Sr. Esta Joseph, CJ, a Haitian woman religious, showed me the beauty and possibilities of a life that reflects the paschal mystery. I met Sr. Esta in 2007 during a visit to Haiti with a group of ministry students from Notre Dame. She was the principal of St. Rose of Lima School, a Catholic girls’ school in Léogâne, Haiti. I was taken with Sr. Esta from our first hello. She welcomed us to the school with warm hospitality. I vividly recall eating pineapple cake in the shade of the balcony on a sunny day, with the joyful sound of children rising up from the courtyard.
Sr. Esta captivated me as she told us about the school, speaking with deep love. As I listened, the preferential option for the poor came to life before my eyes. You see, the school served the needs of two sets of students. The students in the morning shift came from families who could pay the tuition. Many of these students were high performers, placing among the top students in the country on the national exams. The future looked bright for them.
The afternoon students came from families who not only couldn’t pay school tuition, they couldn’t even afford to keep their children at home. These girls worked as live-in domestic servants in the homes of others. They worked long hours, cleaning, cooking, and sometimes caring for the younger children. The future looked grim for these girls.
Sr. Esta and her religious community believed these girls deserved an opportunity for life beyond the walls of the homes where they served. So, the Sisters started an afternoon session at the school, funded in part by the income the school made in the morning session. They managed to convince many of the employers to allow the girls to go to school after their morning chores were completed.
As Sr. Esta told of the situation of these girls, I sensed Christ’s presence radiating from her. She certainly did not gloss over the problems in Léogâne, yet she radiated a true, confident hope. Her voice was gentle…and her actions spoke volumes. I knew then and there that she was the kind of person I wanted to be. I felt honored to be in her presence…and I wanted more time with Sr. Esta. I began dreaming of a way to return to Léogâne to do whatever I needed to do to be in her presence. I wanted her to teach me to be strong, to be hope-filled, to be holy. In the meantime, just knowing that Sr. Esta was in the world lifted my spirits.
In January 2010, disaster struck. You remember the news. A massive 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti. Léogâne was the city closest to the epicenter. I listened anxiously to the news rolling in. Then one afternoon, I froze when I heard the news of a Catholic girls’ school that was destroyed…destroyed in Léogâne. 150 girls had died in the rubble of the school, along with their teachers and principal. Surely this couldn’t be St. Rose of Lima School! Those beautiful children could not be dead. Sr. Esta could not be dead. I needed her to be in the world. I needed to know that her hopeful spirit was in the world.
After a friend confirmed Sr. Esta’s death, I lived in shock for days. I grieved for the lives lost in Haiti—some estimates as high as 250,000. I grieved over the broken infrastructure. I grieved for the shattered hopes of a nation that had just begun to believe brighter days may be on the horizon.
But this was also personal for me. Sr. Esta, the gentle fighter, had died with her students. The earthquake came at 4:53 in the afternoon, leading me to wonder often, does that mean that Sr. Esta died in the midst of the students who were so special to her, the young domestic workers?
Sr. Esta’s face haunted me for weeks. I grieved the loss of her life and witness in the world. Then, one day, I realized, my encounter with Sr. Esta was not meant to turn me to her. Sr. Esta’s life was meant to point me to my own journey with Christ wherever it may lead. In her, I had seen a vision of who I hope to be. And the memory of her life energized me to rise up and seek to live it…and to tell others the story of Sr. Esta so that they, too, (you, too) can be inspired to go and do likewise.