The Quiet Power of Deep Faith: Sr. Philomena Perrault
This week we mourn the passing of an NPH founding sister and a contemporary of Fr. Wasson. Fr. Rick Frechette shares a personal reflection on the power of Sr. Philomena Perrault.
May 7, 2019 - Haiti
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 lifelong sadness for her. Even when she was very old, she would repeat in a tearful way how difficult this was for her.
Her older brother, Lou, was wounded in World War II. 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 had 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 social work or a project, but rather makes it a family.
As a young woman, Sister joined the Sisters of St. Dominic, known officially as the Order of the Preachers. If you ever noticed, this is why she had ‘OP’ after her name wore 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 U.S. Sister was very traditional. When she went to Mexico with Fr. Wasson, she was sorry to have to put on civilian clothes when she entered Mexico, as required by Mexican law. Some of the oldest of Fr. Wasson's first groups of pequeños knew her loving care. They are in their 60s and 70s now.
After spending many years in Mexico, Sister returned to States 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 upon returning to the U.S., 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.
In 1987 when we started NPH in Haiti 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 and 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 a time when a rat stole a bib every night from the babies table in her house, which she always set meticulously before she went to bed, so that everything would be ready when the babies woke in the morning.
One bib a night, to make a nest. Sister thought one of us was coming 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 sometime later when a water pipe burst in her house and we had to remove some boards to fix it that we found all the bibs full of baby rats. When she saw that 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 any 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 Petion-Ville and lived at the old St. Damien Hospital.
She did all kinds of work. Nursing, sewing, making margaritas 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 sledgehammers were as useful in her hands as were syringes and knitting needles. Sister also joined me for the work in the streets of Haiti—in Pele and Sans Fils—for many years. This was tougher still.
She was masterful at doing paracentesis, at debriding burns, and at stitching wounds closed. She usually had a homemade 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-awful smells without running from the room. More than any of us, except for maybe 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, long aprons—blue for the Blessed Virgin—helped solve this dilemma!
Sister was a bit naive. 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 never seem to lose it. We would race through burning barricades or gunfire on violent streets. I especially remember the most ferocious years from 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 friend’s nephew. Blue for boys, pink for girls. The truck would be flying over bumps, whipping around corners; 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 me. We always watched a video. If either Alfonso or I could not make it, it was canceled 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.
In the story, the village priest and Sister Bernadette are very close. When she develops tuberculosis, for which there is no cure, she is sent to a sanatorium. Neither knows if she will be cured; if she will live. In a very moving scene, as they part and she leaves for the sanatorium, the priest gives her a postcard, stamped and addressed to himself. He says, "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 Jeri that said Philomena was dying and she had been anointed with the last sacrament.
I let our team know and we began figuring out how to attend Sister's funeral since she had requested a green burial. Meaning 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 postcard. Sister needed me. So Mary Reed and I found our way to her side. Mary was with us for years in Honduras and during the early years with Sister in Haiti.
We spent the day together yesterday, with the comatose Philomena, mass at her bedside with yet another anointing, with songs and prayers. So many Sisters came, all day long, all elderly, blessing her forehead with their arthritic thumbs, smiling kindly, and speaking tender words to her.
The Sisters later commented 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 moment 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, died the same day. He was a mere kid of 90 compared to Sr. Philomena's 95! For both we should call out to the Vatican very loudly: "Santo Subito!" They should both 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 10,000 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
May 7, 2019
To learn more about Sr. Philomena and her work with NPH, visit https://www.nph.org/ws/news/archive/2002/hai-philomena.php. To learn about Jean Vanier and L’Arche USA, visit https://www.larcheusa.org/who-we-are/jean-vanier/.
Fr. Rick Frechette, CP, DO
Ethical & Medical Consultant and Advisor