CLEAN WATER: Meeting People's Needs Changes Sister's Lives, Too

By Stockman, Dan | National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2019 | Go to article overview

CLEAN WATER: Meeting People's Needs Changes Sister's Lives, Too


Stockman, Dan, National Catholic Reporter


For Art Roche, the realization came somewhere between helping haul 400-pound steel pipes up a mountain in the Honduran heat and humidity, using trees and 10 or 15 people to bend the pipes as needed, twisting giant pipe wrenches to thread pipe sections together, and being outworked by his Honduran compatriots.

Or maybe it came when the enormity of the project became clear: Crews from the little village of Mejote had been working on this pipeline to bring fresh water to their village for two years, and had about another year to go.

"We weren't there to do the physical work as much as we were to witness what they were doing," Roche said. "It's the belief and endurance of the Honduran people and their faith that this will work. We weren't there to help--we were there to be with them."

The "we" in this case was a group of about two dozen volunteers brought to Honduras by the Sister Water Project of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa.

More than 2 billion people worldwide don't have access to drinkable water. Water scarcity affects nearly half of the world's population, and almost 1,000 children die of preventable water-related diseases every day, the United Nations reports.

Women religious have responded: Sisters bottle water for disabled school children in Vietnam and provide clean water in Syria, Cameroon and in regions recovering from natural disasters. The sister-led Water With Blessings has put more than 46,000 water filters in 45 countries, eliminating waterborne diseases where they're used.

The Sister Water Project--named after a mention in a canticle by St. Francis--is just one of dozens of sister-led efforts to bring clean drinking water to those without. But project committee member Sr. Judy Sinnwell said the venture has been as much about changing those involved as it is about changing the lives of those given fresh water.

"When we set out to do this, we were thinking of what would happen out there as we met a need," Sinnwell said. "But what happened in the congregation was it impacted all of us. Each member and associate could do something toward this project: You could pray, make a donation, ask for donations, be part of events. Everybody had a chance to be involved in this--and that changed something in us."

It even changed the physical activities for a 92-year-old sister.

Franciscan Sr. Donalda Kehoe--then 91--attended a bowling fundraiser last year for the project and had so much fun she now bowls once a month to stay in shape.

"Being a spectator or a participant in a fund-raising bowling tournament is a rewarding win-win method of almsgiving," Kehoe wrote in response to questions. "It's an event that promotes camaraderie, bonding, conversation and generosity--a method right down my alley"

Roche, recently retired from doing strategic planning for a health system, got involved with Sister Water Project a year ago. He had read about it in the local newspaper and heard about it several times at various community events, so when the project committee--made up of sisters, associates and volunteers--needed help with strategic planning, he volunteered.

"I had read about it," he said. "But it hadn't sunk in--the enormity of the project they had taken on." It sunk in eight months later on a mountainside in Honduras.

"[The Honduran workers] saw us as comical," Roche said. "We were clumsy. We had steel-toed boots, sunscreen, gloves--they were wearing jelly shoes or tennis shoes, no sunscreen, no gloves, and worked three times as hard as any of us."

The local crews are made up of men from the village. Each of three neighborhoods takes turns sending a crew up the mountain for a week to work on the pipeline. The pipeline--this one is 32 kilometers long--is necessary because the ground is too rocky to dig wells, and the rivers are either unsuitable for drinking from or often dry up. …

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