Cameroon Sister’s Work Preaches The Gospel

Cameroon sister

Sister Marie Therese runs the Center of Hope, a home for children in Yaoundé, Cameroon who have lost one or both parents to HIV related illnesses. Photo by Lane Hartill

CRS supports the Yaoundé diocese in Cameroon, where information officer Lane Hartill reports today on a project undertaken by the diocese. Pope Benedict XVI visits Cameroon March 17-20. Lane reported yesterday about a prison in Cameroon.

After leaving the prison, I go in search of Sister Marie-Therese. She runs the Center of Hope in Yaoundé, a home for 46 children who have lost one or both parents to HIV. Sister Marie-Therese and her team care for, feed, and educate the children who are between 7 and 12 years old. The center also works with their host families to better care for them when the children return to their families or host families (usually when they are 12 or 13 years old). She has a group of community outreach workers who identify children whose parents are HIV positive and can no longer properly care for them.

Sister Marie-Therese says her work is “a way for us to preach and live the gospel concretely. They don’t see God, but they see us, and the fact that we are helping them truly shows that God is alive and manifests himself through us.”

Prior to opening the center in 1990, Sister Marie-Therese prayed and lived the sacraments and lived her life as any Catholic Sister should. But she did her work between the pews and in an office. Something, she says, was missing.

Cameroon orphans

The Center of Hope in Yaoundé, Cameroon, cares for, feeds, and educates children who are between 7 and 12 years old. Photo by Lane Hartill

“Before, I didn’t understand people,” she says. “I didn’t understand their problems. I wasn’t patient. I was a good Sister, but this job has given me conviction, it made me understand my fellow man. I learned how to listen … how to be humble.

“Everybody understands that they should help the poor,” she says. “But there are some concrete cases that are painful. Like if there’s a person who has diarrhea, who smells bad. And nobody wants to touch them.”

Sister Marie-Theresa’s selflessness toward the poor, the very thing the Pope called for in Deus Caritas Est, reached another level not long ago.

There’s one woman she’ll never forget, a woman who was HIV positive and left to die. “Nobody would go near her,” she says. “They treated her like a leper.”

She tells me what happened.

“I said, “Where is the sick person?”

“My Sister, you can’t see her,” the family said.

“Why can’t I see her? That’s why I came.”

“No! It’s bad in there.”

“This is my job,” Sister Marie-Therese told them.

She opened the door to the room where the woman was staying and was greeted by an overpowering odor. Nobody had helped her in days. The 36 year old woman was lying on the floor, her dress and sheets were covered in waste. Neglect and the virus had aged her; Sister Marie-Therese said she appeared to be in her 70s.

Cameroon sister

Sister Marie Therese runs the Center of Hope, a home for children in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Photo by Lane Hartill

Marie-Therese introduced herself.

“I’ve heard your name before!” the woman said, perking up. “I wanted to come and see you, but I wasn’t able to, and I didn’t have the money.

Sister Marie-Therese got right to work. But she realized she would need help moving her, washing her. When she asked, people disappeared. Nobody would go near her.

So she called her sister, a nurse. Together, they washed the woman, rubbed her body down with perfume, bought her new sheets and a new mattress. They also brought her a thermos with warm milk.

“Thank you so much my Sister,” she said, smiling.

The next day, she died.

“We were very happy to have her die in dignity,” says Sister Marie-Therese, “to see her last smile.”

– Lane Hartill

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