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Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Nuns serve the hemisphere's poorest"

From the Catholic Sentinel
By Ed Langlois

Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
MARYLHURST — If ever she is kidnapped, Sister Denise Desil will tell her captors simply to kill her and be done with it. She cannot stomach the idea of being ransomed when resources for ministry are in such short supply.

“I’ll die for a good cause,” says the 57-year-old Haitian nun with a dismissive wave of the hand.

As high food prices create a maelstrom in Haiti, Sister Denise and her hard-working religious community are hitting a crisis in an effort to feed orphans, disabled children, young mothers and others in the beleaguered island nation.

Despite the troubles, Sister Denise Desil does not despair.

“We have faith,” she says. “We have hope in God.”

She is a member of the Little Sisters of St. Thérèse. Founded in Haiti in 1948, the Catholic religious community is the island’s largest. The aim of the 225-woman community is to provide education and health care to the poorest people in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The women walk as many as 12 hours to reach their missions, some of which are in remote mountains of southwest Haiti.

Sister Denise is a nurse and midwife who has delivered easily more than a thousand babies. She offers counseling to mothers before and after the birth.

Her superiors sent her to the United States temporarily to find people who might be willing to support the nuns and their ministry. She will be speaking to parishes in Oakland, Calif. and made a stop in Oregon to visit the Sisters of the Holy Names here.

The small Haitian congregation is busy. They staff 29 elementary schools, four high schools, a teachers’ college and 15 home economics centers. The sisters run prenatal and post-natal care clinics that include food, two nursing homes, 20 urgent care dispensaries, two farms, a residents for AIDS patients with tuberculosis, an orphanage for girls and a program serving disabled children.

They have even launched a building program to construct concrete huts to replace the reed hovels that are often blown away during hurricane season. The sisters also construct outhouses to protect sanitation.

The nuns are also thrifty. With one dollar donation, they can can get milk and nutritional supplements for a child for a whole day.

A $50 check will pay the monthly wage of a high school teacher.

A gift of $1,500 would stock a home economic center with food and books for an entire year.

The sisters purchase milk, beans and vitamins for children and mothers. Students at the schools usually cannot afford tuition or books, so the sisters need resources to help them, too.

At the home economics centers, young women learn to read, cook, raise children and sew, skills vital to survive and thrive in Haiti.

Holy Names Sister Joan Maiers, a Marylhurst University writing instructor, organized a poetry reading at a Lake Oswego chocolate shop to benefit the ministry in Haiti. Sister Joan and Sister Denise met four years ago in Oakland.

As food prices have soared and Haiti has lost stability, the Little Sisters of St. Thérèse face unforeseen challenges.

One stream of donated food dried up and the sisters have been forced to scramble to find nourishment for those they serve.

Many hungry Haitians come to the sisters’ health clinics expecting food, but the stocks have dwindled.

Desperate bandits not long ago kidnapped one of the sisters and the community vehicle. The nun escaped, but the men demanded a hefty ransom for the car, which the sisters paid.

Asked why the dioceses and the government do not support the nuns’ ministry, Sister Denise explains that the church and civil officials have their own problems. The sisters do not involve themselves in advocacy in the halls of government. They try to let their work do the talking.

The cost of a 110-pound sack of rice in Haiti had risen to more than $50, or a fifth of the average worker’s annual salary. But unemployment rates have soared to 85 percent or more.

More than 60 percent of Haiti’s eight million people are malnourished.
One in five Haitian children dies before age 5 because of disease and malnutrition.

The sisters live in conditions most Americans would find rugged. Their beds are packed into small rooms. The high cost of food means there is less to eat.

The sisters have one donated car used for long trips on treacherous roads. One road was so rugged that when Sister Denise got out of the auto, she took a spill and broke her leg.

Many walk six or eight hours to their missions in the mountains of southwestern Haiti.

As the sisters get older, they need serious care, but there is no health insurance.
After making sure everyone is fed, Sister Denise dreams of a new compound for young women in formation as sisters. Now, they sleep jammed into a small room.

Sister Denise grew up in a town near Port Au Prince. As a girl, nuns taught her and she became interested in the life of service and prayer.

She entered the convent at age 18 and began her ministry at age 21 in Baradére, a city of 40,000 about a 12-hour drive southwest of the capital.

Baradére, on the Caribbean, is subject to stagnant water, which means mosquitoes, which means malaria. Sister Denise has had it numerous times, as have most of the residents. When children contract the disease, they often die.

In addition to her medical and fundraising work, Sister Denise teaches first Communion students at St. Peter Parish in Baradére.

Haiti, half of the island shared with the Dominican Republic, is about the size of Maryland. But the roads are so bad, it can take 12 hours to cross it.
Sister Denise will be in California until August. To contact her, send email to denise.desil@yahoo.com

To help, send donations payable to Congregation des Petites Soueurs de St. Thérèse, to St. John the Baptist Church, 11150 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.

1 comment:


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