Friday, May 2, 2008
Sister Benedict’s love story
Sister Benedict (3rd left) celebrates with look-alike niece Wendy, sister Jean and brother-in-law Henry Williams.
Be at attention …or not. You are in the presence of royalty, but relax: she is as loving as she is regal. She is Sister Benedict Chung, the acknowledged queen of Central Kingston. But this is no figurehead on a throne. Oh no – there is too much to be done. At her Laws Street Trade Training Centre, there are bakers, caterers, garment makers to be trained, disputes to be resolved, the poor to be fed and a bonafide bakery to be run.
We gathered at the quaint Christ the King Chapel last week, to honour Sister Benedict for her 60 years of service as a Sister of Mercy. Strong of posture and clear of voice, she repeated the vows of poverty chastity and obedience that she had first pronounced as a 16-year-old in that very Chapel on South Camp Road on February 2, 1948. There have been several studies on the amazing lucidity and resilience of women who choose religious life, particularly those who enter the teaching profession. Going from classroom to bakery, to boardroom, Sister Benedict moves as seamlessly as a professional in her prime.
The Indian greeting ‘namaste’ means ‘the divine in me greets the divine in you’. Embracing God’s people, rich and poor, God’s divinity shines in her ready smile, lilting voice and boundless energy for helping everyone she encounters to realise to their potential. Canon Law expert Father Michael Lewis is one of the many she taught at Holy Family, and he never fails to remind us of her inspiring mentorship, referring to her as “my second Mother”.
She is so openly loving and non-judgmental, so supportive and affirming, that we are inspired and at times feel positively spoiled by her. Sister Benedict’s meals are the stuff of legend. The caterers trained at Sister Benedict’s Laws Street Trade Training Centre, know that only the best ingredients must be used, and that the presentation must always be first class. Who but Sister Benedict could create a twist to a traditional Jamaican fruit salad by topping it with morsels of tender, cool coconut jelly.
At Christmas, several uptowners join ‘Sister Benny’ and her fellow Mercy Sister Irene Chen See at Laws Street for their now famous Christmas Treat. Just as diligently as she prepares for the Centre’s corporate clients, so does she ensure that the meals served to the senior citizens are perfect, that the lights are brilliant and that the live band puts pep in every step. She teaches those of us assisting an important lesson: we are not helping these goodly folk as much as we are helping ourselves to discern the joy of service.
Time and time again, we hear people wondering aloud why this nun or that priest – attractive, intelligent, articulate, would choose a life of service over the prospect of a well-endowed home and corporate career. We owe them a debt: take from Jamaica Sister’s trade training centre, the Salvation Army, Father Gregory’s Mustard Seed, Father Holung’s Missionaries, Sandra and Henley Morgan’s ministry, Bishop Blair’s outreach, and think what we would be left with. Dr Parris Lyew Ayee at UWI has shown us a direct correlation beween the number of schools and churches in a community and the level of crime.
The legendary Sister Mary Bernadette, in her nearly completed grande oeuvre on Alpha, has devoted an entire chapter Sister Mary Benedict O.D., quoting tributes from Sir Howard Cooke, late Prime Minister Michael Manley, Food for the Poor and Professor Errol Miller.
The goodly Professor of Education wrote about Sister Benedict’s leadership as Principal of the Holy Family Primary School, in an article published in the Gleaner in 1996, headlined A Giant in the Ghetto. “Anger, animosity and aggression were the definitive features of the environment in which this Chinese-Jamaican disciple of the church sought to keep school for mostly Afro-Jamaican children,” Prof. Miller observed. After Sister Benedict established generous feeding and health programmes, he remarked on the warm relationship that developed with the community matched by soaring academic achievements.
In his tribute for her 25th Anniversary as a nun, late Prime Minister Michael Manley wrote: “Sister Benedict is one of those rare human beings whose lives exemplify their Christianity … By her every action she proves every hour and every day that she does love her neighbour as she does herself.”
Manley credits Sister Benedict with “the great breakthrough that was made in my constituency when the two rival gangs were persuaded to stop fighting each other.” Such was the high level of trust that some of the men who fled Green Bay after the alleged massacre in 1978, sought safe haven at the Laws Street Centre.
Observing the great suffering of her people after the onslaught of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, Sister Benedict opted to move from the quiet Mercy convent to Laws Street. Mercy Superior, Sister Marie Chin, reflected that, at a time when most people were looking towards their retirement, Sister Benedict and her fellow Mercy member, Sister Irene, decided to make their permanent home in Central Kingston in order to make themselves more accessible to their beloved community.
Born Rona Chung to Frank Chung and Beryl (nee Lai) of Troy, Trelawny, Sister Benedict, an honours graduate of St Joseph’s Teachers College, is from a family of high achieving academics and professionals. They have wholeheartedly supported her choice of a life that has enriched of thousands of others. She has opened her heart and her schools entreating her neighbours to enter, pray, learn, eat, be happy; she is a living channel of her Maker’s infinite abundance.
Appropriately, Wayne Armond and ‘Dickie Bird’ McDonald, serenaded her with Taurus Riley’s classic, She’s Royal, even as she bustled about ensuring that we received generous slices of her 60th Anniversary cake that she insisted on baking herself.
Sister Benedict’s compassionate nurturing is a great love story for St Valentine’s week. To honour her 60 years of love for her Jamaican brothers and sisters, let’s do something extraordinarily good. Happy Valentine’s Day! firstname.lastname@example.org
Observer - Feb 11 2008 - www.jamaicaobserver.com