Counting on God

The Ephremite Sisters, inspired by a troubled youth, reach out to same

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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The story of a local bad boy who makes good is hardly the standard inspiration for starting an order of sisters. But the Ephremite Sisters do trace their roots to just such a lad.

The tale begins between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in A.D. 303 in what is now Turkey. During her pregnancy, the mother of this boy dreamed of a baby with the face of an elderly man and from this strange child’s mouth came a vine full of grapes.

From birth, the boy, Ephrem, was a handful. One story tells of how he beat his father’s cows, which undoubtedly were the family’s livelihood. School did little to tame him and his father kept him at home. The boy’s isolation gave him time to think. Thinking brought about regret. Regret led to repentance and repentance led Ephrem to dedicate his life to God.

At age 20, he entered a monastery. He wrote poetry, became a deacon but felt unworthy of becoming a priest. Ephrem requested permission from his superiors to become a hermit. Again isolation led him toward thinking and regretting. And again he sought permission – this time to leave his life as a hermit.

Ephrem then began working with the sick and handicapped. He started a hospital. But perhaps it was his own wayward childhood that inspired him to begin working with youth.

Open doors and hearts. Ephrem lived to be 73 and is remembered as the patron saint of the Order of the Ephremite Sisters of the Syriac Catholic Church. The community is small with 11 sisters in Lebanon and 6 in Syria. There are 10 novices.

In 1970, the sisters opened St. Joseph’s Orphanage for girls. They also opened their hearts and doors to social cases – that catchall phrase for children whose lives have been heart-wrenchingly sad.

St. Joseph’s is located in Batha, high above the Lebanese coastline where you breathe in mountain air, only to have it taken away by the beauty of the views.

Originally located on Beirut’s once infamous Green Line, a boundary formed between east and west Beirut during the civil war (1975-1990), the orphanage was moved to Batha, where an abandoned convent proved safer.

Through the years the home has sheltered some 900 girls – and has done such a good job that “class reunions” are held annually. Today, there are 36 girls at St. Joseph’s – 27 are orphans and 9 are in tremendous need.

Sister Marguerite Amsih has been the director since 1984. She knows there are many more needy girls in Lebanon. But as she looks down the hallways of the dormitory, at the tables in the cafeteria, at the study hall and even the chapel, she knows that no matter what the need is, she cannot accept any more children.

Sister Marguerite’s hope is to make more room. She is currently in the midst of an expansion project – a three-story building next to the present orphanage will house up to 75 girls.

But the price tag is $900,000 and Sister Marguerite has so far collected only $400,000. When funds are sufficient to call in the builders, they come and build. When the money runs out, they stop work and she starts yet another round of visits to raise more funds for this vital sanctuary.

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