GREENVILLE – Sister Sponsa Beltran knows a lot about the brutal 14-year civil war that has split the small West African Coast country of Liberia, but she’d rather talk about Sackor, Sando, Yah, Musa and Edwin and the hundreds of other Liberian children and adults she has sheltered from that war.
The Bernadine Franciscan nun was back in the United States last month, speaking at Masses at St. Mary Church and at parishes in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, raising awareness and support for her Our Lady of Fatima Orphanage and Rehabilitation Center in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
“The needs of the children are tremendous,” the 78-year-old Pennsylvania native said.
For years, Sister Beltran treated children suffering from cholera, measles, leprosy and malnutrition. But that effort has expanded over the past decade to include children handicapped from malaria or polio.
That effort is hindered because handicapped children are shunned in Liberia.
“Handicapped children in Liberia are considered useless by their families because the families don’t think they can do anything,” Sister Beltran said.
Strides have been made to address Liberia’s polio problem, she said, “and it might be eradicated if we don’t have any more wars.”
The country’s latest civil war ended in 1998, but pockets of fighting have resurfaced in recent months.
“It’s close to election time, which is why the fighting has picked up again,” Sister Beltran said.
Fighting during the mid-90s forced the nun to flee with her refugee children to Ivory Coast, and rebel soldiers have threatened the center countless times since then, including last Easter.
“Thank God, we prayed real hard and it didn’t happen,” she said.
The constant fighting between rebel forces and the Liberian government has left hundreds of thousands dead and more than a million uprooted from their homes.
“It’s sad, because these refugees were coming home from Ivory Coast and the other countries, and now they have to run again,” Sister Beltran said.
And the fighting goes on.
“It’s a sad situation right now — the saddest I’ve seen since I’ve been in Liberia,” Sister Beltran said. “The poverty is worse than it’s ever been. There are no jobs, and because of government sanctions many people are without work.”
Sister Beltran, a registered nurse, is now legally blind from macular degeneration, and severe spinal arthritis has confined her to a wheelchair. But neither condition has slowed her work.
“God has picked me to do this job and I have to do it,” she said.
With help from her biological sister, Angie Cebulski, and supporters scattered in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Texas and South Carolina, Sister Beltran is trying to raise money to build a school and dormitories at the center.
“No missionary can do it alone,” she said. “We need help from the people here to help us in our ministry.”
For more information about the center or to make a contribution, write to Angie Cebulski, 760 Mt. Zion Road, Conyers, Ga., 30012, or visit the orphanage’s website at www.epix.net/~krock/olofrehab.htm.