Did I Say That?: A nun in the Congo offers a lesson in gratitude

Joe Pisani shares a tale of gratitude in his latest column.

Joe Pisani shares a tale of gratitude in his latest column.

Joe Pisani /

Let me tell you a secret that took me a lifetime to learn...a secret I forget every day.

Being thankful takes work.

Sometimes, many times, we can find no reason to be thankful, and when that happens, I have to make an effort because the reasons to be grateful are usually staring me right in the face and I’m ignoring them. They aren’t what our society typically considers reasons to be happy, such as a new car, a raise or praise. Instead, they’re simple things common to us all, but we take them for granted: helping someone, a smile, an answered prayer, a call from a long-lost friend, a loyal pet.

It’s ironic how people who are always consumed with acquiring more are the least thankful, while the people who have the least are the most thankful for the little they have.

Here’s a story of gratitude from one of the poorest parts of the world.

When Mary Felice was accepted into medical school at SUNY Health Science Center at Syracuse, she thought she had her life planned at 24 until a series of events led her down another path, and she entered the Daughters of Charity, a religious order dedicated to serving the sick and poor.

She told me that after completing her novitiate, she moved to Bridgeport and worked for five years at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which was founded by the Daughters in 1903.

For the last 14 years, Sister Mary Felice has been medical director at St. Vincent the Servant General Reference Hospital in Lukolela, a remote village on the Congo River in one of the poorest parts of the world.

Her community is responsible for a 120-bed hospital, which serves an area of 7,000 square miles and a population of more than 168,500 people, who live on less than a dollar a day with no running water or electricity in houses made of clay bricks with dirt floors and palm branches for roofs.

The hospital provides emergency services and is equipped to do basic operations, such as appendectomies, hernia surgery, cesarean sections, laparotomies and bowel repairs.

Because of the poor roads, patients often travel by boat to reach the hospital, which is 91 miles from the nearest city. The trip can take them a day.

Many children with severe malaria or anemia arrive comatose and need blood transfusions, and during the peak malaria seasons, there are often several to a bed while others stay on the floor on mattresses.

Every day Sister Mary Felice comes face to face with the extreme poverty of the Congo.

“In the beginning, I would find myself feeling sad, but I didn’t understand why,” she said. “When I reflected on it, I realized it was the pain caused by seeing the living conditions. I realized I’ll never be able to make sense of the poverty or solve it, but I can do my small part that God has given me, with courage, and I must put the things that are beyond me in his hands.”

Despite their poverty, the people are joyful because of “their closeness, trust and reliance on God,” she said. They are thankful for things that the rest of us take for granted, such as clothing, an umbrella and soap.

On New Year’s Eve morning, the hospital holds its annual party for the staff. “We play games, sing, dance and each employee receives a gift — a kilogram of rice, a kilogram of dried beans and a calendar,” she said. “Last year, they also were given two bars of soap.”

They are thankful for simple things. One day while Sister Mary Felice was cleaning out her office, she found a few toothbrushes and decided to give them to the first person she met, who happened to be the night watchman.

“He came to me the next evening to thank me and said that when he gave his children the toothbrushes, they were so happy they began singing and dancing,” she recalled.

There’s a lesson for all of us. At Thanksgiving, look for reasons to be thankful in small things, in simple things, and you’ll understand the secret to gratitude.

Joe Pisani can be reached at joefpisan@yahoo.com.