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Bearing the Cross in Lebanon

Thanks to the dedication of a Capuchin priest, Lebanon’s needy find support from the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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“No photos,” the nun said. She meant it. She was protecting the feelings of a group of Down syndrome adults cared for by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross of Lebanon.

“You are, of course, welcome to visit,” the nun added, trying to soften the blow. Waiting for someone to show me around, I tucked my camera deep into my bag in an “out of sight, out of mind” maneuver.

It was December, one of Lebanons best months. A warm sun energized both the birds outside and the patients and staff. Waiting was a pleasure. Suddenly I heard drums. A van of schoolchildren from a Catholic school had arrived to serenade the sisters on this feast day of St. Barbara.

The feast of St. Barbara, celebrated in Lebanon on 4 December, closely resembles Halloween. Many legends have developed around this early Christian martyr who was condemned and beheaded by her father. One such legend reveals that Barbara fled her family and sought anonymity and safety through disguise.

On the feast, children dressed in costume travel from house to house where they are welcomed by fellow Christians handing out candy and coins. Gypsies, Spanish dancers, ghosts, devils, clowns and ballerinas swarmed around the surprised sisters and their friends.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Cross, a Latin (Roman) Catholic community numbering 242 sisters, traces its roots to Father Jacques Haddad (1875-1954). Ordained a Latin Catholic priest in 1901, Father Haddad also directed the schools of the Capuchin Mission in the Middle East. He expanded the number of village schools and entrusted the care of them to local priests. By 1910 Father Jacques had established 163 schools with 7,000 students. His method of education is as much a model for today as it was then: Choose good teachers, work to ensure a high standard of education and strengthen each child in the Catholic faith.

From 1903 to 1914 Father Jacques preached the Gospel throughout the region, now the nations of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. With a knapsack on his back he bore the heat of summer and the cold of winter to enliven the faith of ordinary people. He composed hymns, published an Arabic magazine, The Family Friend, and organized first communion ceremonies and student rallies. His moments of personal time were spent in silent prayer before the cross and in meditation on the Scriptures.

Father Jacques pastoral mission changed in 1914 after the Ottoman Empire, of which present-day Lebanon was a part, entered World War I. Lebanon was caught up in more that just the fighting: in four years disease and famine claimed one third of the population.

Responding to these troubles, Father Jacques set up soup kitchens, orphanages and workshops. In 1919 he built a chapel, raised a cross and erected a modest building named the Monastery of the Cross.

In 1926 this remarkable priest, a one-man relief organization, encountered an old priest in a hospital who was alone, wretchedly poor and close to death. Father Jacques brought the man to his home. Soon he brought other elderly, ailing priests to this modest monastery. They were cared for by the Sisters of Lons-Le-Saunier and their Lebanese novices. By 1930 they had formed together the nucleus of a new religious congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross of Lebanon.

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Tags: Lebanon Health Care Disabilities Franciscan Sisters of the Cross