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Part 1
A father finds his way

Part 2
'He saves lives'

Part 3
'Heaven sent' in Badlands

Part 4
The healing touch

Part 5
AIDS is nun's calling

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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region / Everyday Heroes
A five-part series

Sister Jeanette   A MATTER OF FAITH: Sister Jeannette Normandin gives love and support to women with AIDS. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

AIDS is nun's calling

By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff, 6/22/2000

Last of five parts

CAMBRIDGE - Sister Jeannette Normandin loves the pope. She just doesn't always agree with him.

In 1994, Sister Jeannette founded Ruah, an assisted living center for women with AIDS, because there was no such facility in Massachusetts.

''There are certain things that I don't agree with and I'll die not agreeing,'' she says, adding that Ruah means ''breath of life'' in Hebrew. ''I believe in safe sex. I have to believe in that because it saves lives. I'm trying to make needle exchange legal statewide because it's saving lives. And I don't agree that women should not be ordained as priests. There's nothing in the Scriptures that says that.''

She raised money by pleading with state and local agencies, foundations, and individuals. Then she bought a two-story house in the Porter Square area of Cambridge and staffed it with 13 counselors, program managers, and visiting nurses.

In the living room is a framed photo of Joannie, a former drug addict with AIDS whom Sister Jeannette rescued and found housing for. ''The nearest place we could find with the proper medical care was 100 miles away in Westfield,'' said Sister Jeannette. ''Joannie was supposed to live six months, but she lasted 11 years and was a great inspiration to all of us. This house is dedicated to her.''

So far, 40 women have found love, not judgment, at Ruah. Fifteen have died, but only one since last year, thanks to medical advances. ''In the beginning, it was one after another,'' said Sister Jeannette. ''Now there is hope.''

Sharon, one of 14 current residents, agrees. ''Sister Jeannette, she's my she-ro. She is the definition of a feminine hero.''

The secret, Sister Jeannette says, is hugs.

''Hugs are of the utmost importance. Sometimes you can be really angry with someone, but if you can give them a hug, it's a way of healing.''

T-cell counts may be low at Ruah, but Sister Jeannette's spirits are always high. She has recruited these women from the darkest corners of depression, and rescued them from prostitution and the screams of those sentenced to the mental wards of the state.

''You gain strength from one another,'' said Sister Jeannette. ''It's very rare that everyone in the house feels well, and I noticed that the people that are feeling stronger share their strength with the other women.''

Sister Jeannette started working with women at MCI-Framingham in the late 1970s - first as a volunteer, then as the first woman director of pastoral care. At Framingham, there were psychological barriers to overcome, especially the first day.

''The very first woman I approached in maximum security at Framingham said, `Who are you?' And I said, `That's a hard question. My name is Jeannette. I'm a Sister. I hope to volunteer, and I hope I'll be here long enough that you'll have an answer to the question who I am.'

''Her name was Deena. She trusted me with her story, and then she shouted down the tier, `Talk to her. She's good people.' She went into treatment. When she got out, she was working for our Sisters, doing maintenance work. They loved her so much, then she got diagnosed with the virus. She worked very hard with AIDS Project Worcester as a counselor.''

Deena died two years ago with Sister Jeannette at her side. ''Her funeral was unbelievable. I have never in my whole life seen people - all ages, all races - saying, `If it wasn't for Deena, I wouldn't be clean and sober.' People were putting cigarette lighters and medallions in her coffin. I said, `We have to stop it, there's not going to be any room in there for her.'''

Sister Jeannette says she never judges the women she deals with.

''So often, people look at women who have been in prison and they say, `What a waste of life.' And yet, who else would get a sendoff like that? The beautiful way Deena learned how to live and how to die. When we shut off people, we are being cheated ourselves. Everyone has something to teach us if we open our hearts and let them in.''

In 1986, Sister Jeannette worked with Social Justice for Women, a Boston advocacy group, to design and implement alternatives to incarceration. She went to court and did better persuading judges than most lawyers.

''I have the utmost respect for judges. Instead of going to prison, I was able to get the women into programs,'' she said.

Some of these women have become success stories. ''Long before it was fashionable, before there were any programs for women, Sister Jeannette was there,'' said Marcia Gordon, who was incarcerated at MCI-Framingham in 1986.

''She realized that women were often victims of domestic abuse and sometimes turned to drugs,'' Gordon said. ''She realized there were alternatives for women other than prison, and she convinced the judges of that. She is a real leader; I owe her my life.''

Gordon now counsels women with domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health problems at Elizabeth Stone House, a Boston battered women's shelter.

During a tour of the Ruah house, which was built in 1859 and restored in 1993, women say that Sister Jeannette has restored their dignity. This is a home, not a hospital, they insist. Sister Jeannette is proud of that. ''We focus on living here, but we are not afraid to talk about dying,'' she says. ''Sometimes dying can be beautiful.

''Let me tell you about Audrey, who died in 1997,'' she continued, flashing a smile. ''I had known her 18 years. We had her here for her last four months. She was not using; she liked to laugh and tell wonderful stories. She liked the other women to think she was strong.

`But as Christmas approached that year, she got weaker and weaker. She would always pull herself up from her hospital bed to prove she was strong. We would read from the Bible. The day after Christmas, she took a turn for the worse. She tried to pull herself up, but couldn't. Then she started laughing. I said, `Why are you doing that?' She said, `I'm too happy.' I said, `You're going to a place that's a lot happier. I'll sit here and not go anywhere.'''

Audrey asked Sister Jeannette to sing her two favorite hymns: ''Precious Lord Take My Hand'' and ''Amazing Grace.''

''She was quiet and it was wonderful to see, and I thought she was sleeping. All of a sudden, she opened her eyes and she looked up into the corner of the room, and in a great big loud voice which she didn't have she said, `Oh-h-h-h God is awesome!' And those were her last words. Some people might think her life was a waste, but who among us will ever die and meet God the way she did?''

Despite being a nun - a member of the Sisters of St. Anne - Sister Jeannette encourages the women to worship in their own way. And even though she doesn't always agree with the pope, she was summoned to a private audience in Rome in 1990. Afterward, there was a blessing and a receiving line.

''He shook my hand, and after he started to move away he came back, and I felt as if the Holy Spirit was coming through this human being,'' Sister Jeannette recalls. ''And he said, `I want to thank you for working with the women in prison and I send them my blessings.'''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 6/22/2000.
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