by Frances Fowler-Collins
“Miracle after miracle.” That is how Madre Ivonne Sommerkamp described her twelve years at the Hogar Rafael Ayau in Guatemala City. She was leading a retreat, “Healing in Christ,” on September 27 at Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in the Cincinnati area. About 120 people attended, coming from various parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. In her presentations, Madre Ivonne shared the history of the orphanage and described the theory and program that she and the other two nuns have developed to heal the more than 1,000 abandoned and abused children who have lived in the Hogar since 1996.
Hogar (Home) Rafael Ayau was originally founded as a hospice in 1856 by Don Rafael Ayau, the great-great-grandfather of Madre Abbess Inés, who heads the monastery. After a few years it was taken over by some Catholic Sisters of Charity, who ran it as an orphanage until the 1970s when the Guatemalan government assumed responsibility for it. Conditions deteriorated seriously under the government, and in 1996 the president asked the nuns of the Orthodox Monastery Lavra Mambré to take it under their wing.
As Madre Ivonne explained with considerable humor, the nuns were not originally sure that God was calling them to this task. They engaged in an all-night prayer vigil to St. Herman of Alaska, seeking to know God’s will. The next morning, before they had even finished praying, they received a FAX telling them that the Hogar was theirs! Many of the miracles of their early years involved God’s steady answering of their prayers for funds to renovate the shabby buildings. “The most important thing in life is prayer,” Madre Ivonne said. “We have to ask.”
The major goal of the Hogar is to heal the children it serves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually–often a difficult task since the experience of being abandoned has left the children angry and mistrustful. Therefore, the nuns have developed a program designed to help the children learn to love, trust, and forgive. Of course, they believe that “God must be the center” because “love is the answer. . . .God is love.” This means that the children’s lives are surrounded by prayer; they attend matins and vespers every day, are anointed every day, and are baptized at an early age. They are also loved and listened to.
However, the nuns also realize that the children need a balanced life if they are to heal and grow to healthy adulthood. This means a daily schedule that includes three nutritious meals, about five hours of school on weekdays, swimming, and extracurricular activities such as music, carpentry, crafts, and sports. The children take frequent excursions and watch some carefully selected television shows and films each week. They are not allowed to watch whatever they choose on television because, as Madre Ivonne says, “We are what we see, what we hear.” The Hogar’s approach to healing is working. Bit by bit the children learn to forgive and to trust. They also learn to love God. “They love God; they love the Mother of God. . . .They are very pure in their faith,” said Madre Ivonne.
Now the Hogar Rafael Ayau is engaged in an enterprise which will depend on more miracles; the nuns are building a new orphanage 17 miles outside the city, near their monastery on Lake Amatitlan. Their current complex is located in a red light district, and they do not believe it is a good environment for the children. The new orphanage will cost well over a million dollars–money that the nuns do not yet have. But they have learned to depend on God and his miracles. As Madre Ivonne put it: “If God wants it, it will happen!”