Finding the face of Jesus in a Senegal orphanage

Senegal orphanage, La Pouponnière de Dakar, St. Anthony of Padua, Greenville

Senegal orphanage, La Pouponnière de Dakar, St. Anthony of Padua, GreenvilleGREENVILLE—Three members of St. Anthony of Padua Church made a missionary trip recently deep into the heart of poverty-stricken Africa.

Their destination was an orphanage of sorts: La Pouponnière de Dakar in Senegal run by an order of Franciscan missionary sisters out of France.

There, about 80 infants are fed and loved.

Marisa Ramos, trip coordinator, explained that it isn’t exactly an orphanage because many of the infants have families they will return to when they are old enough. But none of the babies have mothers, and all would perish if not for the religious who care for them in their first year.   

When Ramos spoke to the parish about Senegal, she said the only requirement was that anyone who went must love children.

Sara Ostendorff knew that wouldn’t be a problem, but she didn’t realize how deep that love would be.

“Father Patrick [Tuttle] said ‘You’re going to come face to face with Jesus,’ and I did,” Ostendorff said. “My arms weren’t big enough to hold them all. They were just absolutely dear.”

Ostendorff, who is the nurse at St. Anthony church and school, said she grew up in New York, but had not left South Carolina for the past 30 years.

She was looking to shake things up when she heard Ramos speak about La Pouponnière. A family member cautioned her to rethink going to Africa, and urged her to start with a smaller trip.

“I felt really very strongly this is what I was meant to do, this is what God called me to do,” she said.

The small group landed in darkness, but even at this time of night, the streets were packed with people and dust filled the air. Drivers barreled about, with no stoplights or traffic rules, sharing the road with cattle and goats, Ostendorff recalled.

She found it a bit frightening, and worried she had made the wrong decision in coming on the trip, she said.

But all doubts vanished when she saw the babies, and the women who cared for them: the sisters so full of peace, and the young girls with radiant faces, dressed in bright native clothes, she said. Unlike the city, full of open sewers and half-built structures, the orphanage was immaculate.

Ramos said the first time she saw it, she marveled at how clean it was, at how beautiful and peaceful the flower gardens were, and at the amazing efficiency of the system.

When 80 babies are in one place, someone is always crying, she said. But the sisters and young women move calmly from one to another, offering love and care.

“I was never depressed by it,” Ramos said. “I saw it as a place where babies are loved and held.”

She spoke about the different babies: about Ibrahim, who is handicapped, but still loved and wanted by his family despite their hardships; about a premature little girl who only weighed about three pounds, but was gaining weight steadily; and especially about little Marie, whom Ramos would like to adopt.  

“I pray about it a lot,” she said.

A flight attendant for Delta Airlines, Ramos has been to La Pouponnière many times in the past two years. She said every time Delta flies into Dakur, her fellow attendants bring packages for the babies and the adults who work there.

“People say to me, ‘What do they need?’ They need everything. There is nothing you should throw away,” Ramos said.

She carries old car seats to the orphanage and babies are placed in them for awake time after feedings. They take clothes and diapers, and Bibles and rosaries for the sisters, who range in age from 40 to 96.

“I have appreciation for the sisters there and what a very difficult life they have. But they’re just glowing with love,” Ostendorff said.

On this trip, she said the heat was very hard to bear. The temperature remained in the high 90s even at night, and there was no relief from it; certainly no air conditioning.

Ostendorff said she looked forward to returning to her creature comforts, and thought she would remain home for the future. But now, she looks at the photos she brought home, at the faces of all the babies, and knows she will return.

“It was such a wonderful experience to have their little heads nestled on my shoulder,” she said.