THE MOST IMPRESSIVE HUMAN I'VE EVER MET (Sister Philomena)
(Most sensible people--like myself--are not very dedicated; most
heroically dedicated people--like bin Laden--are not sensible. Rarely do
you meet a person both heroic & sensible.)
Fifty years ago, in 1952-3, I was stationed at an army office in Inchon,
Korea (after Inchon was reconquered from the Chinese.) On a hill was the
'French Church'. The 8-foot statue of the Virgin-with-child in front was
shot up by bullets, with the Virgin's face missing and the Baby's head
blown off; the roof on the church was blown in.
Next to the church was an orphanage for little girls, run by a French
order, the Sisters of St.Paul of Chartres. This institution was actually
run by a stout Irish nun of that order from Belfast, Sister Philomena, in
her 50s, with a half-dozen Korean nuns assisting.
Before the Korean war, French nuns were in charge of the orphanage, with
Sister Philomena merely the music director at the church. These nuns had
been in Inchon since before the 1930's (Sister Philomena since 1934); they
were placed under house-arrest by the Japanese occupiers during WWII; they
nearly starved; then, when liberated, their metabolism was so improved
that they swelled up obesely when the Americans swamped them with food;
they had to be hospitalized to adjust finally.
THE KOREAN WAR: When the Communists took Inchon in 1950, they killed all
the French nuns. It just happened that Sister Philomena was on an errand
in Seoul that day; she was flown out by the Americans, and later returned,
assigned to run the orphanage--after Inchon was retaken by the Americans.
(Note that Philomena came back, even with the French nuns murdered, and
the Communist Armies only 30 miles away!)
"I really should find the burial places for those nuns; they count as
martyrs", Sister Philomena told me, " but I figure live orphans are more
important than the bones of martyrs." I got to know her right away,
fascinated by her brisk attitudes toward life. Here are my disjointed
memories of this woman.
There were about 50 orphans there, from new infants to 6-year-olds. The
infants were in cardboard boxes on the floor in the halls, sucking on
beer-bottles- with-nipples. There was a 'lazy-Susan' front door. The
whores would throw out the half-American babies into the streets; Good
Women wouldretrieve them and carry them up to the orphanage, where they
would place the baby in the 'lazy Susan', ring the doorbell and run. I was
there when the doorbell would ring and half-dead babies showed up.
A hospital ship in Inchon harbor treated wounded allied soldiers
helicoptered in from the Front Line, about 30 miles away. The hospital
personnel were forbidden to come ashore, because the air in Inchon was
infected with various diseases. (Typically, I was sick as a dog for my
first week in Inchon; since then I've been immune to almost all germs.)
(Korean farmers then used human excrement as fertilizer; it was picked up
by 'honey-buckets', for instance from GI toilets, then hauled out to the
country in 'honey-carts'. The smell was an awful 4th dimension of
experience that I never got used to.)
However, one doctor did get to know Sister Philomena, who arranged that
her agents in boats would pick up the rich garbage from the hospital ship
and sell it (to be fed to pigs or people) with the money going to the
This doctor got the idea of feeding the new babies on milk mixed with
outdated transfusion-blood from the hospital ship; this mixture had
almost-magic properties for reviving the discarded babies; she said he was
writing a research paper on the subject.
The Korean parish-priest at the 'French church' was jealous of the money
that went to the orphanage from GIs. When he heard of this baby-saving
strategem, he protested to Philomena that St.Paul had forbidden the
drinking of blood. She looked down at him and replied, "Yes, St. Paul said
a lot of dumb things about women, too!"That ended that.
They also tangled when she managed to get a few American officers to adopt
the more beautiful infants; he said that Canon Law forbade her to hand
Catholic infants over to Protestant parents. She said, "Right--but Canon
Law does not insist that I have these children baptized at all. If you
interfere with these adoptions, I'll wait to baptize the children until
they're older; then the young infants can be adopted by anyone." The
priest was reduced to fuming silence.
One of her adoptions made a story that ended up as a movie. She
temporarily housed a small boy rescued from the front line; he was
'adopted' by a whole Navy ship. In the end, a Navy doctor had to leave the
service to adopt the boy--who grew up to be an American doctor.
SENTIMENTAL? The captain in my office sneered at my admiration for this
nun. "Sheer sentiment!" he snapped, "Instead of caring for orphans, she
should be handing out condoms to the whores!" I said that she was about as
sentimental as a supply sergeant.
In fact, when I reported his remark to her, she said,"Sentimental! If I
gave in to sentiment, I'd drown these half-breeds, as indeed some of the
Korean nuns have suggested; only Catholic principles restrain me. No
Korean man will ever marry them; we are nuns raising whores. The French
take in their bastards; the Americans deny the whole problem."
I finally got the captain to visit the orphanage; he had never seen his
own new baby at home; he got one look at the babies in cardboard boxes,
burst into tears, and fled. "Emotional!", commented the nun later, "Those
emotional types never come back."
One day she told me, "When I see these Yanks marching to their ships to go
home, my eyes tear up. But when I think of the babies they've left me, my
eyes go dry."
She had read of the 'Bellevue' case, where orphans who got no cuddling
actually died just of the deprivation. So she and her overworked
assistants tried to find time to cuddle each child a little each day.
The older girls (up to age six or so) seemed normal; when any man showed
up, they ran to touch your hand or tug at your pants-leg. The nuns taught
them how to dance gracefully, so they could perform for visiting Yanks who
might contribute. (It occurred to me that such skills might help also in
their later unsavory careers.)
I never heard where the older girls went, or where boy-babies were sent (I
heard these were sent quickly to another orphanage somewhere.)
SHREWD PROVISION: Sister Philomena worked assiduously every possibility of
outside help. She got some army official to secure for her an army 'APO'
post-office address. That way, she was sure of mail reaching her--"When
mail is addressed to you in the Korean system, that just gives you a
'first-bid' privilege"--and also people in America could send her supplies
with cheap postage.
I gave her my mother's address, and soon Mom received a nice letter citing
certain pages in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue that specified exactly what
supplies she and her friends at home might send. (Some supplies were sent
to me to forward; when a box of heavy linoleum tiles arrived on top of
other soldiers' cookies, there was trouble.) Skimming through the Sears
catalogue, Philomena said, "I don't understand how middle-aged American
women can spend so much time standing around in their corsets."
[Part Two Follows ]