Convent’s challenges never cease
By Alexia Evripidou
THIS month marks 170 years since four French nuns set foot in Larnaca to offer their young lives serving the sick and poor in October 1844.
By the time the island’s first hospital, plus a school and the convent of St Joseph de l’Apparition were completed two years later, the four nuns were dead. They had fallen victim to the typhus, cholera and dysentery outbreaks they had come to a desperately poor Cyprus to try and alleviate.
In the past 170 years, St Joseph’s has successfully survived Ottoman rule, the British Empire and Cypriot independence. Yet whilst the convent looks as stoic and strong as in its heyday, its numbers and its finances have received a series of body blows over the years. The 1974 invasion dealt one. Last year’s destruction of Laiki Bank and the haircut on bank deposits dealt another.
The convent is lovingly maintained by a sisterhood which now numbers just three nuns and their superior for the past 13 years, Sister Thomas.
She is herself celebrating an impressive anniversary. Originally from Malta, Sister Thomas was transferred to St Joseph’s as a young nun, 50 years ago.
On her arrival, there were 12 nuns. She is the longest serving sister and beams with pride as she relates the history and achievements of this convent she’s called home since 1964.
Her faith and desire to help the needy have been especially necessary in the last year. The increased demand for assistance was paralleled by the loss the sisters sustained after Laiki Bank folded last year.
“We had our money with Laiki Bank and it was taken from us,” says an emotional Sister Thomas, as she explains how they now depend on the rent received from the school located in the convent complex.
The original St Joseph’s school, which was opened in 1845 by the first four sisters, functioned as a girls’ school. It blossomed into a bustling boarding school housing 110 girls from around the world. But after a slump in students resulting from the 1974 invasion, it closed in 1990. For the following five years, the sisters used their vocational skills as maths and English teachers to continue offering private and free lessons. The premises, situated right next to the convent, were then rented out to a private school MedHigh in 1995. The rent from this successful school has this helped the nuns make ends meet and fulfill their mission, especially over the last 18 months.
“Sometimes we receive donations or food to help the poor, not for us, but to try to continue helping the poor as we used to,” Sister Thomas explained. “We as nuns, don’t spend a lot of money. I have been wearing the same habit for 30 years!”
As challenging as the recent decades have been, Sister Thomas takes strength and pride in the knowledge that the convent’s present hurdles pale into insignificance when compared to those who came before her.
The mid-19th century saw Cyprus ravaged by the typhoid epidemic, cholera and dysentery. Shocked by what he had seen, the French ambassador Monsignor Brunoni, met Emilé de Vialar, the founder of the mission St Joseph de l’Apparition in Lyon, France and enlisted her help.
Coming from nobility, Emile – who went on to be canonised – had defied her father, taken her inheritance from her wealthy grandfather and opened up convents around the world to help the poor and sick. She opened convents in Cyprus, Palestine, Malta, Israel, Italy and France.
Following talks with the Ottoman government and the French ambassador in 1844, Emilé sent the first four sisters over to Larnaca. On arrival, the young women immediately administered to sick patients regardless of their religious views or nationality. Unfortunately, the diseases did not distinguish between the patients and those sent to help them and the lives of the nurses were consumed by fever in 1846. Many other lives were lost.
Arguably, Emilé’s memory today plays second fiddle to one of her own nuns, the so called ‘Florence Nightingale’ of Cyprus, Sophie Gambon.
Medically trained Sophie was sent to Cyprus in 1871 by Emilé, following the death of the French resident Doctor Foplant. Foplant had served Cypriot patients for 25 years from 1839 until 1864. In 1845-1864, the French nuns even offered free medical examinations and medicines from Doctor Foplant, an invaluable commodity and service for the time.
However, it was Sophie who made the greatest impact on the lives of thousands, helping to beat the insidious diseases that claimed so many lives. Sophie, who was later canonised, worked long hours every day, seven days a week, seeing up to 30 patients a day and is credited with saving thousands of lives.
“Saint Sophie worked tirelessly for 23 years and died from exhaustion in 1894,” explained Sister Thomas.
Sophie’s contribution and phenomenal patient survival success rate was revered by the people of Larnaca. As a sign of respect a statue was erected in the convent’s grounds in 1895, a year after her death. It is a statue of a pelican and is a moving symbol of her selflessness, as when pelicans have no food to feed their young, they risk their own lives by feeding their offspring with their own blood.
“Like the pelican, Sophie Gambon was amazingly generous and wholehearted on a daily basis. She was loved and highly respected equally by both the orthodox and Muslim people of the island, though she was a catholic nun herself,” said Alexis Michaelides, then deputy Mayor of Larnaca in 2007 at an event to commemorate her.
Today, one can still see exactly where the sick and dying patients would have streamed in to receive the care they desperately needed. Some of the convent’s furniture has not been changed in 170 years. The entrance used by the thousands of sick people is still intact, as is the main table, the doors, the medicine cabinets etc. These particular diseases may have moved on, but time has in many ways stood still here.
The convent now functions as a place of worship for the sisters and once a week for the Maronite congregation. The sisters continue helping the poor as best as they can. Although the money is now tight, they organise a Food Bank every second Sunday at the Terra Santa Church nearby. Here the poor can collect free food and drinks. They’ve also opened up a charity shop on the convent’s premises and continue offering free maths and English lessons to the needy.
The sisters do not intend for the convent’s impressive 170th anniversary to go unnoticed and are hosting a grand dinner/buffet which is open to all, at the Lordos Hotel, Larnaca on December 5. Not surprisingly, all money raised will go to those in need via the registered charity the sisters set up, ‘St. Joseph Protector of the Needy’.
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