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Bad Habits

Have you ever loved someone so much that you’d give up everything good in your life for their sake?

I want to share a story with you. It starts on a street corner in Gyurmi, Armenia — one of the places CNEWA serves. This story is about a little boy with a great big selfless heart, a boy whom I’ll call Abel.

Abel is twelve years old, but he has man-sized problems. Abel’s mother is a prostitute. She “works” from the tiny apartment that she shares with her only child. Every time she sees a “client,” she forces Abel to leave their home. The boy sits on the corner and watches life go by. He wishes time would travel fast so he can be with his mom again. But the seconds move like minutes and the minutes move like hours.

Abel dreams of a normal life. Of family dinners, games on the living room floor and doing homework at the kitchen table. Instead, he sits on the familiar corner, his sneakers in the dirt and his head holding up a head weighed down by heavy thoughts. At times Abel wants to cry, like a boy should, but he has no more tears.

Abel has spent his days on the corner for longer than he can remember — except for one brief period of time. One day when Abel was nine, he was sitting on the corner when a religious sister in a black veil came and sat down beside him. She introduced herself as Sister Arousiag. And she explained that Abel would be coming to live with her at the Our Lady of Armenia Orphanage.

I wonder how Abel felt that day. Relieved? Scared for his mom? Angry that she threw him out — permanently? I doubt the boy knew what to feel.

But the two years and nine months that Abel spent at the orphanage were doubtlessly the best days of his young life. Sister Arousiag says he flourished. After years of skipping classes, Abel found school engaging again. He loved playing soccer with the other kids. And with three meals a day, he was healthy. It’s like Abel had a second chance at childhood.

Then one morning last April, Sister Arousiag found Abel’s bed empty. On his pillow was this note:

Sister, thank you for everything you have done for me.  I love you and I love my friends here.  I have to go back to my mother now.  I have to stop her bad habit.

Today Abel is back on the street corner in Gyurmi. His mom hasn’t stopped her “bad habit,” but he keeps trying. And Sister Arousiag hasn’t forgotten the boy — she looks after him, encourages him to stay in school and helps as much as possible with food and clothes. She keeps the child and his mother in her prayers.

I’m sharing this story so you can understand the kind of children that you help through CNEWA. I want you to see what your trying to save them from — poverty, “bad habits” and despair. And I want to assure you that you’re making a genuine difference in their lives. You and I can’t save every little one, but we are accomplishing something, and it is important and good. May God bless and reward you!

Do you sponsor a needy child?  Click here to start!

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Many thanks to Scot Landry for inviting on his radio show, “The Good Catholic Life.” We talked about the Eastern Catholic Churches and, of course, the good work of CNEWA. Scot and his co-host for the episode, Father Matt Williams, were gracious interviewers. I had tons of fun.

“The Good Catholic Life” is broadcast from Boston on WQOM 1060AM and The Station of the Cross network.  But you can listen to yesterday’s episode here.


Last month, Pope Benedict convened a meeting of Catholic agencies that serve the Eastern Churches. Several folks from CNEWA attended, including Msgr. Stern and me. When I had the opportunity to personally speak with the Holy Father, I said, “Your Holiness, I bring you the prayers and best wishes of the benefactors of CNEWA.” The pope asked me to tell you, “Thank you very much.”

The Numbers

I’m back in New York after 10 days in Ethiopia with Bill Doty, a major benefactor and champion of the work of CNEWA.  Here are the highlights of our trip:

  • 1,304 miles driven from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the city of Adigrat in the north and back again.
  • 10 Catholic schools, orphanages, seminaries and social service centers that we visited along the way.
  • 2,300 children and parents helping us lay the cornerstone for new 11th and 12th-grade classrooms we’re building for Blessed Gebre Michael School in the city of Mekele.
  • 1,800 students celebrating new classrooms we recently completed for Kidane Mehret School in the city of Dessie.
  • 10,000 pieces of candy that Bill and I bought and gave to all the children we met in Ethiopia

And one thing I heard over and over again wherever I went: “God bless the generous supporters of CNEWA.”  That means you!

After Dessie, we drove to the town of Kobo, where Capuchin fathers run St. Joseph’s School.  Eight hundred children from kindergarten to 10th grade make it a very lively place.  One of our donors, Elisa Turner, once spent a few weeks at St. Joseph as a volunteer English teacher.  Before our trip, Elisa gave us something special for her former students.  The children loved the present from their American friend.

Fifty of the girls who attend St. Joseph’s live nearby at an orphanage run by Ursuline sisters.  The orphanage badly needs a well.  Right now, the girls must carry buckets of water to the orphanage from a public water pump.  All the students at St. Joseph’s need the opportunity to attend the 11th and 12th grades — which is going to require the generous efforts of good folks like you.

After leaving Kobo in the afternoon, we drove for five hours to the city of Mek’ele, where Bill Doty has pledged to expand another Catholic school.  The next morning, 1,300 children and their parents warmly welcomed Bill.  He and the Eparch of Adigrat laid down the first stone of the new school buildings.  The construction should be finished by September.

In the afternoon, we visited a youth center run by a priest named Abba Isaiah.  The center has a free library and offers a variety of classes and activities.

On Monday, we toured Axum.  The giant stelae in the ancient city are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I wish I could show you the pictures I took, but you’ll have to settle for this link.  The next day, Tuesday, we drove to the city of Gondar on probably the worst road ever.  The cars kicked up dust so thick you couldn’t see through it.  It was so bad we had to pull over several times.  The trip took nine long hours.

On a lighter note, Bill and I have been to Ethiopia before, and we know what to expect when visiting a Catholic school.  The kids want candy, and they aren’t afraid to ask — again and again and again.  So we brought 5,000 pieces of candy (yes, you read that right).  You can imagine how popular we are!

We are in Gondar tonight … with luck, I’ll blog more tomorrow.

Day Two

Today we drove from Debre Berhan to Dessie.  We left at 7:00 a.m., and it took five hours.  Because a tunnel on the road was under repair, we had to take a very narrow road up the side of a mountain.  Not fun!

Dessie is a city of 170,000 inhabitants.  It is in a woreda, or administrative district, of 400,000 inhabitants.  The number of school-aged children in the woreda is 50,000.

When I first visited the city three years ago, only one school offered the 11th and 12th grades.  This was a major problem.  There wasn’t enough room for all of the children who wanted to graduate from high school and pursue higher education.

That’s why Bill Doty, working through CNEWA, decided to expand a Catholic high school called Kidane Mehret.  We built three new buildings to house four 11th and 12th grade classrooms, a science lab, a computer room, a library and office for teachers.  Construction started in 2008.  Now the buildings are fully operational and the classrooms are full.

As I mentioned yesterday, Bill is in Ethiopia with me.  This is the first time he has seen the fruits of his charity.

We had an incredible ceremony with all the students, their parents, government officials and the Capuchin priests who run the school.  The Capuchin provincial gave a wonderful speech.  Bill asked the children to raise their hands and pledge to be good students and good citizens and to put their schools to good use.  It was very moving.  Then, he cut an inaugural ribbon and we toured the school.

The visit ended, as it always does when I got to Kidane Mehret, with a soccer game with the kids.  Bill played on one team and I played on the other.  The score was tied 1-1 when we went into overtime.  Bill’s team won.

I’m in Ethiopia!

We arrived this morning in Addis Ababa.  After taking a little break and eating something, we hit the road.

Tomorrow, we will see a Catholic school in the city of Dessie that was expanded with the support our benefactor Bill Doty.  Bill here is in Ethiopia with me.  Because of his support, the school recently added an 11th and 12th grade, which means that graduates can apply to a university or vocational school and continue their studies after high school.

At the moment, we are in the city of Debre Berhan.  It is a ten-hour drive from Addis Ababa to Dessie, so we are spending the night along the way.  The city is just small stores and homes made of corrugated metal.  It is dinnertime and dark now.

We are all very tired from the trip, but tomorrow is a big day and we are all very excited.  Bill will get to see how his money was put to work in Dessie and there will be a celebration.