I just learned that Sister Carmelle Voltaire of Fondwa, Haiti, has died. She was a founding member in Fondwa of the Little Sisters of St. Anthony, a group of nuns that dedicate themselves to children through an orphanage, a grammar school, and a health clinic. When I first visited Haiti ten years ago, it was she who received me, who fretted about my eating well, who loaned me her cellphone to receive calls from home. She also constantly said that I had something of her patron, St. Francis of Assisi, in me, I guess for my skinny vegetarian frame, unkempt beard, and crazed eyes.
Sister Carmelle frustrated me often too, as an overbearing mother might. She wasn't always respectful of the boundaries between different development projects in the larger organization she worked for, Asosyasyon Peyizan Fondwa, and her own priorities. I remember when the guest center got a solar panel installed to run the batteries during the day, and she also had it wired to her nuns' quarters so they could have light. If someone in the convent forgot to turn off the light during the day, it sapped all the electricity from the rest of the residence! She considered her mission very important, sometimes to the exclusion of others, and she was probably right.
At any rate, Sr. Carmelle was my introduction to the dilemmas and difficulties of working in a poor country, where dedicating resources to one worthy cause necessarily diverts them from another. She taught me to live with the joys and the helplessness and the frustration and the victories of poverty, to coexist with them and embrace the sometimes unpleasant but always exhilarating reality of Haiti, and of the world. Most of all she started me on the path to a healthy balance between pure values and ideals on the one hand, and ambiguous, treacherous reality on the other. She seemed to maintain the former while surrounded by the latter.
I haven't been in touch with Sr. Carmelle in years, but I will always remember her mix of boundless joy and an existential gravity, almost a sadness that lay underneath. She truly was a disciple of St. Francis.