By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Sr Ruth Lewis, also known as the Mother Teresa of Pakistan, died on 20 July, a victim of the coronavirus. She contracted Covid-19 after making the decision to personally care for 21 infected residents of the Dar ul Sukun home (House of Peace), which she had founded with Sr Gertrude Lemmens in 1969.
Fr Nasir William, a priest of the Islamabad / Rawalpindi Diocese in Pakistan, told Vatican News in an interview that he met Sr Ruth and worked with her for about a year as a seminarian. He, along with hundreds of others, remains forever touched by his relationship with her.
A home is born
Fr William recounts the beginning of the Dar ul Sukun home. Sr Ruth herself told him the story. It all started on the streets of Karachi which she often walked. At times, she saw children with disabilities who were chained, stones being hurled at them by other children and adults. She felt that “there should be somewhere, some institutions where they could be served well.”
Sr Ruth was a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Christ the King, a local Pakistani congregation. Without the funding possible in international Congregations, founding such an institution seemed impossible. However, Gertude Lemmens, the sister of the co-founder of Sr Ruth’s Congregation, came from Holland to visit her brother. Sr Ruth confided her dream to her. Together, these two Sisters made that dream come true. In 1969, the Dar ul Sukun home saw the light of day. It was not long before they began to receive funding from the local provincial government of Sindh, since most of the people they cared for were Muslim. Private donors also began to contribute to the Sisters’ work.
Truly a mother
Fr William testifies that these sisters possessed the same charism as the more well-known Mother Teresa. When he worked with Sr Ruth, there were about 300 children. In an age when religious life seems to be a “title”, Father says he saw Sr Ruth living her vowed life in an extraordinary way.
He was most impressed with Sr Ruth’s choice of personal living space. She chose not to have a private room where she could at times go without being disturbed. Instead, her only “personal space” was a small space separated from the children’s beds by only a curtain. Father asked Sr Ruth about this once. Her response was: “These children may need me during the night because the workers do not stay here at night…. If they need me at night, I can easily facilitate them and help them”.
“There was no privacy”, Fr William continues. “Her privacy was like a mother, not caring about her own life.” She was available “24 hours a day there for the children”. Rather than relying on the paid employees to perform all the menial tasks for the residents, Sr Ruth chipped in. “For the special-needs children, she was even changing their diapers and cleaning their rooms.”
In addition, she expected the seminarians to follow suit. “Our job was also like this and she guided us: ‘Can you help me to clean the fan…the toilets…the floor?’" All this in a culture in which men are not expected to perform such tasks and “are ashamed to touch a broom, or a diaper…especially when people are watching. So, how could I do this?” Fr William said that it was “By doing it herself, she was giving the example for me.” As Fr William came and went, he also began to realize that Sr Ruth was also serving him, as if he too were one of her children.
‘She gave herself for the children’
Now looking back, Fr William realizes that Sr Ruth died in the same way she lived. “She gave herself!” Fr William exclaims. “She gave her life for the children”. When 21 children came down with coronavirus, Sr Ruth had a choice to make because her own paid staff refused to tend them. These children had no where else to go, and some of them were completely reliant on others to be fed or taken to the toilet. She could either send the children to local hospitals or take care of them herself.
“ ‘Okay’ ”, Fr William recounts, “‘I have dedicated my life for them – 51 years’ she said, ‘My life is for them. If you don’t do anything, I will continue doing this.’“ She knew that all 21 children had coronavirus, Fr William testifies. “Instead of the staff,” he continues, “she started feeding them, looking after them. Of course, she was old, and could not bear the attack of the coronavirus.”
Sr Ruth tested positive for Covid-19 and was taken to Aga Khan Hospital and put on a ventilator on 8 July. On 20 July, at the age of 77, Sr Ruth breathed her last.