Saint Sister Philomena

Sister Philomena was born in between two world wars, and grew up during the great depression in the United States.

She never knew her father, and this was a life long sadness for her. Even when she was very old, she would repeat in a tearful way how difficult this was for her.

He older brother, Lou, was wounded in the second world war, and Sister looked up to him her whole life long, and was close to him and her two sisters.

She was a woman who knew a lot of personal suffering and yet who. like many people saved by love, become more caring, instead of more closed and cynical, by suffering.

Her own childhood gave her a loving heart for children who also lost one or both of their parents, and for children whose situations were poor like hers was.

This made her a natural to join Fr Wasson's large family, which was in fact a community of small families who needed the shelter of NPH for a while.

Small families of Leons and Velasquezes, of Benitezes, of Osmes and Augustins and Dedes, of Forrestals, which in their turn became large families again. Even more, so for the many children who joined us with no family at all, who were made to feel right at home by her good heart.

A shelter for children is made a home only by personal dedication, like the loving care of Sister Philomena. 

She is a great example of what makes something more than a social work or a project, and rather makes it a family.

As a young woman, Sister joined the Sisters of St Dominic, known officially as the Order of the Preachers. This is why, if you ever noticed, she had OP after her name, and the black and white cross (and black and white habit) of St Dominic. She was very proudly a Dominican Sister.

Sister became a nurse and worked for many years in Catholic Hospitals in the Northwest USA.

Sister was very traditional, and when she went to Mexico with Fr Wasson, she was sorry to have to put on civilian clothing when she went to Mexico, as required by Mexican laws. Some of the oldest of Fr Wasson's first groups of "pequenos" knew her loving care. The are in their 60's and 70's now.

After spending many years in Mexico, Sister returned to the USA, where the new custom was that most Sisters no longer wore habits.

This was an irony of God. Sister needed to abandon her habit to go on mission, and on returning to the USA, Sisters no longer wore them.

We all remember Sister as unique in this. Most of the other Sisters who were with us in Haiti, including her old pal Sister Fidelis, did not wear habits.

Sister always wore hers, and had her veil on, even on her death bed. 

When we started NPH in Haiti, in 1987, years after she had left NPH Mexico, Sister came to join us in Haiti. 

As I think of that time, she was 65 years old when she came..

I am 65 years old now, after 30 years of hard work. And she STARTED at 65! 

For me, as a senior now, I see how this in itself was very heroic.

We have endless stories about what a character she was, how funny she could be, what a good generous cook and baker she was.

We also knew what it was like to get on her bad side. 

But this didn't happen very often, or last very long.

I remember when a rat stole a bib every night from the babies table in her house, which he always meticulously set before she went to bed, so everything was ready when the babies woke up in the morning.

One bib a night, to make a nest.

Sister thought one of us was coming and and taking a bib, one a night, to drive her crazy.

That was the end of brownies, cakes, fried chicken and other treats.

Her ovens became cold in protest.

It was only some time later, then a water pipe broke in her house and we had to remove some boards to fix it, we found all the bibs full of baby rats.

When she saw we had not stolen the bibs, the ovens were fired up and she baked in abundance to make up for lost time.

Sister was a trooper. She worked night and day. There was not one thing about one day that was easy in her work.

After a lot of years at St Helene in Kenscoff, she wanted to get more involved medically, and so she came to Petionville and lived at the old St Damien Hospital.

She did all kinds of work. 

Nursing, sewing, making margarita's for the doctors at the end of the day.

She was welcoming to visitors, interested and curious about everything, she helped me daily to bathe, wrap and bless the bodies of the children who had died. 

There was no closing paragraph in her job description. 

Sister did everything.

Saws and sledge hammers were as useful in her hands as were syringes and knitting needles.

Sister also joined me for  the work on the streets, and in Pele and Sans Fils, for many years.

This was tougher still.

She was masterful at doing paracentesis, at debriding burns, and at stitching woulds closed. 

She usually had a home made brownie or a toll house cookie for each patient she bound up or sewed back together again.

In caring for desperately ill or critically hurt people, she could see the most horrific things without fainting, hear the worse kind of screaming and agony without trembling, she could tolerate the most God-aweful smells without running from the room. More than any of us, except maybe for Raphael, she kept equilibrium in the face of the unbearable. 

But one thing totally flipped her out. That was, to get even one speck of blood on her off-white habit. 

She could not function until it was clean. She became a whirling dervish.

Large and long aprons, blue for the Blessed Mary, helped solve this dilemma!

Sister was a bit on the naive side. We sometimes say of people like her, they don't need to be baptized. It's a waste of water. 

They have original innocence and they never seem to lose it.

We would race through burning barricades, or gunfire, on the violent streets. 

I especially remember the most ferocious years of 2004 to 2007. 

Not that other years have been a picnic.

Her head was always bowed. She was knitting. Booties for this or that great niece, this or that friends nephew.

Blue for boys, pink for girls.

The truck would be flying over bumps, whipping around corners, and she kept working and never had to redo a stitch.

I remember she said once, head bowed and eyes focused on the knitting  "what's that loud noise?"

"It's gunfire, sister"

"Why is it getting louder?"

"Because they are shooting at us"

"I am glad I am short. I should be alright. It's not very often there is an advantage to being short. How tall are you, father?"

For many years, on Friday nights, Sister made dinner for Alfonso and I.

We always watched a video.

If either Alfonso or I could not make it, it was cancelled, because she did not want to be alone with a man in the house.

("What would the babies think," she reasoned.)

But it was not often that one of us was absent.

The meal was always chicken, the movie was always The Song of Bernadette.

Sister always cried at the same part.

The village priest, and Sister Bernadette were very close.

When she developed tuberculosis in the story, for which there was no cure, she was sent to a sanatorium.

Neither knew if she would be cured, or if she would live.

In a very moving scene, as they parted and she left for the sanitarium, the priest gave her a postcard, stamped and addressed to himself,

and he said

"If you ever need me, drop this in the mail. When I get it, I will understand that you need me and I will come at once to your side."

Last Wednesday, while working at Sans Fils where Sister used to work with us, I received a text from Dominican Sister Sister Jeri, that Philomena was dying, and was anointed with the last sacrament.

I let our team know, and we were figuring how to be able to get to Sister's funeral since she had requested a green burial.

Burial within 48 hours, very humble, no embalming or vaults.

But Sister lingered and lingered, and I got daily messages from Sister Jeri, which, i finally realized, were the modern day equivalent of Bernadette's post card. Sister needed me, and so Mary Reed and I found our way to her side.  Mary was with us for years in Honduras, and also our beginning years with Sister in Haiti. 

We spent the day together yesterday, with the comatose Philomena, mass at her bedside with yet another anointing, and with songs and prayers.

So many Sisters came in, all day long, all elderly, blessing her forehead with their arthritic thumbs, smiling kindly and speaking tender words to her.

The Sisters were later commenting that Sister Philomena seemed more invigorated by our presence, rather than being closer to dying.

She was still very warm, and breathing with strength.

Sister Philomena finally gave up her ghost, at almost exactly the time that my plane took off from Detroit, to return to Haiti, at 5:55 this morning.

Her sky miles are worth infinitely more than mine.

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, also died today. He was a mere kid at 90, compared to Sr Philomena's 95!

For both we should call out to the Vatican very loudly:

"Santo Subito!" They should both be immediately be declared saints. There is nothing to think about.

Here is some good news for a weary world.

For every universally acclaimed marvel like Jean Vanier, there are are ten thousand unknowns, like Sister Philomena Perrault.

Do the math. Our world is teaming with good and humble people, doing saving work at great sacrifice, in the shadows of anonymity.

What a joy. The work of the Resurrection of Jesus continues in the shadows,

I have met many such wonderful people just in these days, among the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan.

St Philomena, pray for us! 

How we need it.

Fr Rick Frechette CP,DO
Port au Prince HAITI

May 7, 2019