If It Weren’t for Sister…

by Rev. Martin J. McDermott, S.J.
photos: CNEWA-PMP, Beirut

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When Sister Marie Gustave was assigned to teach high school in Damour, Lebanon, twenty-five years ago, she discovered an apostolate beyond her classroom walls. In the small mountain villages outside the town lived many Christians who were without a resident priest. They had no one to offer Mass and administer the sacraments, or to instruct and encourage them. Spiritually, they were starving to death, and the Faith was in danger of dying out.

Sister saw the situation and set out to change it. One day each week, she would visit a village with a group of her students from Damour. Sister would gather and teach the adults while her student catechists instructed the children, grouped according to age and size. Although Christian in name, the adult villagers knew little about their Faith. But while she taught them, Sister coaxed the Christians in many villages to build churches.

“Before the Sister came, we were not really Christians,” says Abu Najib, a retired policeman. “Would you believe it? I made my first confession the day I was married. We seldom saw a priest. But the Sister taught us and also persuaded us to collect some money, clear the land, and build our church. Just having this church gives us pride and confidence. And the Sister brings a priest for Mass almost every Sunday. They can never make me leave!”

During the troubles of 1975-76, when the villages were isolated, outsiders tried to stir up the Muslim villagers against their Christian neighbors. Abu Najib’s house was besieged, and his living room walls still show the bullet marks, plastered over with new cement. But none of his family was hit. Though other Christian families found it prudent to leave the village temporarily, Abu Najib stayed on, knowing that if he left, the church next door would be ransacked or ruined.

As soon as it was possible to travel again, and perhaps a bit sooner than was truly safe, Sister Marie Gustave was back making the rounds of the villages, consoling the Christians for their losses and urging them to stay. The former Greek Catholic bishop of Saida, who is now retired, says, “The Sister? She was my vicar. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think we would have any Christians still living in that district.”

Sister Marie Gustave, who recently celebrated 50 years in the religious life, now visits nine mountain villages on Fridays to give religious instruction. She goes alone with a driver, for conditions are still too unsettled for students or laywomen to accompany her. The town of Damour, where her student catechists lived, was destroyed early in 1976, and the inhabitants who escaped the massacre now live as refugees elsewhere in Lebanon. As she passes Damour, Sister remarks that it breaks her heart to see the rubble of the town whose people were so generous to her poor villagers.

Every Sunday Sister visits five of the villages in her area with a Jesuit priest from Beirut. In four of them Mass is said, preceded by the sacrament of Penance. Sister Marie Gustave knows everyone by name, and gently prods those who have gone more than a month or so without Confession.

The visit to the fifth village is just for hearing confessions. In some areas, the resident married priest is too close to his people for them to confess to him easily. So he asks Sister to bring another priest once or twice a month.

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Tags: Lebanon Sisters Education Christianity Village life