Heart to Heart in Haifa

text by Felix Corley
photographs by Ilene Perlman

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“We try to give good care to the children,” explains Sister Katharina Fuch, D.C. “We try to assure good health and good food. We try to make life as agreeable for them as we can. We try to find what each child likes – music, play, laughter, television, radio, video. We want these children to feel good.”

The children are some 60 severely mentally and physically handicapped boys and girls, aged from newborn to 16 years. The place is the Maison du Sacre Coeur – the House of the Sacred Heart – in the Israeli port city of Haifa. The care-givers are Sister Katharina, three other sisters, a number of local specialists and other staff.

Sister Katharina is the Austrian-born superior of the House of the Sacred Heart, established by the Daughters of Charity, the religious community founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul.

In addition to caring for the resident children, the sisters also maintain a day-care center with 240 children, assuring working mothers that their children are well cared for during the workday.

Sister Katharina outlines all these activities as we sit in her neat office. Administrative responsibilities, keeping track of the staff and all the activities, are in efficient hands.

But it is when we go down to see the children that she really comes alive. It is with them that Sister Katharina feels most at home. As we walk between the cots she greets each child in turn, stroking their heads lovingly and talking to them affectionately. As she walks past, some grab at her hands, wanting to feel her touch.

A swollen-faced young girl takes staggering steps toward us. Her name is Rana and she is clearly Sister Katharina’s favorite. Rana’s father and grandparents were killed in a car crash and her mother could not cope. The youngster had a tumor; an early operation was only partially successful. When Rana came to Sacre Coeur, no one thought she could do anything but lie in her cot all day. Since coming to the House of the Sacred Heart, however, thanks to the love and hard work of the staff, she has learned to walk.

Lebanese-born Sister Marlene is all smiles as she shows me her “little prince.” He is Rotem, now two years and five months old. Rotem was abandoned soon after birth, although just recently his mother, grandmother and aunt made a surprise visit. He suffers severe asthma attacks. Sister Marlene wants to take him out of his cot and give him a cuddle, but he is asleep. She kisses him softly on the head and reluctantly leaves him.

“All the children are princes,” she explains, “but this one is an extra special prince.”

The rooms are bright and clean and the cots, many with mobiles hanging above them, have multicolored sheets. Changing and feeding areas are all spotlessly clean. But even more striking is the attentiveness and love of all the staff, not just the sisters. Along with the care-givers, the staff of specialists helps the children develop their genetic conditions, perhaps because their parents are related. Others are handicapped because of accidents during birth. Still others are disabled because they contracted meningitis in very early childhood.

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Tags: Children Israel Sisters Disabilities