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A half-hour drive from Jerusalem leads to the poor, mountainous West Bank villages of Kebabe, Biddu, Beit Hanan, and Catanna, where families once felt shamed and compelled to hide their handicapped sons and daughters. Sister Theophane has changed their feelings. In turn, this Franciscan sister has been adopted by Muslim and Christian Palestinians as one of their own.

She came to Palestine with a Master of Science degree in maternal and child care. Bethlehem University invited her to teach the first graduating class of nurses in 1976. As her rapport with the students grew, she even coached young husbands to assist their wives through labor and natural childbirth – a novel idea in the Middle East.

Sister Theophane lived at the Franciscan Seminary in Kebabe, a community of several hundred needy families. She felt drawn to help the poorest and least educated of these Palestinian villagers. In 1982 she started English classes for 30 women and men. The following year she opened a 10-week pre-school, attended by 30 children.

Eventually Sister Theophane gave responsibility for the pre-school to two young village women who had completed her English class. She then set off with a translator on another mission.

“For a year-and-a-half we walked the streets of the villages, from house to house, Sister Theophane explains. While visiting a family, she discovered a four-year-old handicapped girl locked in her home since birth. Sister persuaded the mother to let her test the child and begin working with her.

As word spread, 10 more mothers came to her – one at a time and secretly – to ask her to visit their disabled children. By 1988 Sister Theophane was working with 120 families in the area with handicapped members.

Aware that alone she cannot attend to the growing response of villagers, Sister Theophane has nurtured a team of young Palestinian women to help her in the home visitation program. Two are Christian social workers, graduates of Bethlehem University. Two are Muslim villagers from Biddu and Catanna who attended 27 hours of Sister’s classes in Kebabe. Funding for three of the women was granted by the Pontifical Mission in 1987. Sister Theophane relinquished her own salary for one year to compensate the other woman.

Conflicts go on in the Holy Land, but the most certain victories are those of Christian women such as Sister Theophane. Nora Kort, and Georgette Rizek. Their quiet. resourceful efforts overcome major barriers to the growth of human dignity here. Their projects are the living stones building the Church in the Holy Land.

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Lucinda Kidd recently returned from an extended visit to the West Bank.

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Tags: Refugees Children Palestine Sisters Health Care