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Paula Hotaling’s Mission Appeal Talk

 

Thank you, Father John, and your entire congregation for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Sisters of the Passion of Jesus, a congregation of nuns that originated in Italy and does missionary work in Romania and Ecuador. I first came to know these remarkable Sisters four years ago in July of 2011 when the Peace Corps assigned me to teach English in the public schools of a village in northeastern Romania, not far from the borders of the Republic of Moldova and the Ukraine. Joining our country’s Peace Corps was something that I had been thinking about for more than 50 years, and after retirement, I was finally able to realize that dream.

I knew very little about Romania before arriving there in April of 2011. Our group of volunteers first received ten weeks of intensive training, and afterward, were all assigned to different parts of the country, where we were to spend two years living and working in poor communities. My assignment was in the village of Butea, and it was there that I lived at the Mission and came to know and love this community of Sisters who dedicated their lives to helping the poor. I’m here today to tell their story.

Approximately 15 years ago, Sister Elisabetta Borolo was sent by her religious order to establish a mission in Romania. At that time, Romania was still a largely unknown country by much of the world. It had been a part of the Iron Curtain from the end of World War II until 1989 when its totalitarian leader was overthrown and executed. After the revolution, very little actually changed in the lives of the people. The country still faced massive shortages of food and other goods, serious poverty, and continued oppression.

Sister Elisabeth found herself in a village, isolated on a hill in one of the poorest regions of the country. Many people between the ages of 25-50 had already begun to leave the country and migrate to other places due to the lack of work. This left thousands of Romanian children in the care of aging grandparents, older siblings, or at the worst….. abandoned. The stories of horrendous conditions in Romanian orphanages both before and after 1989 had been publicized in the news, and for many of us in the West, this was the first we knew of what was happening there. Romania and other countries of Eastern Europe faced extreme economic and social problems and many people were destitute, with little or no hope for improvement in their lives.

Although Sister Elizabeth went to Romania with the intention of starting a home for older people who were poor and sick (which she did), very soon she also became involved in the lives of homeless children. The story of how her work with children actually began is a heart-wrenching one. A young teen from a family of six children heard about Sister Elisabeth and walked many miles from another village to find her and ask for help. She told Sister that her father was an alcoholic whose whereabouts were unknown, and her mother had left the country. She and her younger sisters had been trying to live by themselves, but could no longer manage. Sister found that the shack where they were living had no heat, food or water, and one of the neighbors reported that the children had been seen trying to cook a potato with a candle. Sister took the girls back to Butea with her, although she had no license from the government to work with children at that time. She was frightened that she now had children in her care with no official place to house them, but she trusted in God that this was what she needed to do. This family of girls became the first of many homeless children that the Sisters would come to care for in the years that followed, and when I arrived in 2011, four of the girls from that family were still living there. Their mother remained in another country and never returned to Romania. Their father eventually surfaced, dying of alcoholism. The Sisters took him into their house for the sick and the elderly next door, and the girls were able to spend the last month of his life visiting and making their peace with him.

The abuse of alcohol is a huge problem in Romania, and many of the children at the shelter were victims of the domestic abuse and violence that plagued such families. I was able to see how the loving care that the Sisters provided helped the children work through their severe emotional trauma.

Many other tragic situations of children in extreme poverty were also evident. During my stay there, I sometimes went with the Sisters to destitute homes to bring children back to the Mission. I saw living conditions that were appalling. In one situation, a mother and 12 of her children were living in one tiny room in an abandoned and crumbling military barracks with no water, plumbing, or electricity, and a clay stove that had no way of venting smoke from the sticks and brush they were trying to burn to stay warm. Four of those children came to live at the Mission, and two teen-aged brothers eventually went to work for the Sisters at a farm property in a neighboring village. Unfortunately, the other children in the family were placed in other facilities because there was not enough space to house all of them at the Mission.

The Sisters also assisted the village people with hygiene and basic medical care. With help from donors, they renovated a small building on some property in a nearby village that was left to them by a priest who died. The building was converted to a clinic that was used by volunteer doctors and dentists who came from Italy twice each year to treat hundreds people who had no medical or dental care. The long-term plan for this property involved building another home for the sick and elderly, but also with a special unit to treat alcoholism. Such a unit would have been a first in this part of the country.

Then on the night of May 3, 2013, tragedy struck. A fire broke out in the clinic and all of the valuable medical and dental equipment that had been donated was destroyed. The Sisters believed that the fire may have started from a glowing cinder that blew to the roof from a nearby incinerator. In the small villages of Romania, almost all the trash, including heavy plastic, is burned in outdoor incinerators so it’s very likely that the Sisters’ guess was correct. A fire truck did come from the largest nearby city, but it took over an hour to arrive, and then it quickly ran out of water. The village people came with buckets of water from their wells, but it was no use. The clinic burned to the ground.

The fire was a severe blow to the Sisters and the community. It had taken three years for the renovation of that building. It was a sad and tragic moment to see their hard work destroyed, but they were also very thankful that no lives were lost. Once again, I was amazed at the resiliency of this remarkable group of women. In the wake of tragedy, they were determined to keep going and to forge ahead in their life devoted to helping others.

The nuns living at the Mission spent almost all of their waking moments working, praying, and caring for people in need. Not a day went by that I didn’t witness people coming to the Mission for help….. the old, the young, the sick, even entire families. No one was turned away. Food, clothing, blankets, medicine, household goods, firewood, were all given freely. The Sisters lived a daily life of prayer, sacrifice, and endless work that was a real testament to the words of Christ. They continued to reach out with love to everyone who came knocking at their door. And as for me personally, they touched my life in a way that I never dreamed was possible. They demonstrated that true goodness does exist in this world.

That’s why I’m here today asking for your support on their behalf. It’s been two years since I left Romania, and I can’t forget the Sisters and the wonderful work that they continue to do. So today, I am asking for your help if you feel that you are able to do so. The Sisters are asking for your prayers, and they send their heart-felt thanks for listening to their story. May God bless and keep you all.

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