Beirut’s Catholic Schools: ‘The Blast Struck Our History’
Damage to Immaculate Conception School — which this year marked its 125th anniversary — is estimated at $1.4 million.
BEIRUT — The two nuns had just finished praying together in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception School.
From the hallway window, Sister Marlene Youssef, the school’s director, could see smoke rising in the distance. It was 6pm. She took the elevator to the fourth floor rooftop to get a better look.
Observing the source of the darkening sky — the Beirut port about a mile away — she texted some of her fellow nuns from the Daughters of Charity congregation to alert them to the fire danger.
“I felt something inside of me warning me to run and go back inside. I felt I had only one moment, no time, to get safe,” Sister Marlene recounted to the Register. Seconds later, there was the first blast at the Beirut port.
She rushed inside the elevator. It had barely begun descending when a second, apocalyptic-like blast erupted at the port. The elevator shuddered and got stuck between floors.
The blasts are blamed on 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years in a port warehouse. Such was the magnitude of the Aug. 4 catastrophe — one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosions — that it could be felt in Cyprus, 164 miles across the Mediterranean Sea.
From the confines of the elevator, Sister Marlene could hear people crying and shouting. Her phone was a lifeline to the outside world, and after 25 minutes the school custodian was able to free her.
“When I saw the school, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what happened,” Sister Marlene said of her first glimpse when she emerged from the elevator. As if in the aftermath of a tornado, everything was blown out and upside down.
Sister Sophie Khosrovian, who was on her way to the nuns’ living quarters after praying with Sister Marlene in the chapel, was knocked down by the powerful blast and was bleeding, surrounded by shards of glass and debris. The 76-year-old sister, a native of Iran, died of her injuries about three hours after she was admitted to the Daughter of Charity’s Sacred Heart Hospital in Baabda, a suburb of Beirut.
Sister Marlene says she is grateful for their final time together in the school chapel, for the blessing of “time to pray, to be prepared for this big catastrophe, for the grace.”
The two nuns had strived “in prayer and meditation to give always the best of ourselves to God, hoping that he can hear us and deliver Lebanon from all its difficulties,” Sister Marlene said.
“Really, she is now a martyr for us, like an angel in the sky,” Sister Marlene said of Sister Sophie. “I feel her presence and her prayers for us from up there. She loved Lebanon and this school very much.”
Miraculously, all the statues surrounding the altar of the Immaculate Conception Church, located in the interior of the school, were spared. “Not even one scratch,” Sister Marlene said of the statues: Our Lady of Grace (the same image depicted in the Miraculous Medal); the Sacred Heart of Jesus; St. Catherine Labouré; St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Daughters of Charity order; and St. Padre Pio.
With conviction, Sister Marlene testifies to the significance of the unscathed statues. “God will always find a way to send us a message. And this is his message: I am with you,” she told the Register.
Sister Marlene is also convinced that Immaculate Conception served as a shield to the old buildings in the crowded residential neighborhood surrounding the school in the Geitawi-Achrafieh section of Beirut.
“Those buildings would have collapsed and many people would have died. I believe this school absorbed most of the shock,” she explained, noting that, despite its damages, the building is still holding together.
The horrific double blast killed more than 190 people, injured more than 6,500 and left more than 300,000 people homeless. Even 12 miles away from the blast site, windows were shattered.
Thankfully, no children were on the school premises during the tragedy. However, 50 of the school’s students were injured from the blast, some very seriously. The stories she has heard from parents “tear at your heart,” Sister Marlene said. “Families are really suffering.”
Sister Marlene plans to organize programs, with a local organization, to address trauma healing for the students.
Damage to the Immaculate Conception School — which this year marked its 125th anniversary — is estimated at $1.4 million. The pressure of the blast blew out windows and doors and catapulted contents of the building’s 90 rooms. “We lost everything,” Sister Marlene said.
Doors and windows alone — 500 of each — need to be replaced.
In the days following the blast, teams of volunteers — young people from scout groups, parish youth groups — came from all over Lebanon to help with the cleanup. The French army, as part of their mission of solidarity with the Lebanese, in conjunction with the Lebanese army, carted 100 truckloads of debris from the school.
“We don’t have the potential now to start in-person classes,” Sister Marlene said.
As Lebanon experiences a disturbing rise in COVID-19 cases, most of the country’s schools are carrying out online learning. That gives the damaged schools in Beirut and surrounding areas a bit of a reprieve to get schools in order.
A total of 53 Catholic schools were damaged in the blast, with combined damages totaling more than $12 million, according to the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon.
“When you visit these [damaged] schools, you can’t help but cry and say, ‘What a pity,’” Maronite Father Boutros Azar, the general secretariat, told the Register.
“These are the schools that raised education in Lebanon,” he said, noting that the country’s Catholic schools existed even before public schools and have educated all religions. “Their worn steps are a witness to all the students and how these schools have carried the education all these years — not just for Christians, but for all.”
At Immaculate Conception, about 25% of its 350 students are Muslim.
Father Azar noted that Lebanon’s Catholic schools are a testimony to St. John Paul II’s proclamation that “Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West.”
“The blast struck our history — the history of the Christians and the history of Catholic education,” Father Azar said.
Aid to Lebanon
As far as restoration of the damaged schools, Father Azar said that “there are individuals and church and international institutions such as UNICEF and UNESCO that have promised to help a limited number of schools.” The French government “has also expressed its support for the restoration of schools, and a number of European countries have promised to restore one or two schools,” he said.
However, no aid has materialized yet.
Father Azar noted that “the Lebanese state, through the Lebanese army, has inspected the damage with promises of financial contributions, but to date little of the promises have been fulfilled. Perhaps this is due to the completion of the investigations and perhaps also due to the bureaucracy, or due to the high and unforeseen cost,” he said.
“I appeal to all countries, institutions and capable individuals to support the restoration work — not only Catholic schools, but also all schools that were damaged in the Aug. 4 explosion,” Father Azar said.
In all, 128 schools in the Beirut area — including 78 private schools (53 of which are Catholic) and 50 public schools — are damaged.
The August blast struck as the Lebanese were already worn down by the country’s worst economic crisis in its modern history, further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
More than half of the Lebanese population now lives below the poverty line amid massive unemployment. In less than a year, the purchasing power of the national currency has decreased by 80%, plunging the middle class into poverty. According to data released by the Central Administration of Statistics, prices of consumer goods — including food — increased by more than 336% from July 2019 to July 2020.
So far, Sister Marlene does not have funding sources for the damages at Immaculate Conception, which saw classes resume remotely and online Oct. 1. As she pointed upward, she said, “I count on Providence. Always, God has his plans, and he plans very well.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
For readers who wish to donate to the Immaculate Conception School, contact Sister Mary Louise Stubbs, executive director of the Daughters of Charity in the United States at [email protected]
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.