Three Sisters of Mercy from the diocese knew their visit to the Philippines would be anything but routine after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered the central islands of the area with 160 mile per hour winds and walls of seawater last November.
Incomprehensible estimates of destruction from the storm rose daily. Millions of homes were washed away. Twenty thousand men, women and children were injured. More than 6,000 died. Roads and communication systems were inoperable. Hospitals, schools, and grocery stores were gone. Rice fields were drowned in salt water. Banana and mango groves were flattened.
The Diocese of Buffalo has an especially strong connection to that part of the world as Sisters of Mercy of the New York, Pennsylvania, and Pacific West Community, all native Filipinos, serve in ministries across the Philippines. They were there among the devastation and the survivors.
In Buffalo, Sister Sheila Stevenson and Sister Natalie Rossi, along with Sister Margaret O'Donnell, who had served in the Philippines for more than 30 years, planned to visit the convents, schools, and health ministries that were connected to the Sisters of Mercy across the Philippines. Once the religious women arrived in Manila, they were always on the move.
"Everyplace we went, everything was revolving around how to help and what to do," said Sister Sheila. "Our sisters were finding that relief efforts were going to places that were well-known because they were in the news. But there were so many other places, like in northern Cebu, where people hadn't been attended to, or only minimally."
Sisters of Mercy, along with other religious communities, brought their service and experience to address the needs of the area. The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines has mapped out a long-term plan for a continued presence.
"People have been very generous," Sister Sheila said. "Everything from school kids collecting pennies, to a person who sent two crumpled dollar bills. Every penny that has come to us has gone to the Philippines, and continues to go there. That's been an amazing outcome of a terrible tragedy, just the way people have helped."
Sister Sheila said the collaboration in recovery efforts has united the Sisters of Mercy more closely across the world. Sisters of Mercy from Ireland had their convent leveled and school and hospital severely damaged. Seeing such devastation, and hearing the stories, made a strong impact.
"One of our sisters had come back from finding that her immediate family was safe, but some of her extended family, aunts and uncles, had not been found yet," Sister Sheila said. "Just the raw emotion from her. What it was like, just walking around, trying to find your mother, trying to find your sister."
Sister Sheila said it was a powerful experience to see pictures of sticks where a neighborhood used to be. During their visit, Sister Sheila joined Sister Natalie and Sister Margaret to provide sardines and 100-lb sacks of rice to families in rural villages.
A refugee camp they visited impressed Sister Sheila with the scope of worldwide generosity and cooperation.
"The trucks we saw coming in were big military trucks, and were full of clothing," she said. "Some of it wasn't even in boxes, coming from all over the world. Volunteers would sort it and line it up according to men, women, and children, sizes. People had nothing at all. Hardly the clothes on their backs."
The Sisters of Mercy worked in tents on the perimeter of the camp which were organized to provide for different needs. They helped train others to deal with the impacts of the destruction.
Sister Sheila said that compassion hospitality and mercy are charisms of the Sisters of Mercy.
"It's amazing because other than the schools and hospitals where some of our sisters work, the rest of them are in ministries where they're able to drop everything and go where the need is," Sister Sheila said. "That's part of the charism."