August 17, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – “We came to a family – a home. I didn’t feel like an orphan.”
That was the sentiment of Alfredo Benitez and other former residents of an orphanage in Haiti during a recent visit with Sister Philomena Perreault, OP, at the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse. Sister Philomena, Father Richard Leo Frechette, and other staff members of the Nos Petit Frères et Soeurs (NPFS) “My Little Brothers and Sisters” orphanage in Haiti accepted the 500 young residents as part of a large family.
Sister Philomena was among the group that founded NPFS in 1988; she ministered there for about 15 years, taking special care of the babies, serving as nurse for all of the children, and training the older children to take care of the babies. She then felt called to make use of her training as a licensed practical nurse to serve in the mobile medical clinic in Haiti.
NPFS is one of the orphanages established by Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) International, a Christian organization that founded and runs orphanages in Latin America and the Caribbean. Founded in 1954 by Father William B. Wasson, NPH strives to provide a permanent family and home for children who are orphaned, abandoned, or suffering the effects of living in extreme poverty.
Ten former residents, staff members, and volunteers came to Adrian August 14-15 to visit Sister Philomena and to express their gratitude for the positive influence she made on their lives.
“The house was a love house, and when you come, you really feel the love,” said Nadine Dédé, who, as a resident, was trained to care for the babies and returned after attending secretarial school. She recalled the framed plaque in the orphanage: “Love is an action word.”
“We were big girls taking care of the little ones,” Nadine recalled. “She taught us how to love them, how to carry them, how to feed them and change them. We learned a lot from her.”
Roseline Paul began at the age of 10 to help Sister Philomena take care of the babies. “I was very happy to be with Sister and learn a lot, because she loved our little babies and took care of them.” She recalled that Sister Philomena slept with babies who were crying the hardest to give them comfort and a sense of security.
“She was giving 24 hours a day,” recalled Mary Reed, a U.S. volunteer who had served with Sister Philomena. “She took care of the sickest of the sick. I’d be sleeping-walking and Sister – who was a few years older than me – would be up all night with crying, screaming babies.”
Father Rick, who worked with Sister Philomena in Haiti for years – and who still serves in Haiti – recalled the sacrifice that Sister Philomena made when she switched ministries from the orphanage to medical work. The orphanage was high in the mountains – about 1,300 meters – and Sister Philomena moved to the hot climate of the slums of Port au Prince to work in the medical field.
“We worked off the back of a truck, in very poor areas, bringing X-rays and medicines and taking care of people with tuberculosis, malaria, and diabetes – and so many people with AIDS,” Father Rick said. Because of the political turmoil in Haiti at the time, the medical team also healed people who had been shot or beaten.
Perhaps most heart-breaking of all, Father Rick said, was the number of children who died every day – often five to 10 children -- whose bodies Sister Philomena washed and buried after morning Mass. “They die from malnutrition, lack of medicine for the simplest illnesses, pneumonia, gastroenteritis, malaria, dengue, cholera, tuberculosis – infectious diseases.”
Raphael Louigéne, who worked with her on the medical team, recalled Sister Philomena’s precision in caring for sick children. When she gave out medicine for the children, “she wanted to be sure that the mothers mixed the medicine with clean water so that the medicine wouldn’t be ruined by something that would cause another sickness. Sister was very precise and disciplined in making sure that the children were cared for.”
Sister Philomena’s love for children and diligence in caring for them had a profound influence on those she had served in the orphanage. Many, in turn, have become involved in various NPH programs.
“I gave my service in Haiti, Mexico, and Honduras,” Alfredo Benitez said. “To me, Sister Philomena speaks of kindness and compassion toward human life, as well as simplicity of life.”
For her part, Sister Philomena enjoyed the gathering of people she once had served or served with in her beloved Haiti – in spite of the hardships involved in her ministry there. “I would go back in a minute,” she said. “My heart is still there.”
Read more about Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos and ways in which you can become more involved.
I had the privilege of visiting Sister Philomena in Haiti. She showed us the rocking chair that she used to rock the babies at night. It was small but had sturdy arms so that she would not fall off if she fell asleep with them. I don´t know if this ever happened but it certainly would have been possible. Sad to say the hospital where she worked was destroyed in the earthquake in 2010.