Inspiring Sista, Sister Lucia
Do you ever think about your ‘life’s purpose’?
Over the years I have heard many people talk about what they believe is their life’s purpose – like raising a happy, healthy family; achieving great career success or making a difference in peoples lives. On the flip side, some people believe there is no great life’s purpose, we are just here to exist, to live and then die.
I recently met an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary life’s purpose that is ‘for people to die happy’. Sister Lucia is a nun from South Africa and on her recent visit to Australia, I had the chance to meet with her and talk to her more about how she realized her life’s purpose.
Sister Lucia was born in Kimberly, South Africa, but spent most of her childhood years at Lesotho in a girls’ boarding school run by an order of nuns. Because of the social unrest at the time (apartheid), it was safer for her to go to boarding school than stay and be schooled in her own community.
Inspired by the Sisters at the school, Sister Lucia felt her calling to become a nun and joined the religious life after high school. She worked as a preschool teacher in the South African town of Bethlehem before being sent as a missionary to the province of Natal to run an aged care facility six years ago.
It is not that unusual for nuns to be sent on missions and work in schools and hospitals, but Sister Lucia was not a nurse and had no nursing experience, let alone experience running an aged care facility. She did not speak the local language and knew straight away there were serious cultural problems at St Antonine’s Home for the Aged.
“When I arrived at St. Antonines, there were many things I did not know. I did not know why I was placed at this Mission. I did not know what the purpose was of placing me in this desolate place.
“What I did know was that I wasn’t going to stay there for too long. I knew that I knew nothing about running an old age home, and even less about old people – what I did know was that God had a sense of humour.”
Even without having any nursing experience, Sister Lucia could see things were not right when she arrived. St Antonine’s was in desperate need of repair, both in terms of the building and the ‘spirit’ of the place. Living conditions for the residents were terrible and they were miserable.
“When I first arrived, the residents were very sad, they were waiting, hoping to die. The place felt like it was a prison. Residents were treated like prisoners, each one in their own cell, tied up, just waiting for their day of dying.
“They were to be seen and not heard and they dared not complain. Many had been rescued from abandonment and abuse in their community, only to discover that in this place of safety they were yet again abandoned by hostile staff, abused and neglected.
The residents felt displaced, that they had landed in a prison, and many of the staff were untrained and saw the residents as a burden.
“As with most things in my life, I had a clear picture of what was needed. Though the buildings were in dire need of repair, what was truly important was the happiness of the people and their spiritual life and so that is what I set out to do.
“I knew that I must show them all love and kindness and set an example. It took many months, but things began to change.
“I could tell the tide was turning when the St Antonines’ bus driver (who had been particularly mean to the residents) approached me in my office one day. He had not said a word to me for five months since I arrived.
“What is it?” I asked this man who could show no love for others. He stood in front of me and said nothing. “What is it?” I asked. Raising his eyes to meet mine, I noticed a tear trickle down his face. Quietly, he got down on his knees and his body began to shake as he wept before me.
“He wept as he said, “For five months I have watched you and tried to hate you, but your life and your love for others has touched my soul. Forgive me Sister”.
“I replied, “That is easy, but it is time to forgive yourself, there is much work to do”.
“I knew that the spirit of love had been sown when the carers asked if they might have a ceremony, a foot washing ceremony to wash the feet of the residents and to ask their forgiveness for their past mistreatment. There was not a dry eye in the building and everyone slept well for the first time in many years.”
Sister Lucia also set about introducing activities and programs to make the residents feel at home and give them a sense of belonging. She introduced traditional Zulu rituals and ceremonies at St Antonines so the residents could feel settled.
“As part of their Zulu culture, the residents carry out a special ritual during which each resident comes forth and will talk with their own ancestors, reporting ‘this is where I am, can you look after me in this place’.
“We also keep animals, not for eating, just to keep that culture of how the residents used to live. Because they used to have animals, gardens, traditional food, we implement all those things so that everyone can feel at home. We try to make it a home.
Today, things are much changed. Sister Lucia believes her life purpose is for people to die happy – that is her mantra, that is her mission. Where once the aged residents were scared, sad, mistreated and waiting to die, today they live in a home filled with love, respect and joy.
“I love them and they love me so. I know where I took them, where I put them today so we have that bonded. When I came they were so miserable. I introduced them to activities, art and stories so they are involved and part of the home; so that made them feel they are helpful.
“The residents now tell me, ‘You know what Sister, you are sent by God to us for our peoples. So you are our Moses’.
“And they still call me their Moses, even up to today – that I have come to rescue them from Egypt. That is what they always tell me.
“And it is true, I have taken them from nowhere, today they have got a sense of belonging. Today if you come to the home, they are the ones to welcome you. They feel it is their home. They can talk for themselves. They are at home. They can make decisions, which is good. “
“I continue to have the same vision that I want people to die happy. Yes, we can have a nice facility that is in a good standard to be a nursing home. What is important is the happiness of the person. My wish is that if I am ever called to leave, that spirit of happiness and love will stay, that people will still be happy. “
St Antonines Home for the Aged depends on donations and government subsidies to keep operating. In addition to a security fence to keep wandering dementia patients safe, St Antonines is in need of new kitchen facilities, regular water (it does not have a regular water supply) and other supplies. If you are interested in making a donation to St Antonines, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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