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Our Journey with the FCJs in the Philippines and Indonesia

I arrived in Manila on Aug. 18, 2005, to be met at the airport by Sr Paola with whom, up until that day, I had only been in correspondence via e-mail. And while I was definitely a little anxious and, if truth be told, suffering somewhat from the pangs of homesickness, Sr Paola immediately put me at ease with her beautifully gentle disposition. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at 46B Scout Borromeo which was to be home to me for the next month and a half. Sisters Paola, Beta, Yuni, Rosa, Inez and, last but in no means least, Lili, adopted me instantly and such warm touches as a welcome card signed by all and a little care package to start me off allayed any fears I might have previously had of living in a convent and, of perhaps, being the outsider.

I was very happy to be invited to get involved in the numerous projects the FCJs are running there from the girls’ club on Wednesdays and Saturdays, preschool on Wednesday mornings, English classes with the ladies in the FCJ Center, who launched their first English magazine, The Dawn, while I was there, as well as being a part of a new baking livelihood project, not to mention the social and academic classes with Sr Yuni for the teenage girls on Saturday afternoons. Suffice to say, the weeks flew by and with each passing day I felt more and more a part of 46B Scout Borromeo. I think this was largely because I was invited to join in all community activities from attending daily prayer to being part of the house warming celebration, to name but two things.

In retrospect, I feel I got a great sense of what living in an FCJ community is like. It requires patience, honesty and trust, understanding, humility but most of all a beautiful sisterly love of each other. I didn’t just observe these values and virtues in the FCJ convent, however, but also in the wider community through the people I encountered on a day to day basis. The poverty I witnessed first hand in Manila was of the type that I had only ever imagined previously. And yet, before I had the opportunity to perhaps be moved to outrage at the sheer inequality and injustice of it all, I was met by warm welcomes and sincere smiles of those beautiful people who inhabited these destitute squatter areas. For me that has been the most humbling experience of all, that these poor communities instead of allowing anger and bitterness of their plight to direct their lives, they continue to dedicate themselves to their faith so that they can offer a smile to a lowly individual like me who chanced to pass their way. Their day to day lives are truly heroic, and I can honestly say that further heroism lies with the FCJ sisters who work with them and for them in what ever way they can.

I guess I have always had a great respect and love for the FCJ’s owing to the fact that I had three grand aunts who were Faithful Companions, but my experiences in Manila and in Indonesia have led me to have a much greater understanding and real appreciation of what the order stands for. Before I leave my journey with my six companions in Manila, I just want to express my deep gratitude and love of each one of them.

I met with a friend, Caroline in Bangkok and on Oct. 20th we both flew to Jakarta to begin another amazing month’s journey with the FCJ Sisters in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.  Once again we were greeted warmly by  – Susters Marion, Mary Rose, Siska, Wina, Afra, Narni, Yustin, Meita. and a welcome card and care package awaited us in our room. That night we settled in for our first night’s sleep, our lullaby being the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby mosques; It was after all Ramadan. On the Monday, Narni and Yustin took us around Yogyakarta on the motorcycles showing us the sights and taking us to visit two families at a Jesuit shelter; more poverty but once again the humbling experience of a warm welcome. It’s incredible how a simple smile transcends all language barriers.

On the Tuesday, Caroline and I, along with Marion and Sisca, visited SMP Kanisius School, where we would be teaching for the month.  It is a small Catholic school with many of the students coming from very impoverished homes. While it took us a little bit to get into a routine in the school with regard to teaching classes, by the time we said goodbye we both longed to have at least another month or two there. English had become more than just a stagnant subject to the students but a living one that could be embraced. As far as teaching, we introduced many different methodologies in order to maintain the vibrancy of the relationship between the teacher and her students and the language.

While our school days had us gone from the Susteran at 6:30am and back late afternoon we were able to join in prayer whenever we wished to and we shared many stories around the dinner table, some of which will remain embedded firmly in my memory as the streams of laughter rose into the night air. We were also further blessed to get to know the second FCJ community at Sorapaden with whom we shared a few evenings, one of which ended up with a great sing song. The richness of the international community became apparent as we had songs from various parts of Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, England, Ireland and China.

Perhaps one of the most memorable community events for both Caroline and myself had to be the celebratory mass for the beginning of a new community in Flores by Sisters Afra, Narni and Yustin. This occasion really brought home to us how equally difficult and fulfilling FCJ life is. In a very moving ceremony the three sisters named above were presented with a beautiful piece of cloth woven in Flores which was then draped over their shoulders uniting them in their new mission. How difficult it must be, we thought, for the three to embark on this mission to a far away place to begin afresh unsure of whether they would be welcomed into their new environs. How heart breaking would it be to leave this Baciro community, the members of which are so close to them and who have long been one of the greatest of their daily supports. And then, how equally difficult was it for those remaining members of the community to let them go into the unknown. While Caroline and I simultaneously pondered the answers to these questions, silently and solemnly, we observed the movements of the sisters as they stood up to bless Afra, Narnie and Yustin . We came to understand all these difficulties were ultimately faced head on and largely overcome by a communal and individual faith in Jesus. At that moment of realisation, my faithful companion and I stood in absolute awe of these strong, devoted and  loving women who surrounded us. Once again the weeks just flew by.  I can only say that it was with tears that our taxi left Baciro for the airport. I wish to relay my sincere love and appreciation to Sr Marion, whom we kept awake many a night conversing on the meaning of life and other such topics, and our other faithful companions in Baciro and Serapadan. I think I would like to finish with something Mother Theresa once said and was told to me by my brother; it alludes to one of our society’s ongoing shortcomings and it is something along the lines of … “we draw the circle of our family too small”. I can only say that the circle of my family has been extending since I left home to embrace those I've met along the way, particularly those at 46B Scout Borromeo, Baciro and Sorapadan who will always have a special place in my family circle.

Catherine, my faithful companion has captured what a wonderful experience this trip has been for us so far so she will continue with a few short words. Within hours of meeting the sisters my Hollywood notion of nuns had been firmly knocked on the head. Meeting Marion, Mary Rose, Sisca, Wina, Afra, Narni, Meita, Yustin, I met vibrant women who gave me a heart warming welcome. It quickly became apparent how real the work the sisters were doing was, whether it be visiting the poor and destitute in the neighbourhood or helping people to realise their potential through education, spirituality,  and providing information. Most importantly, they create a space for people to come and celebrate the love of God through retreats, meals and Mass with them.

I was struck by the FCJ holistic approach. The reaching out and touching the body, mind and soul of so many people. In meeting the sisters, I met women who were very real and on the pulse of what is happening in everyday life. In Ireland, many of my friends are searching for something that is missing, maybe a purpose, feeling lost or in search for love. Having spent a month in Baciro, I feel the sisters have what so many are looking for. They have a deep faith and exemplify the presence of God by their love of others. I felt this love and will carry the glow of this love from Baciro with me always. Words cannot express my immense gratitude for this experience. Go mile maithagaibh….terima kasih!

Catherine O’Donnell       Caroline Connell

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