A star in illness
· Portrait of a woman religious from Togo who looks after the sick and AIDS orphans ·
The Council Fathers recalled that “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts” (Gaudium et spes, n. 1). This is why in various parts of Africa consecrated people too seek through their works to go out to people in difficulty to alleviate their suffering. As members of the evangelizing community, they are called after Christ’s example to take the initiative, to move forward and to know how to become involved. Thus through actions and gestures in the daily life of others they shorten distances, they abase themselves, if necessary even to the point of humiliation, and embrace the life of the people. They accompany humanity at every step of the way, however hard-going and lengthy it may be (cf. Evangelii gaudium, n. 24).
We find a practical example of how a disciple of Christ is able to incarnate God’s fatherly care for suffering humanity in the experience of Sr Marie Stella Kouak, a cheerful Togolese religious who is 47. As a member of the Ordre des Hospitalières du Sacré Coeur de Jésus, Sr Marie Stella (whose name means star) wages a battle of civilization in the city of Dapaong, in the north of her country, to help orphans and thosewho are suffering from AIDS.
Sr Marie Stella has always felt a desire to care for the sick, especially those who live in precarious situations. This inclination that developed in the ecclesial group of the Legion of Mary, led her, once she had heard the call, to consecrate her life to the Lord, to enter the then Congregation of the Soeurs Hospitalières de l’Immaculée Conception de Saint Armand-les-Eaux, whose apostolate was caring for the sick. Then for various reasons, including the scarcity of vocations on the old continent and the need to join forces for the same mission, in 2011 this Congregation was to be united with that of the Hospitalières du Sacré Coeur de Jésus. Returning to Sr Marie Stella, after taking her first vows in 1993, she was sent to Belgium to train as a nurse.
The Rule of St Augustine and the Gospel episodes of the Good Samaritan and of the washing of the feet – that are at the root of the fundamental texts of her order – caused to grow within her an attention to the sick and particularly to those who had contracted the AIDS virus. This attention led her to found the Association Vivre dans l’espérance which today cares for more than 1,450 sick adults and a multitude of orphaned boys and girls who are infected with AIDS.
The aim of the Association – that also helps many Muslims – is to restore hope, meant as dignity, as affection for those ill with AIDS, and to offer a future to orphans. At the moment the Association manages two orphanages, a formation centre and a centre in which those who have contracted the AIDS virus are cared for. There is a plan to enlarge the structures to meet the constantly growing needs.
Together with her sisters Sr Marie Stella felt the need to care for these people, outcasts of society, after her own first-hand experience of a brother sick with AIDS. Those who contract this disease are in fact judged badly by society, rejected and frequently hidden by their own family out of shame. Having had experience this up-close, the young religious decided to ensure that these sick people were considered people, accepted and supported by their family so that their children might not be marginalized from society.
As well as caring for the sick and orphans and making families aware, the members of the Association also seek to teach them to lead a responsible sexual life in an area such as that north of Togo, on the border with other countries where there is great mobility among the population.
The motives that spurred Marie Stella on in this work are certainly not only those of a social worker. As a consecrated person, this woman has endeavoured to incarnate in daily life the vows she has professed. As well as obedience expressed in the communion of intentions with the other sisters, in addition to fighting beside those who are directly or indirectly hit by the scourge of AIDS, Sr Marie Stella finds the tangible expression of her vow of chastity in her spiritual motherhood to these orphans and in freely given love for the needy.
Instead, with regard to the vow of poverty, in a poor continent like Africa and particularly in a developing country like Togo, it is also understood as sharing. Sharing what everyone possesses. Indeed as well as making available the means and human energies of her order, among other things Sr Marie Stella involves sick mothers and several of the girls who are guests in her orphanages in the care of children who have lost both their parents.
Since her work is the fruit of a special vocation, our religious finds strength – as she herself told us – also in the Word of God, as well as in the Eucharist and in praying the Rosary. For Sr Marie Stella in fact, the Gospel narratives of the Good Samaritan who cares for the wounded man, of the washing of the feet when Jesus makes himself the servant of all and of the adulterous woman are sources of inspiration, they are light that illuminates and reassures her in her battle for the dignity of all; even of those deemed to deserve exclusion because they are public sinners.
The commitment of Sr Marie Stella and her friends is precisely to set free AIDS sufferers, just as Jesus did with the adulterous woman.. “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’. She said, ‘no one, Lord’. And Jesus said, ‘neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again’” (Jn 8:9-11). In these words finds meaning the commitment to accompanying those who have fallen and helping them not to wallow desperately in their fall, but rather to look to the future and to live the present in hope.
Sr Marie Stella also finds comfort and courage in Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you will. If you keep silent, keep silent by love; if you speak, speak by love; if you correct, correct by love; if you pardon, pardon by love, let love be rooted in you, and from the root nothing but good can grow”. Lastly the woman religious told us to put deep trust in the intercession of the people she and the members of her Association help to depart serenely to the Father’s House, and in divine Providence which responds at the appropriate time to expectations and to thousands of requests for help.
This African sister’s experience shows the beauty of the religious in being mothers after the example of the Church, mater et magistra, called by her Teacher to pour the oil of mercy and tenderness on wounded humanity, the suffering flesh of the Lord Jesus himself.
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