After Six Years, the Joyful Journey Continues


armida etienne 01“What joy for us when, after having lived well here upon earth, we shall all meet again in that beautiful heaven!” Mother Frances Schervier, November 7, Daily Reflections – “As We Think, So We Live”

I have a favorite song entitled “Who Am I” by Casting Crows. Please allow me to quote the first verse: “Who am I, that the Lord who made the earth, would care to know my name, would care to feel my pain; who am I, that the Bright Morning Star would care to choose to light the way of my ever wandering heart? Not because of who I am, but because of what you’ve done; not because of what I’ve done but because of who You are”. This song speaks of me before I met the first Franciscan Sister of the Poor in the person of the late Sr. Felicitas Lichtenauer at St. Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1993. Little did I know that fateful meeting would lead to my entrance to the religious life five years later. The reading I chose when I entered was from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Eccl 3: 1 and 6). And I quote: There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens; ….. a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” Before I seriously considered entering into religious life, I thought I had my life “in place”. I was about to finish my graduate studies and I am looking forward to going back to the Philippines and begin a career in teaching and have a family of my own. However, as I pondered on this, I felt a growing emptiness in my heart. I was seeking for a more meaningful life besides having a career. I made my decision then to enter the congregation after more discernment. I had “to cast away” my dreams at that moment in my life to the consternation of my family, friends, officemates, and classmates. They all thought I was going out of my mind to put aside everything I have achieved after the sacrifices of working and studying at the same time.

Looking back at the years of formation – my candidacy, my novitiate, my temporary vows and my final profession – I would say that the hand of God has always been there. I started with the song “ Who Am I” because I realized that despite my sinfulness, God wanted me to belong to him – to give to him my undivided heart for “I AM HIS” and now I can fully say , “Lord, I am yours.”

In 2008, the idea of establishing a mission in the Philippines came upon the leadership. I was happily teaching third grade children at a parochial school in Brooklyn, New York when the call for volunteers to the new mission was issued. Of course, being a native of the country, I readily signed up for the mission. On August 25, 2009, the mission became a reality when the congregation sent three sisters: two Italians – Sr. Cristina Di Nocco and Sr. Maria Atorino – and myself to set up the mission. The three of us faced challenges – of living together as community and putting up a household in an alien surrounding. Housekeeping was the first in our agenda and having settled down, the soup kitchen as a community-based program was set up. This became the Shelter of Hope which is now serving the poor in the diocese.
In my missioning letter from the Congregational Minister at that time, I, “should find a ministry where my work experience and educational background would be utilized.” I was accepted to teach at a Catholic University as a Religious Education instructor – a job which I held from 2009 to 2014.

It was with a heavy heart that I had to leave the academe when the leadership asked me to stop teaching and was given the assignment to do vocation work. I had my reservations in taking this new assignment for I was not prepared since I had no experience and training for it. Nonetheless, my vow of obedience prevailed. The words of Mother Frances, “Let us abandon ourselves to the love and service of our Lord through a joyful and generous fulfillment of His Most Holy will” ( December 2, Daily Reflections – “ As We Think, So We Live”) gave me much consolation in this new task.

Allow me to quote a passage from my favorite psalm (Psalm 100: 1-2): “Sing joyfully to the Lord, all you lands, serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song.” This psalm has sustained me many times when I see that things are not going well as expected. Apart from vocation work, I am also the Finance Coordinator of the community and this is not an easy task to do. Recently, I am tasked to continue the formation of our SFP associates and candidates which was began by Sr. Cristina and passed on to Sr. Karen Hartman during her stay with us in the mission.

armida etienne 03I am also in – charge of the College Scholarship Program sponsored by the foundation. There are 15 college students in this program for the school year 2015-2016. I have to see to it that they are doing well in their studies. My biggest disappointment is when they do not perform well academically. Many times I have to lower my expectations from the scholars because going to college and obtaining a degree is their passport to a better future. Nonetheless, I find great joy when the scholars are able to graduate and then find a job after graduation. This school year, one of our scholars graduated with honors –Cum Laude – with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education. He comes from a poor family, and was a working student till he had to do his practice teaching. He also obtained seven non-academic awards. My greatest challenge in the mission occurred in the past months when I had to supervise the feeding program. The Shelter of Hope is an umbrella of several direct services that are given to the poor – mostly street children, homeless, physically and mentally challenged, scavengers, etc. The services include the use of showers and change of clean clothes, breakfast and lunch, tending minor wounds and teaching catechism and prayers to those who come to the program. The challenge lies in the fact that the clientele is so diverse – from infants to senior citizens and their needs are different. Very seldom do you find the same people in a five-day period for they come and go. So, it is difficult to set up a program for all of them because their ages range from less than one year old to 75+ years.

panel sr armiBeing in the feeding program on a full time basis during the months of March and April has been a real conversion experience for me. Think of a Franciscan joy – the perfect joy as described by St. Francis. Recall his story about having been on the road on a snowy day and night and when he reached the friary, cold and hungry. He knocked on the door but he was refused entry three times by a brother for he was mistaken as a lousy beggar. I have been called by many unsavory names at the shelter. One morning, a mother (who was a scavenger) threw three candles at me while saying epithets in the local dialect (luckily I did not understand a single word!) which garnered much laughter among those present. What did I do? I picked up the candles and continued sweeping the floor in silence until the episode passed. Call it perfect joy!
In the feeding program, you are going “to smell like the sheep”. Some of the street boys will come in “high” on sniffing rugby during the night, all dirty with grime on their faces without slippers. Other times the staff, including myself, have confiscated knives or sharp objects from them. Quarrelling and fighting over clothes or places at table sometimes occur so you have to be on your guard every moment. More often, it is heartbreaking to see that after all your efforts to help the street children to be integrated in the school, they still choose the streets rather than home and this results to their being “in and out” of the Youth Rehabilitation Center.

I could say that there is never a dull moment in the Shelter of Hope or in the mission in general. There is always that element of fun. The sisters are invited to events such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, founder’s day, ordinations, professions of religious sisters, fiestas, and many more occasions to celebrate. We go to wakes and funerals as well as part of our social obligation in the community.

I do believe that the greatest impact of the congregation’s mission in Dumaguete is the increased awareness of the local community, particularly ordinary citizens and practicing Catholics, of the plight of the poor in the diocese. Their monthly pledges financially and materially have helped sustain the mission. What we do is probably just “a drop in the bucket” when it comes to alleviating the poverty among the people but little as it is, it makes a difference in the lives of those who have benefitted from our services.

I consider it a blessing and a privilege to be a part in the congregation’s pioneering effort to set up the mission in the diocese of Dumaguete – the first in the Philippines and the first in Asia. I am grateful to God for the grace and strength He has given me to go on with the journey for the sake of our “poor and suffering” brothers and sisters in this part of the world. I thank our congregational leadership, past and present, for the unwavering support for the past six years. And lastly, I want to thank Sr. Cristina and Sr. Maria for being in community with me – whose wisdom and courage have become a source of inspiration for me and for the people whose lives have been touched by their presence – our benefactors, our associates, our volunteers and our “clients” – the homeless, the street children, the blind and the lame and all the poor who come to our feeding program. I would like to end with the following words from our Pope Francis: “Do not be afraid to show the joy of having answered the Lord’s call, of having responded to the choice of love and of bearing witness his Gospel in service to the Church. And joy, true joy is contagious; it is infectious – it impels us forward.” Thank you and God bless us all!

Sr. Armida Sison, sfp

Published: July 18, 2016