MISSIONARY NUN WHO PIONEERED WORK WITH SPECIAL CHILDREN DIES

Italy
2000-10-31 00:00:00

A Franciscan nun who arrived in Pakistan 60 years ago as an engaged laywoman but remained to serve the disadvantaged as a nun has died here at the age of 87.

Missionaries of Christ the King Sister Gertrude Lemmens, a Dutch-born missioner and founder of the well-known Dar-ul-Sakoon (house of peace) home for special children, died Oct. 27 in Karachi.

She arrived in Pakistan´s largest city, on the country´s southern seacoast, in 1939 to visit her brother, Monsignor Salesius Lemmens, prefect apostolic of the then Karachi mission of Bombay archdiocese.

Within a year, Monsignor Lemmens drowned at a beach where he had taken a group of poor children for an outing. His sister decided to stay in Pakistan despite her engagement to a university professor in the Netherlands.

Breaking off her engagement, she joined the Franciscan Missionaries of Christ the King, co-founded in 1937 by her brother in response to a Vatican appeal for indigenous congregations in mission areas. She first returned to her native country 19 years after she left it.

She once explained, "I felt my work was here. My fiance felt terrible, but he was not angry. I had seen the state of the people and children in Karachi."

Confreres recall Sister Lemmens telling how her fiance "came to fetch" her but she would not go with him. They say she added, "If I had my life again, I would do the same."

The daughter of a Dutch factory manager resolved to continue her brother´s mission for special children.

After becoming a nun, Sister Lemmens started social work in the slums of Karachi. She also served as a midwife.

While teaching English at Christ the King School, she studied Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, to be able to communicate better with the people in the slums, whom she visited in the afternoons.

There she discovered the miserable condition of the mentally handicapped, some of whom were "chained," recalled Sister Ruth, a close confrere.

In one home a retarded son was confined to the terrace, Sister Ruth said. "The child was not even allowed to sit on the sofa. In fact, he was treated like a dog. When Sister Gertrude saw him, she cried."

What distressed Sister Lemmens even more, Sister Ruth added, was the child´s mother telling her that the family did not count the boy as a family member.

In 1969, when now deceased Archbishop Joseph Cordeiro of Karachi bought the premises of Dar-ul-Sakoon for a school, Sister Lemmens begged him to turn over the property to her so that she could start a home for special children.

"There are already so many schools in Karachi, and these (handicapped) children are treated so badly," she told the archbishop, according to an account she once gave of the founding of the home.

When asked how she proposed to raise the funds, Sister Lemmens recalled saying, "I´ll see to that, just let me have the place."

The archbishop gave it to her.

Sister Lemmens´ first ward was a baby left in a bread basket outside the gate of the new house. Sister Ruth said Sister Lemmens was "happy the baby was left in a basket and not on the road."

Currently 150 special children live at Dar-ul-Sakoon in Karachi. Four allied centers in Karachi and one in Lahore provide shelter to 30 more special children.

The queen of the Netherlands presented an award to Sister Lemmens in 1975. The government of Pakistan gave its own Sitara-i-Quaid-i-Azam award to the missionary nun in 1989.

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