Skip to main content

A Compassionate Heart

Stained glass window of two angels
A Privileged Friendship

By Fr. Barry Cairns

Sister Hilary’s message, given to me many years ago, still influences me. That influence comes alive when I read, or relate, the scene in the Gospels where Jesus meets the leper. As the evangelist Mark puts it: “Jesus felt deep compassion on seeing the leper.” (Mark 1:40)

Sr. Hilary Ross
Sr. Hilary Ross

Sister Hilary Ross, a Daughter of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, was stationed for 37 years at the Hospital for Hansen’s Disease (leprosy), at Carville, Louisiana. Sister Hilary told me that a far deeper wound than the outer devastation of Hansen’s disease, was the much deeper inner heart wound of loneliness, rejection and discrimination. This too was what Jesus saw and felt and so moved Him to deep compassion. In homilies and to the class preparing for Baptism I tell them this, using Sister Hilary’s experience: The miracle of healing was special to that era for the founding of the Kingdom. However, the compassion behind the miracle we can taste today. The Gospels have an eternal present tense and the deep compassion of Jesus for each of us is alive today. Jesus is “the same yesterday (i.e. 2000 years ago), today (for us) and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8).

In the Greek texts in which the Gospels were written, the word used for deep compassion is a very special and rare verb meaning being moved to the very inner depths of one’s being. It is used only fifteen times in the Gospels, twelve of those times applied to how Jesus felt. It was used once for the Father towards his returning prodigal son (Luke 15:20), once for the Good Samaritan seeing the wounded man lying on the roadside (Luke 10:33), and once for the master forgiving his indebted servant. (Matt. 18:33)

Sister Hilary Ross joined the Daughters of Charity at Emmitsburg, Maryland. After pronouncing her vows, she was appointed to Carville in 1926 as a chemist. Later Sister set up a laboratory and became the hospital’s first bio-chemist. Sister’s special field was immunology and the effect of the then recent drug to combat Hansen’s disease, sulphide. Sister’s many papers were published worldwide.

In 1958 she received the prestigious recognition of the Damien-Dutton Award for studies in Hansen’s Disease.

After 37 years at Carville, at the age of 66, Sister Hilary came to Wakayama, Japan. In Wakayama City Sister, was on the staff of a hospital for crippled children staffed by the Daughters of Charity. I too was stationed in Wakayama at the time and met Sister. Sister Hilary had an inventive mind and was delightfully outspoken. Sister died in Wakayama in 1982. It was my privilege to know her. Thank you, Sister Hilary. You too had a compassionate heart.

Columban Fr. Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan.