An autistic child bangs his head against a wall, and a nurse races over to comfort and protect him. A young man with Down syndrome is singing Christmas carols, in November, and one of his caregivers raises her voice to sing along with him, cheering for him as he makes his way through the verses.
Still another boy, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, shouts and is immediately tended to with gentle hands and a reassuring smile. The sights and sounds of this room are hard to take in —so many children whose futures seem to hold little promise or joy. Yet in this very room, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross see God made manifest.
“When you serve these children, you serve Jesus Christ,” says Sister Manal Haddad. “I work to make their lives more easy, more happy.”
Sister Manal is one of 250 sisters in this congregation, which has dedicated itself to living the principles of Blessed Father Yaacoub El-Haddad. Father Yaacoub, a Capuchin, founded the group in 1930 with the priorities of caring for elderly priests; serving the handicapped, the aging, the chronically ill, and children; and promoting education. Today his work has resulted in care centers for all of those needs, and the ministry stretches into Jordan, Syria and Egypt.
Sister Manal Haddad. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
The institution where Sister Manal works serves about 1,000 patients, including four children who literally were abandoned on the hospital’s doorstep. In a country like Lebanon, where the government makes few, if any, genuine provisions for healthcare and social services, the Franciscans’ work is crucial.
“If each of us serves in our own capability and knowledge, we will contribute to the expansion of the Church,” says Mother Superior Marie Makhlouf, speaking both specifically and universally. “If each one does his own work in honor and good faith, this is the only way to spread the Church.” Mother Marie says the sisters do things “the Father Yaacoub way,” faithfully persevering despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Caregiver Manoon Sallouh and Michael Lacivita, of CNEWA, talk to 17-year-old Tony, a patient at the center. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
Chief among the obstacles? Money. The Lebanese government pays the sisters $15 a day per patient—when the average cost of care is $66 per patient. To make matters worse, the government is typically two or three years behind in its payments. Thus, organizations often are forced to take costly loans to survive in the short term. By the time the government contributes its share of funding, the loan interest and the devaluation of Lebanese currency combine to create an upside-down financial picture.
Yet somehow the Franciscan sisters are thriving. They’ve undertaken an initiative to rehabilitate their Christ the King home for aging priests, relying on divine providence to support the effort and see it to fruition. “God somehow manages,” Mother Marie says.
Though Father Yaacoub died in 1954, his spirit and his vocation of service still permeate the congregation and inform its works. Multiple times, Mother Marie cites Father Yaacoub’s guiding spirituality: To be like a spring, quenching the thirst of all the needy, without asking to what religion or confession someone belongs. “‘My religion is Lebanon,’” Mother Marie says, quoting Father Yaacoub.
Mother Superior Marie Makhlouf explains the mural of charism. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
It is clear that St. Francis also is a guiding light of this ministry. As he embraced the leper, so the sisters embrace the patients in their care. For many of the mentally and physically handicapped children, there is no one else to look after them. Of the 62 boys in the mental retardation ward, 32 are completely dependent. Only 10 can speak. Yet Sister Manal sees opportunity when she looks around—she sees a chance to make service more humanistic, and to provide kindness and care to those most in need. She also sees a path for serving as an example. Says Sister Manal: “My hope is that this spirit will be spread and become rooted in the culture.” Click here for more daily reports from Lebanon.View ACO in Lebanon in a larger map