Nun who died of COVID praised for work with mentally disabled in Pakistan

Nun who died of COVID praised for work with mentally disabled in Pakistan

Sister Ruth Lewis, the 'Mother of Pakistan’s special children' and head of the Dar ul Sukun organisation, home for special needs children, died of the coronavirus on July 20, 2020. (Credit: Dar ul Sukun.)

Sister Ruth Lewis, who died from COVID-19 last week and was widely known for her work with disabled children in Pakistan, has been praised by friends and collaborators for her “remarkable” work and tireless service to those in her care.

ROME – While life for minorities in Pakistan, particularly Christians, is often seen from afar solely as one of ongoing persecution and discrimination, there are exceptions. One of those is the late Sister Ruth Lewis, who spent her life serving the disabled in Karachi.

Widely known and highly respected for her work with disabled children, Lewis was revered not only by those in her care, but she was admired throughout Karachi and the wider Sindh region where she spent her life in caring for the poor and marginalized.

Lewis, who died from COVID-19 last week, has been praised by friends and collaborators for her “remarkable” work and tireless service to those in her care.

Speaking to Crux, Father James Channan, director Lahore Peace Center, said Lewis was a “very well known, recognized and appreciated personality” in Karachi, capital of the Pakistani province of Sindh.

Her reputation, he said, “was due to her tremendous services to the handicapped and mentally (disabled) children and adults.”

“She did all of this to manifest her ultimate love for Jesus Christ – her example par excellence and Savior. Sr Ruth loved and cared for the handicapped children as her own children,” he said, adding, “I thank and pay richest tribute to her services in Karachi. She is a model of serving others and giving them unconditional love. May her soul rest in peace!”

Born May 2, 1946, Lewis belonged to the Congregation of Franciscan Missionaries of Christ the King. Together with fellow Sisters Gertrude Lemmens and Margaret D’Costa, she founded the Dar-Ul-Sukun (House of Peace) home for mentally and physically disabled individuals in 1969.

The place, which has accommodated anywhere from 150-300 people at a time, quickly gained a reputation throughout the region for its work, and it soon began to receive funding from the local government of Sindh.

After more than 50 years of service, Lewis contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus while working with the 21 children from the Dar-Ul-Sukun home who were also infected with the virus.

She was admitted to the Aga Khan Hospital and put on a ventilator July 8, and she died July 20 at the age of 77. Her funeral two days later was presided over by the Archbishop of Karachi, Cardinal Joseph Coutts, and was livestreamed on various television stations and social media platforms.

In a statement posted to their Facebook page following Lewis’s death, the Dar-Ul-Sukun home said they  are “heartbroken” over the loss, calling Lewis “a true inspiration for all the staff who love her and will each day try to walk in her footsteps.”

“She was the icon of love, care, and true compassion,” they said.

Less than a week after her death, Lewis was given the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the third highest honor and civil award in Pakistan, by the Sindh government, which paid for Lewis’s hospitalization costs. Representatives of the local government are still working in a specialized quarantine ward set up in Dar Ul Sakun for the children and staff who are sick.

Speaking to Crux, Cecil Shane Chaudhry, Executive Director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic-run human rights organization, said Lewis throughout her life “served tirelessly” the children with special needs and physical disabilities that came to Dar Ul Sakun.

“Her contribution has been remarkable and especially in the city of Karachi she was very well known for her great work,” she said, and speaking of the Sitara-e-Imtiaz award given to Lewis, said “It is good to see that the government is honoring her contribution by giving her this civil award. It will also give the Catholic and Christian community a sense of pride and encouragement.”

Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad-Sindh, who had known Lewis for roughly 35 years, told Crux that his longtime friend was “very kind-hearted and committed to her spiritual as well as social services throughout her life.”

Lewis was called “mama” by all the children who stayed at her home for the disabled, he said, recalling how she would often encourage them to take leading roles in games and to get involved in activities such as art, volunteering and service to other children.

Pointing to several of Lewis’s accomplishments, Shukardin noted that four children from Dar Ul Sakun won medals in the Paralympics in the United States in 1998.

In addition to her local work in Karachi, Lewis also pioneered several national projects, he said, including the establishment of a home for socially displaced boys in Quetta in 2007; a home for socially displaced girls in Muslimabad in Karachi in 2010; a center for the elderly in Karachi in 2015; and the addition of a new extension of the Dar Ul Sakun home and a modern rehabilitation complex in Rashidabad earlier this year.

In January 2014, Lewis received the Pride of Karachi award, and in 2018, she was given the Hakeem Muhammad Saeed Award, named after a celebrated medical researcher and philanthropist who was governor of the Sindh province from 1993-1994 before he was assassinated in 1998.

According to Shukardin, Lewis was also among the people featured in a book of personalities who shaped Karachi written by Pakistani actor Imran Aslam.

Shukardin said he is “deeply grieved” over Lewis’s death.

“Her lifelong services and love for the disabled will always be remembered,” he said.

“She had a vision of creating an inclusive society of persons with disabilities so that they could contribute to the mainstream,” he continued.

“She was (the) pride of Christians and even for all the nations. The decision of Government of Sindh in regard to bestow upon her Sitara-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s Major Civil Award, is admirable,” he said. “She really served the humanity without any discrimination.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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