. The seat of the Roman Catholic archbishopric is in Ouagadougou, and there are several bishoprics throughout the country.

I am a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, missioned to Burkina Faso in 2017 to work in the Nouna Diocese as an English language teacher. After three months of an intensive French language course in Togo — because I am from Nigeria and knew no French — I arrived on Nov. 28. I was sent to teach English language in our new inclusive school that had just opened in October that year.

I had a mixed feeling of fear and excitement, going to a different country and learning a new culture and way of life totally different from what I was used to in Nigeria. The good thing was that another of my sisters, Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, was sent to the same school — I to teach and she as bursar — which made the experience more agreeable.

My first surprise in arriving in Burkina Faso as a missionary was the free spirit and simplicity of the people there. Coming from a background in Nigeria where Christianity has become a “badge” people wear around like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ days did, I was profoundly struck with the simplicity of faith practiced among the people here.

To top it all off, I realized that it wasn’t taboo for a Christian to invite a Muslim relation or friend to attend a function in our church, and vice versa! In fact, it is not a taboo for a Christian woman to be married to a Muslim — she can still live her faith fully as a Catholic or other Christian. Many of the staff members of our school are married to a Christian or a Muslim person.

One day, I went on a home visitation in the village with one of my sisters, and we entered the home of a Catholic family. We saw the younger daughter of the family praying outside on her mat. She was a Muslim while her elder sister — whom we were visiting — was sitting nearby praying her rosary. It was such a beautiful and evangelizing sight for me. And our friend said that’s how they have been practicing their faith in the family, without any trouble.

The bank manager of the local Ecobank is married to a Catholic, while he himself is a Muslim. He said he loves the Catholic church and her songs, and that he has no problem with his wife practicing her faith. He further added that in moments of need, he books a Mass for his private intentions and attends when he has the time. His wife, too, goes to the mosque with him whenever she can.

There are so many other families like these in Burkina Faso — where siblings have different faith beliefs, yet they live together amicably. We hear of siblings from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds celebrating a burial ceremony for their late parents in the same compound, and all goes well. I have had the privilege of being invited by Muslim friends for either a marriage ceremony or the Ramadan celebration in their homes, and I found it very evangelizing.

That is why I agree with the words of Pope Francis in addressing the attendees of the John 17 Movement gathering, where he stated, “Division is the work of the father of lies.” Therefore, he said, we should live as one, since we are all brothers and sisters, and disciples of Christ.

Our community arrived in the Nouna Diocese on Aug. 5, 2009, with the first three sisters — Felicia Ezeimo, Esther Ekpo and Toyin Abegunde — who had come to teach, tend the sick and do social work. These were the specific areas of need presented to the Daughters of Charity in Nigeria for which the sisters were sent to work.

The sisters arrived with joy; though they started with nothing on the ground, they worked so hard that after eight years of toil, they identified the need to start a second local community, to run an inclusive school for children with disabilities since in the process of their field work in the villages they had identified many who needed those services.

This gave birth to the new inclusive school that we now have in the diocese. It started with 68 students in 2017 and has now grown to 3,014 in 2022 — out of which 70 are children with special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome, physical handicaps and hearing impairment. Seven Daughters of Charity live and work in two communities in this diocese, in the following ministries: education, social, pastoral and prison apostolates.

However, only one Burkinabe has joined us so far, a young girl from a Catholic family — Amandine Ouedraogo — who is doing her postulant formation in Nigeria now. But in the Province of Algeria there is a Daughter of Charity from Burkina Faso, Sister Georgette, who joined us before the arrival of the sisters from Nigeria. We pray and hope that many other girls will join us in the service of the poor here.

This beautiful way of life is being destroyed by the upsurge of fanatics now in Burkina Faso who want the world under their control and want no other religion except theirs. This is not the intention of God, who gave us freedom to practice whatever religion we wish to practice if it helps us to love him and our neighbors more. They claim Western education is bad and that only Arabic should be taught in schools!

This is the reason we have had several attacks and schools burned in the country. We were attacked on Nov. 22, 2021, and have been displaced ourselves. The school has been temporarily closed but we managed to get some abandoned buildings to continue teaching here.

Life has changed for all of us recently and it is not easy, but we thank God who protected us and kept us safe. Things seem bleak for now, but the government is gradually trying to quell the insurgents, even as the church prays for peace to reign.

Sisters support recovery efforts in Philippines after typhoon destruction

Within days after the typhoon hit, Missionary Sisters of Mary sisters sort through donated goods to repack and send to various communities in need, in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu province, in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Missionary Sisters of Mary)
Within days after the typhoon hit, Missionary Sisters of Mary sisters sort through donated goods to repack and send to various communities in need, in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu province, in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Missionary Sisters of Mary)

Manila, Philippines — More than six weeks after a super typhoon raked a large swatch of the central and southern Philippines, Catholic sisters are assessing damages, starting to repair buildings and assisting their neighbors in the storm-affected area, part of a massive rebuilding effort in the wake of destruction.

Typhoon Odette (known internationally as Rai) landed in Mindanao on Dec. 16 and wreaked havoc in the island nation with multiple landfalls until it exited the Philippines two days later. Some 2.5 million families (9.1 million people) in 38 provinces were affected by the typhoon, with 409 reported dead and nearly 1,400 injured. Infrastructure and agriculture losses top $670 million.

Power and communication lines are being restored, although because of the ongoing challenges with communication, interviews with sisters for this story were conducted via email. Aid has been pledged by the United States, Canada, China and South Korea, while a United Nations agency called for $107.2 million to support urgent humanitarian needs over the next six months. Pope Francis on Jan. 18 sent an initial contribution of 100,000 euro (about $113,000) through the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Once the storm abated, sisters immediately swung into action to assist, though the government reimposition of travel restrictions due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in January has made reaching those in need even more difficult. Border checkpoints requiring negative RT-PCR results upon entering has become an added burden to logistics and volunteers.

Medical Mission Sr. Rowena Pineda, chair of the Sisters Association of Mindanao, said the two-day relief effort they did in December as part of the civic group Balsa Mindanao included distribution of relief goods, conducting psychosocial intervention, and providing a cellphone charging station for 1,000 families in Surigao City, one of the hardest hit areas.  Balsa Mindanao is scheduled to return to Surigao City on Feb. 3-5 to bring shelter material, provide psychosocial intervention, and an additional cellphone charging station.

Observing pandemic protocols was difficult as not everyone wore facemasks or observed physical distancing when lining up to receive their packages. “There were challenges in making people comply because they were hungry,” she said. The sisters also saw how evacuation centers were overcrowded, that there was lack of access to potable water — with cases of water-borne diseases reported — and a lack of clean water to maintain hygiene.

Missionary Sisters of Mary also assisted with relief efforts. Sr. Felicidad Solatorio said she and her fellow Missionary Sisters of Mary in Mindanao have not been affected as much as her sisters in the Visayas. The pre-novitiate formation house and convent in Mindanao were damaged by falling trees. But the three MSM sisters who manage an elementary school on Bohol Island in Visayas have to deal with repairs to their convent and a massive clean-up. When the typhoon hit, she said the sisters could feel the ceiling and walls of their convent shaking.

“The roofs were not blown off because some of the fallen branches of the trees surrounding the school and convent landed and pierced them creating some holes thereby [allowing] the flow of water [to enter] their premises,” Solatorio said. If the roofs had blown off, the damage would have been even more extensive.

She added that when the typhoon left, the sisters visited and spoke with their neighbors to assess their conditions. “All suffered the same, lack of water supply and no electricity.”

On Dec. 20, five Mercy sisters traveled nearly more than 300 miles (more than 480 kilometers) from northern Mindanao Island to a town on Leyte Island to provide aid to 300 families affected by the typhoon. A Mercy sister is from that town and her family reached out to the congregation after the typhoon hit asking them to help the community.

The sisters, who are based in Lanao del Norte province, northern Mindanao, saw the devastation wreaked by the typhoon and spoke to people along the way. Mercy Sr. Helen Libo-on said that residents spoke of how those living along the coast were told to take shelter in the high school that was on a mountain. “They thought it was the safest areas, but it wasn’t,” she recounted. “The glass windows were broken and the children were quick to shelter themselves under the tables.” She said people eventually moved to a different evacuation center. “It was a good decision that the people living in the coastal areas evacuated since all the houses in the coastal areas were blown away both by the waves and the strong winds.”

The sisters, a driver and a brother and brother-in-law of one of the sisters traveled for two days by truck and ferry to get to Leyte Island, finally reaching the town of San Francisco in Southern Leyte province late at night on Dec. 22.

The next morning, Libo-on said locals helped them repack the rice, water, dried fish, canned goods, coffee, sugar, biscuits, soaps, laundry detergent, and pails into bags for easier distribution. She added that those who helped also created a list of who lived in the community since they only brought goods for 300 households.

“They were so glad to see us since that was the first time they received help. Everything was ready for distribution, which went fast because everything was in order,” Libo-on said. A few of the packed goods were given to families who came from neighboring communities and others were set aside to be distributed to families who lived in the coastal areas and whose houses were washed out.

They immediately left the town to return to Mindanao to prepare for other missions, she said, but had to wait for 20 hours at the port to a get a ferry back.

Before returning to their convents the sisters made a stop at a city where Mercy Sr. Derby Mercado had relatives as it was already around 7 p.m. and it was nearly time for the online midnight Mass. “Sister Derby’s family took care of our food, so we were able to eat after the Mass and had a good night’s sleep,” Libo-on said. They were able to join other Mercy sisters for Christmas Day. “It was a very exhausting mission but our hearts were full with gladness because we know we made some people happy in spite of their sad experience of Typhoon Odette,” Libo-on said of their five-day journey.

Other Mercy sisters also had to deal with the aftermath of the typhoon on Camiguin Island where they administer a high school and a college. Mercy Sr. Maria Gesila Daypuyat, principal of Columbia St. Michael’s Parish High School, said the typhoon “has caused destruction of houses of our students and employees as well as our school properties and facilities including power outages and Wi-Fi or internet disconnection or collapse.”

Daypuyat said the building housing the school library, some offices and the convent where the sisters reside were severely damaged by a huge acacia tree that fell on it.

Mercy Sr. M. Raphael Amante, directress of Fatima College of Camiguin, said that 14 trees in the campus have been uprooted and damaged several facilities and electrical wirings. The strong winds also damaged the roofs of buildings and windows broke, causing water damage inside the offices. Amante said that the college was actually celebrating its centenary foundation as the first Catholic school on the island this school year. “Recovery efforts are still underway and we are doing our best to gradually restore what had been damaged according to the available resources we have.”

Daypuyat and Amante both said that they were hoping for the generosity of donors to help with their recovery and restoration efforts. Aside from various natural calamities that they have had to endure, the pandemic has also affected their enrollment numbers resulting in some losses to the financial and economic operations in their two schools. “We remain hopeful we can overcome these challenges with God’s grace and mercy,” they added in an email.

In Cebu City, Missionary Catechists of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Sister Ma. Corazon Talay said that the typhoon damaged the roof of their convent and the covered walkway in front of it. She explained that their convent was already old and had termites, so they were already planning to have it renovated even before the typhoon hit.

Talay added that the Association of Consecrated Women of Cebu, of which she is chair, decided to donate some of their own funds plus money raised from their Advent Recollection for a Cause via Zoom to Caritas Cebu to help with their initial relief efforts.

The typhoon also changed the Association’s plans to commemorate the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. She said that they had planned several activities including a day for planting fruit bearing trees to celebrate the Jubilee of Consecrated Women of Cebu on Feb. 2 (World Day of Consecrated Life). “We decided instead to assist some communities that are still struggling and are hard-up because of the severe damage in their area.”

The various religious congregations, she said, have been “doing their respective charity works to the communities that are badly hit, such as providing potable water and food. They also assist in rebuilding damaged houses and give assistance to poor families in the remote areas.”

Accidental ministry opens world of refugees to Australian Dominican

Dominican Sr. Diana Santleben (left) and project coordinator Farida Baremgayabo, a former refugee from Burundi, make plans for Zara's House Refugee Women and Children's Centre in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (Tracey Edstein)
Dominican Sr. Diana Santleben (left) and project coordinator Farida Baremgayabo, a former refugee from Burundi, make plans for Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. (Tracey Edstein)

Newcastle, Australia — Australian Diana Santleben, of the Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands, has a clear memory of an incident she witnessed more than six decades ago.

“Barbara was a new girl at our school. She was Polish and she came to us with big bows in her hair and a funny dress with long pants underneath. She looked so different and I can still see a mob of kids chasing her across the playground. It was the mob mentality that fuelled the Holocaust, riots in America, apartheid – ‘You’re different from me and you don’t belong.’

“I was with Barbara in secondary school at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield. She became part of my mob and we’ve been friends ever since. I learned that Barbara was her parents’ seventh child and the only survivor. Her father suffered badly in a concentration camp. She was born after the war, their most precious treasure — and look how we treated her.

“I suppose that set a seed for me.”

Today Santleben, 74, is founder of Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in Newcastle. Despite challenges, she has lost none of the determination and vitality that have propelled her in her Dominican life of learning and activism.

Santleben entered the Dominicans after working as an assistant primary teacher. “At Santa Sabina I had seen community in action, the friendship of the sisters and the wonderful education on offer. I wanted all that.”

She loved teaching and served in several congregational schools. In 1980, she was offered a year’s sabbatical at the National Pastoral Institute in Melbourne. “A whole year to do whatever I liked.”

A change of direction saw Santleben work with young teachers in Brisbane, then return to Sydney to parish ministry.

She completed a master’s thesis in early childhood religious education and then, typically, embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to convince Australia’s bishops to change the system.

While working with deaf children in Sydney in 2000, she received a call from the parish secretary: “There are 12 Africans on the doorstep saying they have nowhere to live.”

She said, “Boil the kettle, make some Vegemite sandwiches and I’ll be down.”

Santleben recalls, “I went to the presbytery [priest’s home and parish office] via the real estate agent where I asked if they had a five-bedroom house to rent — today! Mum and Dad and 10 kids were Sudanese refugees and had been brought to Tasmania from Egypt by the immigration authorities in July. Imagine how cold they were! The parents had saved to bring the whole family to Sydney.

“A number of our sisters were working with refugees coming out of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and I became a friend of that family — the first Africans I’d ever met.”

This accidental ministry involved, among other things, volunteers sourcing and storing furniture, then delivering when needed.

In 2005, Santleben moved to Newcastle to care for senior sisters and establish a permaculture garden. “I came to Newcastle to live peacefully and quietly; you leave your boats behind.”

God had other plans.

Santleben soon wondered what happens to refugees in the Hunter region. She learned that Josephite Sr. Betty Brown was the go-to person. “I rang her and said, ‘I’m a Dominican — I’ve got a trailer — can you use me?’ “

Brown and Santleben became friends, sharing a commitment to offering care and advocacy to refugee families. Brown had been ministering to refugees in Newcastle but without a base. Together, they established Penola House in a defunct police station. Penola was the South Australian town where St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1866.

The Dominican and the Josephite worked together from 2008 until 2012, when a successful Indigenous land claim made it impossible to remain in Penola House.

Brown has retired but Santleben remains actively involved. She has learned hard lessons about the not-always-fruitful interaction of government agency and not-for-profit organization, congregation and diocese, bishops and lay groups. She saw a new way forward that would hopefully marshal the goodwill of Novocastrians (natives of Newcastle) who wished to support the refugees in their midst.

With a group of generous supporters, Santleben established Zara’s House Refugee Women and Children’s Centre in 2016. Here she offers a mother language literacy program, leading hopefully to English literacy for women and children; early childhood education; classes to assist refugees preparing for the citizenship test; classes in small business development, microfinance facilitation and financial counseling.

Volunteer Monica Byrnes says, “I had long wanted to help refugee women with their English, so I came here. I do what I can to help them converse. We’ve had great times talking about the clothing they’re wearing and had funny fashion parades and we all enjoy a laugh.”

Why Zara’s House?

The center has served two Zaras — an Afghan woman and a little girl — so the name captures the scope of the work. Also, Christians, Jews and Muslims are the children of the book who look on Abraham and Zara (Sarah) as their parents in faith.

Recently, Santleben decided to step back from being projects coordinator. (“Dominicans are itinerants. … We don’t have to be the people who do it all,” she says.)

She needs to concentrate on the greatest work of Zara’s House: advocacy. “The refugee network here is strong, and refugees mostly look after each other, but we’re struggling to save the lives of people who become asylum seekers. The system’s cruelty is breathtaking.”

She shares what she regards as Zara’s House’s greatest success story.

Nurse-midwife Helena, who asked that she not be identified fully, came from Liberia with four daughters when she was about 50 to gain a master’s in public health at the University of Newcastle, Santleben recounts.

“We met the family at a local church — Helena was just another international student. When she was preparing to return to Liberia, she received a letter saying her grandmother had died. Her grandmother was the chief zoe [female cleric and tribal leader] who oversees female genital mutilation. Most of our women here have had that done to them. There’s no medical reason, it’s tradition. It removes any enjoyment of sex, and makes the woman compliant with her husband.

“The letter indicated that Helena would succeed her grandmother. ‘You’re the best person to do this — a nurse and a midwife. … You’ll raise the standard and fewer girls will die.’

“We didn’t hesitate in trying to get a protection visa for the mother and daughters. God’s grace led to a lawyer taking on what she knew to be a very difficult case with little likelihood of success. We interviewed every Liberian man we could find and asked, ‘If you had a wife or a female relative who didn’t want her daughters mutilated, would you insist?’ Every one said yes. Then we asked every Liberian woman we could find — ‘Would you want this done to your daughters?’ All of them said no.”

A psychological profile showed that Helena had profound post-traumatic stress disorder because she had seen female genital mutilation performed many times. She had only escaped undergoing it herself because she’d been relinquished by her father — “another story,” Santleben concludes.

Previously, the government had refused protection to keep her from having to return home because it claimed that the ECOWAS passport common to several West African countries meant that women could safely return to another country. Lawyers at the University of Newcastle demonstrated that this was not so, because women would eventually be required to return to their own country.

Santleben recalls, “The government had no excuse not to give Helena a protection visa and her application was accepted on the first round — an unprecedented outcome. We’re so proud of this!”

Helena and her daughters have been able to stay in Newcastle and remain connected to Zara’s House.

The new projects coordinator, Farida Baremgayabo, has in the past been supported by Santleben and is more than ready to pay it forward. Her enthusiasm and her work ethic echo Santleben’s and she has raised her seven children (four born in Newcastle) to respond to the needs of those around them.

Baremgayabo, a nurse, was living with her husband, Salim, in Burundi, East Africa. As their family grew, the couple became increasingly concerned about the political situation. The elected president had been killed and the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi tribes showed no signs of abating.

The family left Burundi for the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Tanzania, then South Africa, but did not find the peace they sought. The idea of leaving Africa entirely was appealing, so they applied to go to Australia as refugees. The process was long — “a little bit stressful,” Baremgayabo says — and meanwhile she became pregnant with her fourth child.

When the green light to travel to Australia was given, it involved leaving workplaces, extended family, a home and most of their possessions, all in a matter of days.

On arrival in Newcastle, Baremgayabo was told by her case manager that “Sister Diana and Sister Betty will look after you.” They did — even to taking her home from the hospital after the birth of her fourth child. Baremgayabo says, “The sisters became grandmothers to little Aaliyah!”

Baremgayabo is a gift to Newcastle. “I wanted every day to do something for the community.” One day, she drove past Zara’s House to see Santleben laying a path, alone. She said to her son, who was with her, that they needed to help the sister. On another occasion when Baremgayabo was keen to become involved with a project, one of the children said, “Mum, we know you like to help the community — we will look after our siblings.”

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021 has led to the arrival of Afghan families, joining those who came some years ago. Zuhal, a young woman from Afghanistan, relays, with Santleben’s encouragement, that her brother, Faisal, had been an interpreter with the Australian military and was offered the opportunity to come here with his family. “Faisal brought Mum and his three sisters to Newcastle and now we are all married and have our own families.

“I’m very happy here because here is safety, and Afghanistan is now very dangerous. … So many people have died.”

Volunteer Fiona Firth, a midwife who has helped pregnant refugees, has been assisting Zuhal with her English while Zuhal’s little sons, C.J. and Sabhan, are cared for in the children’s room. Firth says, “The women like being with other women. It’s about citizenship preparation but also about being social.”

Santleben recognizes a strong thread of racism in Australia’s history, including the recent “exploitation of irrational fears around desperate people legally escaping tyranny in boats.”

“However, I believe the tide is turning when I reflect on the daily calls from strangers asking to become volunteers, offering donations and asking what can they do to welcome refugees to Newcastle.”

Did that little girl with the big bows in her hair and a funny dress understand the impact she might have in the end?

Salvatorian nuns build houses for war victims, widows in Sri Lanka

Sr. Dulcie Peiris, superior of a Salvatorian convent in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, with Dilrukshi Fernando and her daughters. The nun was on a follow-up visit to Fernando's home, which was built by the Salvatorian Sisters with support from Share Global.
Sr. Dulcie Peiris, superior of a Salvatorian convent in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, with Dilrukshi Fernando and her daughters. The nun was on a follow-up visit to Fernando’s home, which was built by the Salvatorian Sisters with support from Share Global. (Thomas Scaria)

Kandy, Sri Lanka — Kapila Suranga never imagined that his request for a roofing sheet he saw lying discarded in a convent garden would make his dreams come true.

The Hindu daily wager in Kandy, Sri Lanka, noticed the sheet as he was cutting grass in the garden of the Salvatorian convent in Kandy. He told Sr. Dulcie Peiris, the convent superior, that the sheet would help repair his house’s leaking roof.

The nun responded that they did not want to give him a damaged sheet; instead, she would visit his house.

“What we saw there was very touching. There was no house at all, and what they had were a few iron sheets and abandoned billboards molded in like a hut, where his wife and two small daughters lived,” Peiris told Global Sisters Report. She pooled some resources to build a home for the Suranga family.

They were among more than 200 families from different religious backgrounds who have benefited from the housing project of the Salvatorian nuns in Sri Lanka. The nuns built the houses in various parts of the island nation mainly for single parents, widows and war victims. Some who were in need, like Suranga, also benefited.

Sri Lanka’s 1983-2009 civil war between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic communities claimed up to 100,000 lives, mainly Tamils seeking a separate state, according to U.N. estimates. The official registry of the Sri Lankan government, however, puts the toll at 40,000. Both sides in the 26-year conflict are under U.N. scrutiny for war crimes.

Peiris accompanied GSR to Suranga’s new house, where his wife, Dilrukshi Fernando, a Catholic, waited for them at the main road with her 2-year-old daughter, Bhagya (which means “lucky”). She then took the team to their dream house of two small rooms, a kitchen and living room.

The house was not plastered or painted, but Fernando and her two daughters — Bhagya and 6-year-old Amali — looked happy. Suranga had gone to his work as a grass cutter.

“We had always dreamt of having a house, but never thought it would come true so soon,” said Dilrukshi Fernando, as Bhagya held her tightly and Amali stood at her side.

(Fernando is a common surname among Sinhala Catholics in Sri Lanka. The three women in this story with that last name are unrelated.)

The housing project was initiated by Sr. Dulcie Fernando, who was the congregation’s Sri Lankan provincial for three terms, with a donation from an unidentified person in Europe. He donated $3,000 for each shelterless family through Share Global, an international Salvatorian Sisters solidarity office.

The solidarity office helps sisters and laypeople initiate, coordinate and manage projects in various developing countries. They promote an equitable and sustainable society through education, health care, pastoral work and community capacity building, Fernando told GSR.

Another beneficiary is Mary Margaret, a war widow with a mentally challenged son and two daughters, in Kurunegala, about 25 miles northwest of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. The eldest daughter, whose husband recently died from a heart attack, has moved back to her mother’s house.

The houses have basic structures without plaster, painting or electrical connections.

Sr. Fernando, who has initiated several community building projects in Sri Lanka, explains, “We had a limited fund for each house. We also believed in letting the family complete the construction so that they would feel it was their own.”

However, many such as Mary Margaret could not complete the work because of dire poverty, Sr, Fernando added.

Sr. Shiroma Kurumbalapitiya, the present provincial who joined the home visits, said, “They are struggling to make ends meet during this pandemic. How can they complete the homes?”

Margaret told GSR that they are happy with what they have.

“We are grateful to the sisters for providing this home and visiting us from time to time,” said Margaret, who lives by selling lottery tickets. “But no one tries their luck during this pandemic.”

Neighbors help her family with food and other items. She goes to the town of Kurunegala to sell lottery tickets at the bus stops and other public places. Lottery is quite popular in Sri Lanka, especially among those without resources, she said.

Kurumbalapitiya said they are trying to get some funds to complete the houses and build toilets for those unable to do so.

The provincial said neighbors and local parishes cooperated in building the houses and continue supporting the families.

“So, this is not just a Salvatorian program, but a community building project where several stakeholders are involved,” said Kurumbalapitiya, who added they receive funds from benefactors through Global Share. The house is built as a “collaborative project between beneficiary families and their community,” she said.

The provincial says a condition for getting a house is that the family should have land with proper records. In some cases, local people have donated land to a family.

Hasitha Silva, a parish council member of the St. Anne’s Cathedral, Kurunegala, took the team to a house in Yaggapitiya, an interior village about 20 miles from Margaret’s house. It is accessible only by a rough terrain vehicle.

Soma Fernando, a widow, owns the house, among the first 20 built in 2015 under Sr. Fernando’s supervision. The house was larger compared to others since the parishioners helped pool local resources. The local unit of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul also assisted, with some members volunteering free labor.

At the same time, there are houses that still are not completed even after six years.

“We have to understand that people were not able to plaster or furnish their homes due to poverty,” said Sr. Fernando, adding that further funding is essential.

Their funds come from benefactors through their key Global Share promoters — Ursula Schulten in Germany and Yvonne Schmelzer in Italy.

“Recently, we have requested additional funds to support selected beneficiaries, but the pandemic situation has crippled everyone,” Sr. Fernando said.

Some houses have extended their space, affixed tiles and plastered the walls.

Sr. Fernando took GSR to a home near Kandy. This house was improved substantially as its owner now works as a gardener in Saudi Arabia.

Their only son, 22-year-old Darshan Vinith Thangavelu, who completed the work, said, “We were very poor and my father did not have a job when the sisters came forward to help us.”

Thangavelu, a former student of Fernando’s who now works on a college administrative staff, told GSR, “My next dream is to become a teacher and, when I earn money, I want to help other homeless people.”

Fernando said she had worked among women and children with a nongovernmental organization in Kandy before initiating the housing project with Share Global. The hill stations in and around Kandy were always prone to landslides and in one such incident several farmers had lost their houses, she recalled.

“But they never got a house from the government and this prompted me to initiate the housing programs,” the sister said.

The project was initially implemented in the southern part of Sri Lanka. “Now we concentrate on the Tamil population in northern provinces like Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya who have lost everything due to 30 years of civil war,” Fernando explained.

In Puttalam district, 80 miles northwest of Kandy, the nuns built many houses with local participation. “The beneficiaries were selected based on their eligibility and not according to their religion, caste or creed,” Fernando said.

In many cases, local community leaders and parish priests also help in selecting the beneficiary families.

Kurumbalapitiya says a house is a basic need for people because “a roof over their head means total empowerment of the family.”

The Salvatorians want to ensure those who live in the houses are empowered to lead a dignified life. “If they are sick, we reach out to them with nursing care. If their children are weak in studies, we give them tuition,” she added.

Mary Margaret, a lay Salvatorian (not the woman of the same name who moved her family into a home built by the sisters), supplies building materials for the nuns in Puttalam and has built two houses for homeless families on her own.

Fernando said the laywoman helped keep their building initiatives alive “when we were really worried about the continuation of the project during the pandemic.”

The businesswoman said she was inspired by the Salvatorians and would continue the mission “as much as I can.” Her son is a Salvatorian priest.

Salvatorian Sisters, also known as Sisters of the Divine Savior, are spread over 45 countries and six continents. Salvatorians have priests, brothers and lay collaborators, besides the nuns.

The Salvatorian nuns are located in only one province in Sri Lanka with 73 members living in 15 convents. They hail from Sinhala and Tamil ethnic communities and are engaged mainly in social apostolates, such as peace building, non-formal education, empowering women and eradicating poverty.

Vietnam sisters bring Christmas gifts to victims of COVID, floods

Sr. Anna Vo Thi Ngoi Khen (second from left) and followers of other faiths stand in front of a big crèche on Dec. 12 at her convent in Thua Thien Hue province. (Joachim Pham)
Sr. Anna Vo Thi Ngoi Khen (second from left) and followers of other faiths stand in front of a big crèche on Dec. 12 at her convent in Thua Thien Hue province. (Joachim Pham)

Hue, Vietnam — With people in the region beset by devastating floods and effects of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, sisters from the Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation convent in Tien Thanh thought that nativity sets would help bring some joy and hope to area residents amid the difficulties.

Seven sisters and some local youths made more than 60 nativity scenes since Advent began Nov. 28 through Dec. 11. The crèches, about 30 inches by 27 inches, are made of cardboard boxes, thick paper, bamboo and Christmas decorations, and include nativity figurines.

“We have offered all those crèches to poor families, elderly people without relatives and patients as our Christmas gifts so as to console them and bring them Christmas joy,” said Sr. Anna Vo Thi Ngoi Khen, head of the convent based in Kim Doi Parish in the central province of Thua Thien Hue.

Families were also given 200,000 dong (about $9) to get basic food to celebrate the coming Christmas, Khen said. 

The parish serves 500 Catholics among a population of 7,000. Restrictions to isolate villages infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19 in the region were lifted on Nov. 20. 

The nun said local people have been extremely depressed by the prolonged pandemic and floods that destroyed their crops and houses in late November, and consequently many of them start to ignore their faith life. They fear having no jobs and the difficulties next year may bring.

“Crèches are absolutely indispensable to local Catholic families in the Christmas season as they bind the material and spiritual worlds together. However, this year many feel down in the dumps and are not interested in making crèches. We want to help them maintain the Christmas spirit,” the 46-year-old nun said.

Anna Nguyen Thi Hoa, 84, said her granddaughter from Da Nang died of COVID-19 in 2020. She lives with her grandson, who is not Catholic, in a 400-square-foot house provided by benefactors.

“We are really delighted to be given a crèche by the nuns, who bring Christmas atmosphere to our home,” Hoa said. The care of the sisters and reminder of Christmas eases some of her grief for her dead relative.

She said she also receives food and money from the nuns.

Khen said many villagers could not land jobs in Hue and have only two simple meals per day. The sister said the nuns provide rice, bread, fish, meat, vegetables and milk for people in need.

Anna Tran Thi Tuyen from Van Quat village said floods in November washed away all fish on her farm and destroyed more than 37 pounds of rice. She and her husband have to sell duck eggs and dumplings all day to support their three children.

Tuyen said they have no time to make crèches in their homes to celebrate the coming Christmas as they did in the past. “We gratefully get a crèche from the nuns. That is a generous gift to us in this Christmas,” she said.

The Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation nuns also held a special gathering for 36 single pregnant women on Dec. 10 at their Thien Xuan convent in Luong Van parish in Phu Vang district.

Sr. Mary Bui Thi Vinh, head of the convent, said participants prayed with candles in hands, listened to a Bible passage, sang carols, received Christmas gifts and enjoyed a hearty meal. Gifts including cash, medical oil, clothes and shampoos costing 2.5 million dong (about $109) each.

Vinh said the donations come from benefactors and families whose members have joined the congregation.

The pregnant women, who live with their families, are from Hope Group, set up in 2016 by the nuns. Members meet monthly at the convent to share their joy and sadness and help one another to overcome challenges.

“The gathering is an opportunity for those women, most of them are Buddhists and followers of other indigenous faiths, to understand the meaning of Christmas and be interested in Catholicism,” she said, adding that Christmas joy will lend them emotional strength to overcome the pandemic’s negative effects.

The nuns started to work among local people in 2015, visiting and offering material support, providing scholarships and giving health care to the elderly. They also furnish the pregnant teens with accommodations, food and health care until the birth as a way to keep them from having abortions.

In previous Advents, the nuns took Hope Group members to visit and offer incense at Ngoc Hoi cemetery, where 45,000 aborted fetuses have been buried. They also have made pilgrimages to the national Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Quang Tri province. This year they could not do such tours, to avoid COVID-19 infections.

A Buddhist participant whose family name is Hoang said she felt the warm atmosphere of the coming Christmas. “The gathering is a chance for us to meet one another and maintain sisterhood among us. We are really appreciative of all the help the nuns have given us,” she said.   

Vinh, 53, said 18 additional people, including five women from the group, have embraced Catholicism since the nuns started to serve in the parish.

Floods have been a major issue in some regions, said Missionaries of Charity of Vinh Sr. Teresa Tran Thi Oanh from Ninh Cuong community based in Huong Khe district of Ha Tinh province. Local people lack clean water after floods destroyed water supply systems in the region in late November. Poor people must use polluted flood water as they have no money to buy clean water, she added.

“We daily produce 50 to 100 bottles of clean water, 20 liters each, and deliver free of charge to people in need regardless of their background,” Oanh said.

The 36-year-old nun said the sisters use motorbikes to deliver water to the elderly and people with physical disabilities.

On Saturdays during this Advent, the community of five nuns and four novices visit and offer food to 50 families whose members live with mental disabilities, she said. Most of patients have mental disorders at birth and their parents had been in the military. The families face starvation, as the COVID-19 pandemic has left their relatives unemployed for months and other charity groups could not offer them donations.

One particularly painful case involves a woman in her 70s who looks after her three adult children, who have mental disabilities.

“Many shed tears of happiness when we visit and hand food to them. They feel warmth and love of Christmas in this cold winter,” she said, adding that the nuns will continue visiting them after Christmas.

Shepherd hailed for saving six runners in deadly China ultramarathon

Zhu Keming in the cave where he sheltered the runners. which he had previously stocked up with food and clothes for emergencies. Photograph: CNS/AFP/Getty Images

A shepherd has been hailed as a hero in China after it emerged that he saved six stricken runners during an ultramarathon in which 21 other competitors died.

Zhu Keming was trending on Weibo on Tuesday, three days after a 100km (60-mile) cross-country mountain race in the north-western province of Gansu turned deadly in freezing rain, high winds and hail.

The incident triggered outrage and mourning in China, as questions swirled over why organisers apparently ignored warnings about the incoming extreme weather.

Zhu was grazing his sheep on Saturday around lunchtime when the wind picked up, the rain came down and temperatures plunged, he told state media.

He sought refuge in a cave where he had stored clothes and food for emergencies but while inside spotted one of the race’s 172 competitors and checked to see what was wrong because he was standing still, apparently suffering cramps.

Zhu escorted the man back to the cave, massaged his freezing hands and feet, lit a fire and dried his clothes.

Four more distressed runners made it into the cave and told the shepherd others were marooned outside, some unconscious.

Zhu headed outside once more and, braving hail and freezing temperatures, reached a runner lying on the ground. He carried him towards the shelter and wrapped him in blankets, almost certainly saving his life.

“I want to say how grateful I am to the man who saved me,” the runner, Zhang Xiaotao, wrote on Weibo.

“Without him, I would have been left out there.”

Zhu has been feted in China for his selfless actions, but the shepherd told state media that he was “just an ordinary person who did a very ordinary thing”.

Zhu rescued three men and three women, but regrets that he was unable to do more to help others who reportedly succumbed to hypothermia.

“There were still some people that could not be saved,” he said. “There were two men who were lifeless and I couldn’t do anything for them. I’m sorry.”

The tragedy has thrown a renewed spotlight on the booming marathon and running industry in China, with authorities ordering organisers of events to improve safety.

According to the Paper in Shanghai, five cross-country, marathon or other running races have been cancelled at short notice.