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'She has been a mother to us all'

Notre Dame d'Haiti community bids farewell to Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh

Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh is presented with her retirement cake by Father Reginald Jean-Mary, Notre Dame d'Haiti's pastor, far right; Maggie Sanon, church secretary, second from left, and Sister Sylvana Calixte as Father Lesly Jean looks on. Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated a farewell Mass at Notre Dame d'Haiti Church for retiring Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh, Sept. 15, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh is presented with her retirement cake by Father Reginald Jean-Mary, Notre Dame d'Haiti's pastor, far right; Maggie Sanon, church secretary, second from left, and Sister Sylvana Calixte as Father Lesly Jean looks on. Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated a farewell Mass at Notre Dame d'Haiti Church for retiring Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh, Sept. 15, 2020.

MIAMI | Sister Yamile Saieh’s religious education students feared her, but also loved her.

“I remember asking kids before their confirmation at Notre Dame d’Haiti Church if they knew the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as wisdom, knowledge, fortitude, fear of the Lord,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski. “I asked a young girl to explain fear of the Lord to me. She answered, 'It’s like Sister Yamile. We love her, but we’re afraid of her.'”

The archbishop was speaking Sept. 15, 2020, during a retirement Mass for Sister Yamile at Notre Dame d’Haiti. Besides those present at the Mass, many other people were watching online.

When he was the pastor there in the 1980s, then Father Wenski hired Sister Yamile to direct the religious education program, which at times had almost 1,000 kids enrolled. She also taught English to Haitian adults and led a summer camp for local children.

Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh claps along to the lively music of "Alleluia, Amen!" which the church choir sang before the Gospel reading at her farewell Mass at Notre Dame d'Haiti Church in Miami, Sept. 15, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh claps along to the lively music of "Alleluia, Amen!" which the church choir sang before the Gospel reading at her farewell Mass at Notre Dame d'Haiti Church in Miami, Sept. 15, 2020.

Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh poses for a photo with Jessica Cola, 28, one of Sister Yamile's students when she taught religious education to teenagers at Notre Dame d'Haiti in Miami. Cola is now the lead singer with the Notre Dame d'Haiti youth choir and sang "Draw Me Close To You" during the farewell Mass for Sister Yamile, celebrated Sept. 15, 2020, at Notre Dame.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh poses for a photo with Jessica Cola, 28, one of Sister Yamile's students when she taught religious education to teenagers at Notre Dame d'Haiti in Miami. Cola is now the lead singer with the Notre Dame d'Haiti youth choir and sang "Draw Me Close To You" during the farewell Mass for Sister Yamile, celebrated Sept. 15, 2020, at Notre Dame.

Salesian Sister Suzanne Dauwalter, right, pins the Primum Regnum Dei medal - the highest honor bestowed by the archdiocese - on fellow Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh as Archbishop Thomas Wenski looks on at the conclusion of her farewell Mass, celebrated at Notre Dame d'Haiti Church in Miami, Sept. 15, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Salesian Sister Suzanne Dauwalter, right, pins the Primum Regnum Dei medal - the highest honor bestowed by the archdiocese - on fellow Salesian Sister Yamile Saieh as Archbishop Thomas Wenski looks on at the conclusion of her farewell Mass, celebrated at Notre Dame d'Haiti Church in Miami, Sept. 15, 2020.

Both the archbishop and Sister Yamile spent time in Haiti learning to speak Creole and learning about the Haitian culture and both are advocates for Haitians.

“Tonight, we bid farewell to Sister Yamile,” said the archbishop. “She has been a mother to us all. We hope that as you retire to the Salesian motherhouse in New Jersey you will pray for us.”

Archbishop Wenski said Sister Yamile knew how to keep the kids at Notre Dame d'Haiti under control.

“One look from Sister Yamile and the kids shaped up,” he said. “Sometimes, when a child misbehaved in class, she would show up at their home and speak to their parents. She did that. None of the kids wanted her to show up at their homes and say, 'I want to talk to you about your child.' Those kids never got in trouble again.”

In the summer, Sister Yamile led a summer camp for community children. She recruited college students and seminarians to help at the camp. And she found a way to give the children access to the nearby Morningside pool and local attractions, including the Seaquarium, Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop and other places.

“I recall hearing that one summer when she needed money to pay her summer camp aides, she went to Mr. Cayard, a local grocery store owner,” the archbishop said. “Mr. Cayard opened his cash register and gave her $50. She told him that’s not enough, I need $100, and he gave her $100.”

Father Reginald Jean-Mary, Notre Dame d’Haiti's current pastor, agreed that Sister Yamile made things happen.

“She would go to government agencies, or wherever she needed to go to get help for the summer campers,” he said. “When she had to rent a bus, she even bargained for a lower price with the bus drivers that took the kids on field trips.”

Father Jean-Mary recalled when he arrived at Notre Dame D’Haiti. “You welcomed me when I arrived here to serve as an assistant pastor,” he told Sister Yamile, who was seated in a front pew in the church.

He noted that it was significant that Sister Yamile chose to have her retirement Mass at Notre Dame d’Haiti. She left the parish in 2008 to teach adults seeking to join the Church (RCIA) and help with the gift shop at St. Martha Church in Miami Shores.

"We thank God for the opportunity to see Sister Yamile tonight and other Salesian sisters as well as sisters from other orders. You were a wonderful presence at Notre Dame," Father Jean-Mary said. "You taught Haitians how to survive in the United States."

He described her as more than a religious person, "a presence of hope. You are a wonderful testimony of faith and compassion," Father Jean-Mary told Sister Yamile.

For her part, Sister Yamile said that in 14 years at Notre Dame d’Haiti she never had a sad day.

“Every day was a happy one,” she said. “I love them, the Haitians so much. They are beautiful people.”

Born in Cucuta, Colombia, Sister Yamile was one of 11 children. In 1910, her father emigrated from his native Bethlehem, in the Holy Land, to Paris, France, and from there by boat to America. He landed in Cap Haitien, which he described as the most beautiful place. Forced to leave there in 1917 when the United States invaded Haiti and expelled all foreigners, his next stop was Barranquilla, Colombia, where he met his future wife, also from Bethlehem.

At a young age, Sister Yamile felt called to teach. After high school, she met the Salesian nuns. “They were more human, closer to us and always happy,” she told the Florida Catholic in an interview in 2002. “But I didn’t feel the vocation yet.”

A few years later she set off for the Salesian motherhouse in Turin, Italy, and that’s where she felt the call of God. Eventually, her ministry took her to New Jersey, then Virginia. Her parents were already living in Miami when she came in 1984 to take care of them. After they died, she spent a year working at Corpus Christi Church in Miami, where Archbishop Wenski had also worked, before being hired at Notre Dame d’Haiti.

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