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Catholic Hospital in Lebanon

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Mother Marie Makhlouf greets a young man in one of centers operated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal El Dib, Lebanon. She is superior of an order of mostly Lebanese nuns that cares for more than 1,000 vulnerable children and adults with physical and/or developmental disabilities or mental illness. (Photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec) 

12 Nov 2010 – by Cindy Wooden

JAL EL DIB, Lebanon (CNS) — High on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross care for 1,000 patients whom no one else in Lebanon seems to be interested in: the mentally ill and the severely mentally handicapped.

The Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross in Jal El Dib, just north of Beirut, is thought to be the largest psychiatric facility in the Middle East.

Visitors are welcomed with a chorus of “Jingle Bells” in Arabic — although it’s early November — with lots of handshakes, and even by a young man signaling he wants to play by pointing his index finger, cocking his thumb and shouting, “Pow!”

Mother Marie Makhlouf, superior general of the Franciscan Sisters, told a group of visiting Catholic journalists that about 54 percent of the patients at the hospital are non-Christians.

The founder of their order, Blessed Jacques Haddad, told the sisters that “we should be like a spring. A spring does not ask the thirsty what religion they are,” she said.

She also said he would tell the sisters that if they realized who they really were serving in caring for the poor and neglected, “you would serve on your knees.”

The sisters and the 300 full-time staff members liberally disperse and receive hugs and kisses and joke with the patients. A young sister scoffed only briefly when a patient who just didn’t feel like walking to the garbage can handed her the tissue he’d used to blow his nose.

Mother Makhlouf said the Franciscan Sisters, founded in Lebanon in 1930, now have 250 members, most of whom are Lebanese, although some Egyptians have entered since the sisters began working there.

The order is considered Latin-rite, although most of the sisters — like most Lebanese Catholics — come from the Maronite and Melkite Catholic communities. In addition, “some of the sisters were Orthodox or Muslim or Druze and became Catholic,” she said.

If the sisters are working in a Maronite village, they go to liturgy at the Maronite parish. If the only parish is Melkite, the sisters go there, she said. “As long as it’s Catholic, we’ll pray there,” Mother Makhlouf said.

“I would hope the whole church would live Christian unity like our congregation lives it,” by praying together inside a parish and serving the poor together outside, she said.

CNS staff writer Cindy Wooden traveled to Lebanon with the CNEWA in November.