12 April 2016
Sister Maria Hanna serves as the mother superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in northern Iraq. (photo: John E. Kozar)
The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena who serve the displaced people of Iraq are among the most selfless women we’ve encountered — and also, among the most heroic.
Their mother superior is Sister Maria Hanna, who fled with dozens of her sisters from their convent in Quaraqosh when ISIS swept through northern Iraq in August of 2014. They settled in Erbil, some 50 miles away, to begin serving others in the same boat:
Throughout this trauma, a backbone of support for the displaced Christians has been the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, some 73 of whom were also exiled from their convents across the plain. Led by Sister Maria Hanna, mother superior, the community initially administered to the displaced from their convent in Ainkawa. As families were moved from Ainkawa to Kasnazan, it became clear a second, satellite convent was required.
“We want to be with the people — to serve the people in the moment,” says Sister Maria. “If they move someplace else, we move with them.”
...The leitmotif evident across all the communities of displaced Christians living in towns across Iraqi Kurdistan is resilience. From the seemingly hopeless ashes of shock and despair of last autumn, green shoots of hope sprout. From Erbil to Dohuk to Suleimaniyah, the Christians, frequently marginalized from public services by the Kurdish authorities, are building their own structures of support and care. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena have been crucial to the slow but steady emergence of this infrastructure from the chaos of displacement.
Within weeks of their exile, Sister Maria Hanna and her community realized children needed special help in this crucial time.
“Children in the displaced families are the real victims,” she says. “They are really crushed by the situation. Entire families had to suddenly all live together in one room or tent and the children were not allowed to speak, to express fear or frustration. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t shout. Often they had to bear witness to domestic problems caused by the displacement.”
Responding to this need, the Dominican Sisters established a kindergarten and an orphanage in Ainkawa, filling in for institutions abandoned back home. These efforts have eased the burden on families — especially the children themselves, starving to learn and play.
“One of the boys was so excited to be going to kindergarten that, the night before the first day back, he slept the whole night with his backpack on,” Sister Maria Hanna says. “He did not want anything to come between him and his learning!”
In 2014, CNEWA’s Michael La Civita hailed her as one of the Catholics of the Year in Our Sunday Visitor:
Sister Maria Hanna has served during a tumultuous moment in Iraqi history. Her term has coincided with a decade-long ordeal that has included invasion, war, sectarian strife and persecution. Sister Maria Hanna has made a difference. She has mobilized her own exiled community, organizing volunteer relief committees and working with partners, such as Catholic Near East Welfare Association, to assess the needs of the displaced, assist those with special needs, counsel those in shock and treat those who are ill.
Read more about Sister Maria Hanna and her order in Grace, from the Summer 2015 edition of ONE.
7 April 2016
Archbishop Joseph Kundukulam founded a home that cares for single mothers and their
children in India. (photo: Sean Sprague)
To many of the faithful in India, he is a saint: Archbishop Joseph Kundukulam, known as the “father of the poor.”
We profiled him in ONE magazine two years ago:
Mar Joseph died in Kenya in 1998 visiting a newly established house of Nirmala Dasi Sisters, a community he helped found in 1971. Translated from the Malayalam, the local vernacular, as the “Servants of God,” the Nirmala Dasi Sisters often serve as the primary agents of Mar Joseph’s works to serve the poor, the marginalized or those too feeble to care for themselves.
The community felt orphaned after his death, Nirmala Dasi Superior General Rosily Pidiyath recalls from the community’s tiny parlor in their motherhouse in Mulayam, near Trichur. The sisters are not alone. People cared for by the archbishop echo these sentiments, and hundreds will tell you they are alive today because he came forward to help when others had abandoned them.
Sixteen years after he died, Mar Joseph Kundukulam has left behind a remarkable legacy — a testament to a man who, even in death, continues to touch hearts and change lives.
As a young priest, Joseph Kundukulam was no stranger to charitable work. But his outreach to the poorest of the poor began in earnest when he was appointed pastor of St. Anne’s Church in Padinjarekotta, a suburb of Trichur. One day, a young woman carrying an infant asked the young priest for a place to stay. She was single, abandoned after the father of her child learned she had become pregnant. Her family had disowned her for her indiscretion. Father Joseph had to break the news that he had no shelter to offer.
Hours later, he found the young woman and her child still waiting for him. When he asked her what else she needed, she requested a small sum of money — little more than pocket change — to buy poison so she could kill herself and her child. Her request shocked the priest, who immediately worked with the parish to find some way to accommodate her.
He began to search for a more permanent way to help the young mother and others in her situation. Before long, he found a priest in Germany who offered him funds to start a new facility, on the condition the center be named after the patron saint of his parish in the heart of Europe. Since its founding in 1967, St. Christina’s Home has sheltered some 4,000 single mothers and their children, says the vice superior of the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, Chinnamma Kunnakatt, who has been working in the center for more than a decade.
And because St. Christina’s Home focused on the care of mothers and their toddlers only, the young pastor founded Savio Home, which cares for children 5 years of age and older.
These were only the beginning.
Read on to learn more about his extraordinary legacy. We’ve written often about his work in India, and the lives that have been changed because of this man who, as one priest put it, was “a shepherd who smelled like his sheep.” To read about the order he founded, check out ‘Slumdog’ Sisters from the July 2011 edition of the magazine; House of Blessings from March 2007; and God’s Servants of Action from July 1994.
5 April 2016
Al Lagan speaks with a Capuchin priest during his visit to Ethiopia. (photo: CNEWA)
Some of CNEWA’s biggest heroes are our donors, and one of the most devoted was Alfred A. Lagan — known to everyone as just “Al” — who supported our work for decades and even went overseas, to see for himself the work his generosity made possible. He died in 2013, at the age of 77.
Al came from humble roots, as his obituary noted:
The son of an Irish immigrant who owned a tavern in the Bronx, NY, Al’s career began by cleaning the tavern and saving pennies left on the floor. At the age of 16, his own father’s untimely death meant an early end to childhood years. Al graduated from Iona College in 1956 at the age of 20, and joined the Navy, where he was part of the Explosive Underwater Ordinance Disposal team, or also known as a “frogman.”
He went on to become a philanthropist and business leader in Boston. But throughout his life, education remained a top priority.
Norma Intriago, now CNEWA’s development director, remembered:
Catholic education, to him, was the best way to tackle the issue of poverty — to give someone the opportunity of education, to arm them with knowledge and good values so that they can build a better life. I think Al felt very blessed as someone who had gone to college, got a master’s degree and started his own investment firm. He felt like his success wasn’t his to keep. It didn’t belong to him — it was God’s blessing. So it was his turn to share that opportunity with others. He was a true altruist. He really, truly, selflessly rendered of himself to others in need.
Following a trip to Ethiopia, Al wrote about his impressions of that country:
Poverty is visible everywhere in Ethiopia. Children often approached us and asked for money. One night, I saw a woman and her baby sleeping against a wall near our hotel. She wasn’t resting for a moment. She and her child were living on the street — they had nowhere else to go.
But what Norma Intriago recalled most was Al Lagan’s spirit:
The trip was a rough one. At one point, we were staying in pretty poor accommodations. The electricity went out. We went a couple of days without showering. You can imagine how that affects your mood. But Al’s mood never changed! Whether he was starved, unwashed, whatever, he just shrugged his shoulders. Because he knew the trip wasn’t about his comfort. It was about something bigger than him. It was about the children and their eager faces. It was about the sisters who ran the institutions and their resourcefulness. That was what the trip was about. These kids had nothing, and it was about making sure they have a chance. I think Al taught me quite a lot about living the Gospel.
CNEWA is able to do its work because of countless heroes like Al Lagan, whose spirit continues to inspire us.
31 March 2016
Sister Arousiag Sajonian serves as superior of Our Lady of Armenia Convent in Gyumri, Armenia.
(photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Her first name means “Carrier of Light” in Armenian. And for more than two decades, Sister Arousiag Sajonian has been bringing light and hope to a troubled corner of Armenia — a land ravaged by earthquakes, wars and economic crises.
She was born and raised in the Middle East — “between Syria and Lebanon,” as she puts it — and entered the convent at age 19. A sister of the Immaculate Conception, she now serves as superior of Our Lady of Armenia Convent in Gyumri. CNEWA once described her order as a group of “no nonsense nuns” — and they are, to put it mildly, active. Sister Arousiag supervises an orphanage, a daycare center for the elderly, a vocational school and a summer camp program.
As she wrote in our magazine in 1997:
We have taught some 1,000 students on a weekly basis, preparing them for Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist and Reconciliation.
We have also visited the elderly and the sick and have organized public seminars. All these activities have been made possible through a vehicle donated by CNEWA, which has carried us back and forth from village to village.
Our classes and presentations were the first formal catechetical lessons offered to Armenian Catholics since the country was annexed by Soviet Russia in 1922.
This busy nun visited our New York office in 2012 and found time to sit down for an interview and described her long partnership with CNEWA:
Sister Arousiag: Every time I haven’t been able to get enough funds for a project, I’d write a letter to CNEWA and put on the top “S.O.S.” And I always received a positive response. Immediately.
ONE: What is the one message you’d like the world to hear about the work that you do?
Sister Arousiag: My message would be to share what they have with the least fortunate. Most of the time, they are people who don’t know how to get out of their situations. What we want is to teach them how to overcome — how they can have a more dignified life. That is very important: that we don’t pity them. We just help them to live a better life. That is something every human being strives for. They want dignity.
29 March 2016
The Rev. Ziad Hilal, S.J., has worked to ease the suffering of those who remain in Homs, Syria, especially the children. (photo: John E. Kozar)
It is impossible to read about the work of the Rev. Ziad Hilal, S.J., a longtime partner of CNEWA, and not be moved. He has worked tirelessly in Syria to help that country’s most vulnerable citizens, its children, during a period of devastating war and upheaval. He wrote about it for ONE in 2013:
Starting February 2012, we realized the new status quo was likely to persist and we had to deal with this new reality, assisting the thousands of families living in temporary shelters in the relatively safe areas of the city. Our first priority was to take care of the hundreds of children who transformed the streets into their only playground and school, putting them at the mercy of the snipers, the shelling and the street violence. I still remember one of the children hiding behind a wall and calling me to take cover from a sniper. The children of Homs became experts in the art of escaping violence, but unfortunately many were not as lucky as I was on that day, and they paid with their lives on the streets.
Recent events have deeply affected the children, and we have noticed changes through our follow-ups at school. When they play, they transform wooden boxes into imitation weapons and play war games, reflecting the reality that the children are also internalizing the patterns of the war around them. Confronting this, we had to work hard to redirect the children to regular games, such as football and other sports.
Most children live in a state of denial. They refuse to acknowledge their fears. Meanwhile, mothers report their children cannot sleep alone in a separate bed anymore, which speaks to their trauma. Some others report cases that required the assistance of a speech therapist and a psychologist to overcome communication troubles.
At the same time, many youth have lost their jobs and their income, their great potential going to waste.
Thus, we decided to join both priorities in one project, aiming to take the children out of the streets and to provide jobs to the displaced youth.
His concluding thoughts:
As a priest, I would like to say our role as a church is to push people toward hope, which should never be abandoned — no matter how unbearable circumstances may seem.
Hope is what CNEWA has helped us provide. I believe it has been a lifeline from God — helping us and guiding our efforts to glorify the name of the Lord.
Read more in his Letter from Syria: Saving the Children of War from the Summer 2013 edition of ONE.
24 March 2016
Elias Kayrouz, right, works to help refugees in Lebanon, many of whom are Muslim.
(photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
In 2014, writer Diane Handal caught up with one Lebanese Maronite villager in the Bekaa Valley who volunteers to help Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslim.
Here is some of her interview with Elias Kayrouz:
ONE: What has your work as a volunteer working with Syrian refugees taught you?
EK: Through working with the Syrian refugees, I have come to know hardship. Some of them say: “You can’t help us; we need more.” That makes me feel down — even frustrated — but at the end of the day, you can only do so much.
ONE: What is your personal advice to others in helping Muslims, bridging the differences and exposing biases?
EK: I think to myself: When I lay my head on my pillow, what would make me feel more at peace — if I work against other people and feed into the negativity, or if I help other people? Which would help me sleep better at night?
I advise everyone to think deeply about this.
ONE: Do you have any words to share about your philosophy on how this sectarian conflict can be resolved?
EK: We are one. All we need is for people to see how Muslims and Christians treat each other as human beings.
Think about the animal kingdom: The strong animals kill the weak ones. If this is how human beings live, the strong keep killing the weak, there will be no progress — just the law of the jungle. For me, doing good differentiates me from the animals. Over time, maybe I will help other people because of my example.
I do good in order to differentiate myself from the animals. I am sorry to put it so simply, but it is the truth.
Read the full interview here.
22 March 2016
Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M. was a talented and generous part of CNEWA’s family
for many years. (photo: CNEWA)
Many of the heroes we’ll be spotlighting over the next few months are extraordinary women who have given their time and talent to make a difference in CNEWA’s world. One of those women in Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M., who worked for CNEWA for many years and made invaluable contributions to our magazine.
When she died in 2013, Michael J.L. La Civita wrote:
Tens of thousands of friends and benefactors grew to know Mercy Sister Christian Molidor from her weekly emails she wrote until her retirement in 2011. But Christian’s work at Catholic Near East Welfare Association began long before the internet; in her self-deprecating style, she would say she joined CNEWA before the alphabet was invented. According to Christian, she arrived one day in 1984. Msgr. John Nolan, then the head of CNEWA, had no idea what to do with the Libertyville, Illinois, native, so he sent her “packing,” she recalled some years ago.
She went to India, where she visited orphans, catechists, priests, senior citizens, the handicapped and her beloved religious sisters. She helped cook and clean. She did the wash and hung the laundry. And she photographed. She took thousands of pictures of smiling children, sisters laughing and patients praying. She collected their stories, wrote them down, squirreled them away in her head and shared them for decades.
Christian held many positions at CNEWA — everything from communications director to associate secretary general to special assistant to the president — but she loved most documenting the stories and taking the portraits of the people she loved to serve. Christian’s love for and faith in Jesus, and his presence in the lowly, the poor and the marginalized, fueled her being. And she shared this love and faith with everyone she encountered. Everyone!
Read on to discover Sister Christian’s final, heartfelt message. And take a moment to view some of her beautiful photographs, and hear more about her life, in the video below:
16 March 2016
Elsa stands in her home in Mai-Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
In the summer of 2014, Fanuel Abebe, project director for Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.) described his encounter with one of his clients, a refugee from Eritrea named Elsa. CNEWA partners with J.R.S., which works in the Mai-Aini Refugee Camp, assisting in the provision of services to those seeking shelter there. It was an inspirational visit that serves to remind us of the everyday heroism of people who dare to dream of a better life in a troubled world:
As we entered the mud house, we were welcomed with a warm smile by Jerry, whose mother, Elsa, is a client of Jesuit Refugee Service.
Elsa was lying down, exhausted. Her daughter was working on the dough for ambasha, a local variety of Ethiopian bread. The hut contained little — just a few cooking materials and two beds made of mud attached to the mud floor.
Though tired from her rigorous daily routine — which includes collecting firewood every day for cooking in an ongoing struggle to keep her three daughters fed — Elsa warmly welcomed us, insisting on offering us coffee.
As we talked over our coffee, we were surprised at her optimism. We were also delighted at the work J.R.S. had done in keeping Elsa’s spirits high despite her very difficult life as a refugee.
Elsa’s face brightened as she told us about Jerry’s performance at a J.R.S. program for music and the performing arts at the camp. From an early age, Elsa told us, Jerry had proven to be a talented dancer and performer.
Now in her mid-30’s, Elsa explains that she herself had a great passion for music and dance when she was young, and is delighted to see her daughter share that passion. This was one of the reasons behind Elsa’s determination to hang on to life — J.R.S. has helped her keep her hopes alive.
Elsa’s daughter Jerry is one of the many young people living in the Mai-Aini Refugee Camp taking classes at the J.R.S. program for music and the performing arts. Besides music, J.R.S. is also engaged in providing five other types of psychosocial support for children. These programs, which benefit not only the children, but the extended families living in the camp, include counseling, sports and recreational activities, theater and library services.
In spite of the desolation in Mai-Aini, Elsa dreams of a better life for her children.
Read more about Elsa’s Dream in the Summer 2014 edition of ONE.
15 March 2016
Flora Sargsyan, project manager for Caritas Armenia, works to assist Armenia’s elderly.
(photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
CNEWA has long had a concern for the poor and marginalized people throughout Eastern Europe, and works with religious and lay agencies to provide support where it is most needed.
We’ve partnered with Caritas Armenia to serve Armenia’s elderly — “the new orphans” of that part of the world — and one person who has been at the forefront of that effort is Flora Sargsyan, who runs a senior day care center in Gyumri. In the summer of 2015, she wrote about her work in the pages of ONE:
Despite years of work experience, Armenia’s elderly find themselves in hard socioeconomic situations in this post-Soviet period — deprived of jobs and a steady income while trying to live on miserable, inadequate pensions. Unfortunately, their situation has worsened with the massive migration of young people seeking jobs outside the country, leaving their aged parents alone and helpless.
The elderly encounter a lot of hardships; some can’t take care of their health needs, or even handle the routines of daily life. It is a challenge for them just to survive in their late age. They need support — physical, material, psychological and spiritual.
The initiatives we implement are intended to improve their quality of life. We work to help those who are physically and mentally frail to be integrated into society and to be treated with respect and care. We provide an array of supportive services conducted by social workers, medical nurses, caregivers and volunteers.
Each time I visit the people we serve, I feel I need to offer them encouragement. Most are alone and have lost hope. They are anxious for our visits; they long to engage with others, to speak and to be heard. The elderly need proper hygiene, clean homes, hot meals; they also need medical care and attention. This is what our programs help provide. A caregiver or nurse might help bathe the patient or offer to cook or clean — even dress their hair.
Our caregivers are vital to the elderly because they soothe their pain — both physical and emotional. They help ease the sufferings of their souls.
Read more about Flora’s heroic mission here.
11 March 2016
Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A. (1863-1940). (photo: Graymoor Archives)
Over the next several months, as CNEWA marks its 90th anniversary, we’ll be spotlighting 90 people who made a profound difference in our world over these last 90 years — and it’s only fitting that we begin at the beginning.
The first of our “90 Years, 90 Heroes” profiles features CNEWA’s co-founder, the Rev. Paul Wattson, who also founded the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Father Paul died in 1940; this past fall, the Archdiocese of New York formally opened his cause for canonization.
As the Rev. Elias D. Mallon, himself a Friar of the Atonement, wrote at the time:
Father Paul regarded other churches not as heretics and enemies, competitors or targets for proselytization, but as friends and fellow travelers on the road to the unity Christ wished for his church. He saw it as his task to be the Lamp that helped them on this journey.
His attitude toward other churches and his concern for the poor brought Father Paul in increasing contact with the Christians of the Middle East and India. After World War I, the situation of Christians in the Middle East was dire. Genocide was the order of the day for Christians in the lands of the Middle East. Millions of Armenians and hundreds of thousands of Christians from other Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches were either slaughtered or driven out of their homes as refugees.
Father Paul and the Rev. George Calvassy (later a bishop) of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church sought a way to alleviate the sufferings of all Christians in the Middle East. Their attempts took many different routes, some of them dead ends, but their efforts along with others resulted ultimately in the founding of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in 1926. Pope Pius XI formally recognized CNEWA as a pontifical organization and placed it under the direction of the archbishop of New York.
The Eastern churches — Catholic and Orthodox — were dear to the heart of Father Paul. Many bishops from these churches visited Father Paul at Graymoor to ask his help and express their gratitude for any assistance they received.
Father Paul died on 8 February 1940. His pioneering work for Christian unity today might be considered ahead of its time, and even prophetic. He did not live to see the Second Vatican Council and its decree on Christian Unity; he did not see the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity become a world-wide event promulgated by both the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. But his prayers, vision and passion laid the groundwork for vastly improved relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and helped CNEWA become a significant force for humanitarian and pastoral aid in a Middle East — a troubled land that is once again in our own day a place of genocide and exile.
Read more about Father Paul here. And for the full history of CNEWA, check out this link.