Celebrating life. Sr Carmen (centre, in brown veil) with the children, their families and Arc Children’s Centre staff and volunteers after a party. Sisters in brown veils and skirts are a common sight at Mount Alvernia Hospital and Assisi Hospice. They are often seen mingling with children and adult patients there. But in a secular children’s centre?

For Sr Carmen Francis, who belongs to the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, it’s a calling.

She said, “After Arc started, I visited and felt, once again, called to work with children with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.”

A non-profit organisation, Arc Children’s Centre supports kids with cancer and other life-threatening conditions, who are unable to attend mainstream schools due to their health issues. It provides a holistic programme to both the patients and their siblings.

Sr Carmen, who has been trained as a pastoral/clinical/grief counsellor, got involved there two years ago, having worked with the co-founders, Ms Geraldine Lee and Ms Ronita Paul, previously. She has also been trained to minister to special needs children and has worked with young adults for 10 years in Singapore.

“I would say that children in both groups mentioned are very close to my heart,” Sr Carmen said. She also felt that the secular setting is “a great opportunity for a Religious to reach out to more people in a non- religious setting”.

She has many stories to tell about friendship with the children. “I assist one of the teachers of three- and four-year-old kids.

When a boy, aged four, went home, his grandmother asked, ‘Did Aunty Carmen teach you today?’ The child replied, ‘Grandma, not Aunty Carmen. Must call Sr Carmen, because of the brown cloth on the head!’

“I’m not sure who gave the child this explanation. His mum, who related the story to me then told it to others, which brought
great laughter to all of us at Arc!”

Sr Carmen journeys with the children and their families as they try to cope with the children’s various needs. She goes to the centre four times a week.

“I have been very touched by the sharing of the parents who have to, day in and day out, be with their child who is sick with cancer. The worries and fears that they face are tremendous.”

When asked how she explains the loss of a child to his or her non-Christian parents, Sr Carmen, who has been a Religious for 43 years, replied with another story.

“When a child of seven, was dying, Ronita and I visited the mother at one of the hospitals. We sat close to her and at that point, she did not need ‘words’ but just our quiet presence, touch and nods. The child passed away shortly after his father returned from overseas to say his farewell.”

She said that the toughest part of her role is “to see children, at such a young age, having to cope with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; parents having to divide their time between the child who is sick and the one who is not; and parents needing time for themselves.”

The kids too have lessons to teach the adults, she added. “The children who are sick do not focus on their illness, they enjoy all the activities and enrichment programmes and are delightful to be with!”

She told of an eight-year-old whose attitude towards death helped his mother to let go. The mother was angry with God as she was not ready to give up her only child. “But eventually, the child’s peaceful acceptance of his illness and desire not to have any further treatment – he shared his desire to go to heaven to be with Jesus – convinced her to stop treatment and have quality time with him.” Shortly after his birthday bash, the boy passed away.

The centre also helps with funeral arrangements, said Sr Carmen. “Then within that week, I will make appointments separately for the parents and the siblings, for grief counselling.”

Apart from her role at Arc, Sr Carmen takes charge of her congregation’s St Francis Convent library and computer room. At the regional level, she handles the immigration matters for  non-Singaporean Sisters. She is also on the pastoral care team at the Church of St Vincent de Paul and the Landings community.

By Mel Diamse-Lee
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