A STRONG WOMAN FROM ‘HOME OF PEACE’
Could s. Rafała Włodarczak, an Elizabethan nun guess, after her arrival at Jerusalem in 1961, that it would be her all-life mission? For, it is 50 years since she has been working for the ‘Home of Peace’ for children – victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taking place for decades. This institution was established on 8 December 1967 as ‘Home of Peace’ on the Olives Mount in Jerusalem.
I often reminisce s. Rafała wearing heavy wellingtons on her feet and carrying building materials and heavy steel elements on her back, in order to build a house for her orphaned children. It was one of many works and struggles of the nun, who wanted to create normal conditions of living for war orphans. And also for Arabian Christians in the Holy Land. Despite many difficulties she managed to build to orphanages: in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
This incredible story began when after the Israeli-Palestinian ‘six-day war’ a lot of children became orphans. – Left alone, they lived literally in the street, often by refuse heaps, and even at graveyards – says s. Rafała. – They ate mainly food remnants found on garbage heaps. It was terrible, but it was so….Some of them were allegedly in a better situation – had food in return for work. But those were hard forms of work, beyond their children’s weak strength. One can say that they were unjustly overused. We, all sisters, decided to give them accommodation and create home for them – says the sister. Together with s. Imelda Płotka began ‘picking’ orphaned children from the street, literally from various parts of the streets. In the beginning their home were a few rented rooms, thanks to the support of a Jesuit monk Fr. Ludwik Semkowski (he worked, among the others, for the Vatican Radio). In order to gain food for their charges, sisters played the guitar and sang Polish songs. What is interesting, they always managed to collect needed money. And s. Rafała has been still joking that the guitar which she used to play, did not have all strings so, she is not sure whether donors were worried more about orphans or whether she would stop playing the guitar….
With the cross through war entanglements
When in March 2000 John Paul II went to the Holy Land, he met with, among the others, the Elizabethan Sisters, s. Rafała and her charges of the ‘Home of Peace’ in the patriarchate of Jerusalem. Soon after that event Ariel Szaron provocatively entered the area of the former Jerusalem temple (on which there is the famous mosque Al-Aksa), which initiated a wave of riots in the Holy Land. In a revenge, the Israeli army surrounded Bethlehem. Nobody could enter or leave the city. Unfortunately, before that the sisters had taken a few children to their families in Bethlehem; also children from divorced or poor families are taken to an orphanage. Nobody could foresee that the situation would become dangerous. After a few days one of the children’s mother called and was begging the nuns to take back the child as in Bethlehem there was nothing to eat. S. Rafała and s. Ksryspina (aged over 70!) set off from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on foot. They were carrying only the cross and the Vatican flag. – At the same time there was a protest against the blockage of Bethlehem. Seeing us, journalists began to ask why we were going to the invaded city, saying that nobody would let us in there, and we can get injured – says s. Rafała.
When they got through the cordon of the army, a soldier ran towards them with a gun ready to shoot. – He was shouting and giving orders that we should go back. We explained that we were going to Bethlehem to help hungry children there. Our negotiation, however, failed, so I asked to have a word with the soldier’s supervisor but, unfortunately, he was adamant – says the sister. Angry and desperate she asked whether he had talked with his grandparents about concentration camps and children whom nobody had helped during the war. – Hearing these words, the officer got pale and allowed us to go there – says s. Rafała. – He added that we had only two hours. Luckily we had enough time in order to find children and return home in Jerusalem safely. ‘Home of Peace’ behind the walls in Bethlehem
S. Rafale and her other sisters, and with the help from a lot of warm-hearted people from all over the world, especially the Polish Diaspora, managed to do something impossible for the second time – to build another orphanage in Bethlehem a few years ago. This time near the separating wall surrounding the city, and in its gloomy outlook near the building. This place – ‘Home of Peace’ – turned out to be an oasis in the tormented and isolated city of Jesus’ birth.
- ‘Home of Peace’ – an orphanage in Jerusalem has existed for sharply 50 years – says s. Rafała. – For all these years we have been teaching children what is the most important, that is, forgiveness and love. Despite that…..A lot of our charges graduated from universities and found a good job. Some of them started their families. I hope that they will bring a lot of light in the life of people they meet, not only in their families, but also at work or even in the public life – the sister says joyfully.
Appreciating the heroic life and work of Helena Józefa Włodarczak, that is, s. Rafała, the Polish President Andrzej Duda awarded her with the Cavalier’s Cross of Poland Rebirth for her ‘prominent merits in helping people in need’.
But the Cavalier’s Cross of Poland Rebirth is not the only distinction, with which s. Rafała was awarded for her missionary work in Near East for years. On the same day – 28 June 2017 the sister was awarded with the Pro Ecclesia Crpss et Pontifice, by the chairperson of the Polish Episcopal Conference archbishop Stanisław Gądecki and rewarded by the very pope Francis. During the ceremony she said that the distinction she had received is encouragement to live according to evangelical and patriotic values. Asked about further plans, she expressed his greatest dream: hope to return to the Holy Land. – It is necessary to pray so that superiors would send me there again, as I am still very eager to go there! – the 86-year-old nun said. In reply to the question of a journalist about such honourable distinctions the charismatic sister Rafała, known from her expressive character and temper, smiled and said: - It is good that these are the crosses as I can wear them on my monastic habit.
The work of s. Rafała is continued by the Elizabethan sisters with much sacrifice. In Jerusalem the orphanage ‘Home of Peace’ on the Olives Mount is run by s. Benigna Okupniak and in Bethlehem ‘behind the walls’ – by s. Szczepana Hrehorowicz, who and other sisters give their orphans what is the most important for every child: love, sense of safety and dreamt home.
Here it is worth mentioning how help to the work and children of ‘Home of Peace’ opened and moved the hearts of many people all over the world. One of the newest projects is ‘Opalenica for Bethlehem’ (http://www.archpoznan.pl/content/view/4515/107/). On 22 October 2017 in the Cultural and Entertainment Aula in Opalenica (3a Zamkowa St.) there is going to be a meeting with s. Rafała Włodarczak within the cycle ‘People from the Holy Land’.