HOLY LAND – They wear blue, brown or white… They work in offices, in schools, in institutions, in churches… They carry crosses around their neck, rings around their fingers, veils on their heads… They are the living stones of the Mother Church, the souls working discreetly to make the Church radiate. After meeting ten small female congregations in the Holy Land, lpj.org invites you today to visit the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
With 68 sisters currently living in fifteen different convents, the congregation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help focuses on providing education, pastoral care and spiritual guidance to the poor and vulnerable. In the Holy Land, they are located both in Cyprus and Israel, more specifically in Tel-Aviv, where they help the migrant and asylum seeker communities.
Sr. Anusha with children from the community she serves, in Tel-Aviv
A Sri Lankan congregation with Belgian roots
The congregation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help came to life in 1768, when a Belgian noblewoman named Johanna Maximiliana Amerlinck decided to found a house of charity with eleven other women, all very committed to the poor. In this house, young girls were offered reading, writing, sewing, spinning and religious lessons. Two years later, Amerlinck opened a home for elderly women, all while visiting every day the poor of her town. Although she received no assistance from anyone, she dedicated her life and her wealth to helping them, “with fortitude and efficacy” – her motto.
Sixty-one years after her death, in 1871, the women who continued her work accepted a diocesan Rule of Life under the bishop of Bruges, and came under the patronage of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Some of them – nurses and one doctor – were then sent to South Africa for a first mission outside their country of origin.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
In 1929, the Sisters were sent to Sri Lanka at the government’s request, to assist people suffering from tuberculosis. Noticing a great number of deaf children, they opened a school for them in 1935. In 1954, Sri Lankan women who wished to join the congregation were able to do so thanks to the creation of a novitiate in the country. Finally, in 1982, the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help became a local diocesan congregation under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Colombo. They elected their first Superior General and had their first general chapter the same year.
At the Perpetual Help Convent of Periyamulla, in Sri Lanka, during a gathering of the Sisters.
Today, the congregation works with the hearing-impaired, youth, migrants and asylum seekers, widows and vulnerable populations; they are active in parishes, girls’ and elderly homes, schools (especially Montessori establishments), hospitals, and so on. In May 2019, during their eighth general chapter, it was decided that the congregation would put greater emphasis on community life, connection to others, and “eco-spirituality”, in response to global warming.
Finding one’s vocation
Sr. Josephine (left) and Sr. Anusha (right) during the feast of Deir Rafat, with Mgr Rafic Nahra and Fr. Nikodemus Schnabel, OSB
“Our congregation came to the Holy Land in 2013, first in Cyprus, then in Israel. But I only arrived in 2019.”
Sitting on a very small chair, inside one of the daycare centers of Tel Aviv – overseen by the Vicariate for Migrants and Asylum Seekers (VMAS) of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem – Sr. Josephine rests her hands on her lap. She is one of these people – lots of them being sisters – whose shining faces tell you they never had one bad thought in their life. “I joined the congregation in Sri Lanka in 1974. When I was a child, I was part of the pious association of the Legion of Mary, which allowed me to help in creches, distribute spiritual books to people, visit the sick and the elderly… I began to develop a desire to commit myself to people, to serve them, both physically and spiritually.”
Sitting beside her, Sr. Anusha nods. With Sr. Nadeeka, the three of them are the only Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help currently living in Israel. “When I was little, I had a brother to whom I was very close,” she says. “We did everything together. So, when he expressed the desire to be a priest, I decided that I wanted to be a nun. It was only a child’s dream, but it became much more than that when sisters of Perpetual Help came to introduce themselves during one of our catechism classes. I decided to join their summer programs, to see what their lives was like… Years later, here I am,” she concludes with a smile.
Both turn to look at Sr. Nadeeka, who arrived here only very recently – in March 2022. “I joined the congregation about twenty years ago, in 2001,” she says. “Before, I was part of the Sisters of Providence, whom I had joined because of someone I knew back then. But it did not turn out to be the right place for me.” Choosing to leave the congregation, Sr. Nadeeka went back home… only to meet Sisters of Perpetual Help, who convinced her to come with them. “I really felt the difference between them and the Sisters of Providence. The congregation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was really meant for me, I’m really really glad to be a part of them,” she beams.
The three sisters with one of the Sri Lankan priests coming to assist them
Working with vulnerable populations
Before the Holy Land, all three sisters worked in Sri Lanka. Sr. Josephine, who professed her final vows in 1983, was first sent in a creche, then to the north of Sri Lanka, where a cyclone had devastated the region. There, she learnt how to dress wounds, provided people with medications, and tried to bring comfort to the victims of the catastrophe. “We were supposed to stay a month, but in the end, we stayed a year,” she explains.
Afterwards, she helped other communities before passing an exam allowing her to teach. She began to work in a home for children, as an English teacher, all while doing pastoral work. “I continued working both in parishes and in schools before I took a short break and went to India. When I returned, I also started working in Montessori schools. Then I was sent here, in Tel Aviv, to provide spiritual guidance to and look after the Sri Lankan community. According to recent statistics, there are about 5 300 Sri Lankan migrants living in Israel, and nearly 300 000 men and women working as caregivers and part-time workers.”
Here, the mission of the Sisters is both social and pastoral: they organize Masses and Solemnities in different areas, they visit families and the sick, they bring the statue of the Virgin Mary to faithful’s houses to pray with them, they organize Masses and prayer groups online… “We are also taking care of preparations for marriage, baptism, and other sacraments,” says Sr. Josephine. “And we organize pilgrimages and trips, for example in Jerusalem, where we sometimes bring our community to hold a Stations of the Cross procession. To show our solidarity with other religions, we also participate in programs organized by our fellow Buddhist brothers and sisters, such as Sinhala and Tamil New Year and Vesak”. To conclude, she adds, “listening is at the heart of our ministry. We make a lot of phone calls to members of the community, and we try to make our house into a home for everyone, especially those who come with a heavy heart.”
During the welcoming celebration for Fr. Granville Srilal, the new Sri Lankan priest of the VMAS
Sr. Anusha continues. “When Sr. Josephine arrived, I had been here for two years. I’m in charge of the daycare centers.”
Sr. Anusha joined the congregation in 1998, just after high school. She professed her first vows in 2004. An English teacher as well, she worked both with pre-schoolers (aged 3 to 6) and deaf children from 14 to 16. When she was sent to the Holy Land, she took over the daycare centers. “Here, we take only seven children for one teacher (whereas regular daycare centers usually take 30 for one teacher). Our centers are a little bit more expensive than hiring a regular babysitter, but they are places where the children can play, learn, spend time with others… They learn a lot and are well built”.
Sr. Anusha with two Sri Lankan women working as geriatric nurses
During summer, Sr. Anusha was asked by Fr. Nikodemus Schnabel, OSB, vicar for migrants and asylum seekers, to go to Jerusalem to help at St Rachel, a daycare center that welcomes young children as well as teenagers experiencing very difficult familial situations.
“In Sri Lanka we met and worked only with Sri Lankans,” Sr. Anusha explains. “Here, we meet and work with all the migrants; Sri Lankans of course, but also Filipinos, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Indians… And we also work with Israelis. So it’s a different kind of work, which broadens our perspective.”
As for Sr. Nadeeka, she replaces Sr. Anusha during summer, and also works at the daycare centers. “In Sri Lanka I also worked with children, from 3 to 6, as well as deaf children. I was sent to a very rural area, where I taught youth and did parish work, mostly catechism.”
Sr. Nadeeka honoring the statue of the Virgin Mary during a feast of the community
Next chapter: the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament