Cécile Pelous: Love and Friendship in India

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“Cécile Pelous: Love and Friendship in India,” Tambuli, Mar. 1992, 8

Cécile Pelous:

Love and Friendship in India

For more than twenty years, Sister Cécile Pelous, a member of the Cergy-Pontoise Branch, Paris France Stake, has worked for the finest fashion houses in Paris—Dior, Cardin, and Ricci. She designs and makes dresses for the wealthiest women in the world.

But since 1986, this graceful, dynamic women has used her glamorous career as a means to do quite a different work. She spends three months every year serving the destitute of India. Working in the impoverished suburbs of Calcutta and in the orphanages of Bengal, she dedicates all of her savings, along with donations from French friends, to the relief of poor children—with the assistance of local people of goodwill.

“I Knew There Was Plenty to Do”

Cécile discovered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1974 when she was visiting the United States on a tour. Her group happened to stop at Temple Square and attend a performance by the Tabernacle Choir. “It was an intense emotional experience,” she says. Later, she told her fellow travelers that listening to the Choir was the part of the tour that she liked best.

Months later, missionaries knocked on her door back in France. Cécile was not interested until one of them said he was from Salt Lake City. Remembering her experience there, Cécile asked the missionary if he represented “the church with the choir.” When he said yes, she let them in and listened to their message. She was baptized a few months later—in 1975.

Eleven years later, in July 1986, Cécile took her first trip to India. “I went to Calcutta during vacation, with the idea of helping my neighbor,” she says. “I took with me my first-aid certificate, my goodwill, and my suitcases packed with medicines.” She had read about and had heard lectures describing conditions in India. “I knew there was plenty to do,” she says.

The work she found to do was mostly among the elderly, babies, and handicapped children of Calcutta. “I found opportunities to get busy and stretch myself. Dirty clothes and sheets had to be boiled and washed, meals prepared, patients fed in night shelters and almshouses, and medical care given,” she says. “The dying had to be washed, and warmth and affection had to be given them to help them leave this world. There were babies to change and feed who were so weak that you would wish you could force your own health into their bodies.” She worked first with Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Mercy and then with other groups.

“I am not a heroine,” Cécile says. “My experience in India is one of love and friendship.”

“The Lord Has Sent You!”

During that first trip to India, Cécile also discovered a home for one hundred elderly people, most of them bedridden. “There were only two Catholic missionaries to cater to the needs of all, and one of them had been sick for three days. When another volunteer and I arrived, we immediately rolled up our sleeves and went to work,” she says. “Sister Thérésina, one of the missionaries, kissed me and said, ‘The Lord has sent you!’ and I believed her.”

Later, in Pilkana, a suburb of Calcutta, Cécile found scorching temperatures, flood conditions throughout the monsoon season, and a level of poverty that dumbfounded her. “But I also found so much hope, because the children still know how to laugh and have fun like children all over the world.”

There Cécile also met a European couple who had been working for twenty years to help the most destitute Indians become self-reliant. “They had started a wholly Indian welfare project, and I was lucky to be allowed into that undertaking,” she says. “I found a training center where girls fourteen to seventeen are taught to make batik prints, so that one day they may be able to provide for their families.”

With her experience in fashion design, Cécile also trained the girls to make patterns and cut and sew their own clothing. The girls now make clothes for the children in the orphanage.

Cécile also helped with the opening of a soup line for the poor—and free medical examinations. “There,” she says, “those who have little give to those who have nothing.”

The Children of Banipur

Then Cécile discovered the ashrams—religious retreats serving as orphanages. In each ashram there are about one hundred children, ages five through twelve. Many of these children were orphaned by disease, malnutrition, and tiger attacks. When they first arrive at the ashrams, the children are starving. Many have skin diseases and suffer from fevers, intestinal troubles, and rickets (caused by severe vitamin deficiencies). It takes most of the children three months to get used to the idea that they will still have rice to eat the next day. Currently, there are eight ashrams in Bengal, among them the Dayal Ashram (“happy house”) in Banipur, in the middle of the jungle.

“This ashram is very dear to me,” says Cécile, “because that is where I discovered the heart of Indians. I felt at home. I taught the children to play, sing, and laugh. They taught me to sleep on the floor, to eat using my hand as a spoon, to take off my shoes in houses and sacred places, and to appreciate the essential part of life—love.”

Very quickly, ties developed between Cécile and the children, who call her “Cécile Didi”—big sister Cécile. When she became ill with paratyphoid during her first stay, her little Indian friends nursed her and watched over her as if they were the big brothers and sisters. They massaged her legs and arms to relieve cramps caused by the disease.

A few months before Cécile’s first visit to Banipur in 1986, a local welfare organization had managed to build a poultry yard with 120 hens, which provided each of the eight hundred ashram children with one egg per week. The eggs were a valuable source of protein in a food diet made up exclusively of rice and roots dug up in the jungle. Unfortunately, by the time Cécile arrived, the hens were dying.

“A Drop of Water”

“When I returned to France,” Cécile says, “I decided that if I went back to Banipur, I would build a poultry yard, because it was vital for the children. The conditions there had moved me so deeply that I knew I had to find a way to get back again to help in some real way.”

It took five months for Cécile to recover from paratyphoid. But “as soon as I felt better, I resumed my work and started saving money. But it did not take me long to realize that my personal means would not be sufficient. I prayed and asked Heavenly Father to help me,” she says. “And I felt that I should tell my family, friends, and fellow Church members about my project. At a party at my place, many of them—without previously consulting each other—gave me envelopes containing money for food, for the hens, and for the general welfare of the children. I was deeply moved by their confidence and their love.”

Next, she told her stake president, Daniel Pichot, about her project. “He advised me to write a letter to the members of the stake and tell them about my project in Banipur. Three days later, I received with emotion a check from the stake. It was the proceeds of the stake’s ‘drop of water’ campaign—voluntary contributions that had been collected during a stake fast to help relieve misery in the world. Stake leaders had now decided that the money would be used for the poultry yard.”

The following September, Cécile was back in Banipur. There, she bought 120 laying hens, 120 chickens that would start laying eggs five months later, enough building materials for a poultry yard, enough grain to feed the hens for a year, and thirty laying ducks—whose droppings would feed the fish in a nearby pond. With the rest of the money, she bought enough powdered milk to last the children in the ashram six months.

Cécile had asked French poultry experts for advice on how to manage the poultry yard. Thanks to their help, the Banipur hens now lay hard-shelled eggs, which is unprecedented in the area.

Through this emergency hunger-relief action, Cécile taught principles of self-reliance: “Now the children are responsible for the good care of the poultry yard. They collect and count the eggs; they all have tasks, even the youngest. And they are learning to be responsible for one another—because in an ashram there are only two adults in charge and three handicapped cooks for one hundred children.”

The Start of Self-reliance

Following her first visit, Cécile has returned to Banipur twice each year. Using her own savings, along with funds she collects from friends, mainly in Paris and Strasbourg, she continues to organize welfare projects. Sometimes she works alone. Other times she coordinates her efforts with local organizations, such as Seva Sang Samiti, or with volunteers—such as Sorit Kumar Da, a local Brahman who renounced a wealthy life to help the pariahs, and Gaston Grandjean, a Catholic priest who chose to live among the poorest. All of these offers of goodwill are put to good use.

And each time Cécile returns to Banipur, she sees progress. Uncultivated land has been turned into a vegetable garden for the ashram. At first, the children, having no tools whatsoever, tended it with sticks. They now have a few spades and pick-axes. A few fish were stocked into a neighboring pond; although it is still too early to call this a fish farm, the catches now amount to 240 kilograms per year. Each child can now eat vegetables regularly and fish once in a while.

The villagers drilled a well, and the youth of a Paris ward raised money to buy a pump for it. Now the village—which numbers more than 1500 inhabitants and which has a medical dispensary that accepts patients from the outlying regions—has a second tap of drinking water. The waiting lines are shorter. Some infectious diseases are being avoided.

Since a road was opened in September 1986, the dispensary in Bélari, which was built by Sorit Kumar Da and the villagers, treats three thousand patients each month. A day-nursery for twenty-five undernourished babies has been established. Each mother receives a check-up from a nurse and 250 grams of powdered milk per week for her child. Young lives are being saved.

In Bélari, a school was built by the villagers. Men, women, and children all carried bricks during the construction of the building.

The works, the buildings, the teachers, and the cooks—all are paid with the funds collected by Sister Pelous. As a result, while contributing to the welfare of their fellow beings, a few villagers have found an income.

In November 1988, thirty-five of the poorest families were chosen to learn to manage family poultry yards. Each of the families received two hens and a rooster. After one year, the families that were patient enough not to eat their poultry right away had over thirty hens that could be sold to buy rice, medicine, books, and clothes. This is the start of self-reliance.

Helping Homeless Children in Nepal

In 1989, a friend, Father François Laborde, asked Sister Pelous to help set up a home, school, medical dispensary, and farm for forty-seven homeless children—twenty-one of whom were also blind—in Nepalganj, Nepal. From Bengal, Cécile went to Nepal and assessed the needs. Back in Paris, she undertook to raise the necessary funds, but without success. Then an event—that Cécile credits to Heavenly Father’s goodness—saved the project.

A real-estate agency made her a very generous offer for her home, which was ideally located in a suburb near downtown Paris. Cécile immediately accepted their offer. She would buy a less expensive house—though not so rich in memories—and with the money she saved, she could fund the projects in Nepal. The homes and school were built in 1990, and Cécile is now looking for funds for the dispensary and farm projects.

She has many earnest wishes—that all children may eat their fill and go to school, that a better water supply and sewage system may stop the spread of disease. She dreams and hopes. If so little money and so few hands can make such a difference, what could be done with greater resources?

Nourishing the Spirit

Sister Pelous’s work is not just for people’s temporal welfare. “Once people have sufficient food and clothing, they can begin to respond to the gospel,” she explains. She is learning the Bengali language and has given several copies of Selections from the Book of Mormon in Bengali to people who have asked her about the Church.

Her most powerful teaching, however, is by her example. Explains Christian Euvrard, a member of the Paris stake and a former Regional Representative, “She follows the principles of the Church welfare program. And she is achieving a lot by conforming to Indian law and by working through local Indian organizations. That way, the Church is enjoying a good reputation—and it is constantly growing.”

Cécile recalls with emotion the day Bengali non-Mormon friends pleaded her case with local authorities, saying: “She would never do anything dishonest. She is a Mormon.”

“The Lord often opens doors for me,” Cécile testifies. “Once Calcutta customs officers allowed me to bring twice as much medicine into the country as other volunteers had ever been allowed to bring. And I have been given the last seat on a ‘totally full’ airplane flight at the last minute. Many times I have received needed authorizations from officers who generally seem less than eager to help. When it is the Lord’s will, I just need to do my share before he will do his.”

Each time before leaving Paris and returning to Bengal, she asks for and receives a priesthood blessing that guides her throughout her stay.

Hope Is Dawning

Of course, Cécile realizes that the needs are huge. It would take hundreds of schools, water pumps, nurseries, poultry yards, dispensaries, latrines, and teachers of hygiene and sanitation to relieve the current sufferings and to make possible a more humane future. But, as she likes to repeat, “What has been accomplished is little—but already much.” The future is brightening. Hope is dawning. Her friends in Banipur and Bélari sense that things can change, that cycles of hunger and disease can be reversed. They are taking courage and helping themselves.

Members of the Paris stake, where Cécile has served as stake Young Women president and as ward Primary and Relief Society president, have become more and more involved in the project. In 1988 and 1990, members of the stake ordered batik Christmas greeting cards—miniature pieces of art—from the young girls at the training center in Pilkana, thus giving them paid work. Some of Cécile’s friends are also buying scarves, kerchiefs, and hangings with the splendid batik patterns created in Pilkana.

Children in the Paris stake Primary give away their own toys and games to the Bengali children. And Paris youth exchange letters with children in the ashram.

Says President Daniel Pichot of the Paris stake, “We see this as a good opportunity to teach our members, especially the youth. Thanks to Sister Pelous’s efforts, our children and young people have the opportunity of being more aware of their blessings and of seeing that much can be accomplished with little.”

Each time Cécile returns from her trips, she reports to her friends from the Paris stake and from Strasbourg on her projects and on the use of the funds. As they listen to her, they realize that, thanks in part to them, life has improved in a tiny, faraway corner of the world. Her stories and pictures of the children (such as Milli, Rano, Tulu, Sima, Boula, Aouti, and so many others) and of the adults in charge (such as Sukeshi, Shonda, Lucy, and Minoti) turn abstract humanitarian projects into specific instances of compassion and brotherhood.

“Please Save My Granddaughter!”

When asked what motivates her work, Cécile says she will never forget the face of a woman who brought a dehydrated, anemic child to a dispensary, pleading, “Please save my granddaughter!”

And she often remembers seeing groups of young Hindu children in Banipur reverently praying alone, without any adult supervision. She is deeply moved by the spiritual wealth she sees in those destitute children.

“Each of us has a mission on this earth and responsibilities toward our neighbors, close by or further away. We cannot remain indifferent,” Cécile says. “We are blessed because we know the truth, and we have that wonderful personal relationship with our Heavenly Father. For me, it is my greatest capital. The surest way to make it bring returns is to put it to the service of others. It is a never-ending chain of love.

“Let us not wait for the Church to give us specific instructions on ways to do good,” she says. “If we forget ourselves by helping others, we will be blessed beyond all we can imagine.”

Photography by Léo Jallais, Gaston Grandjean, and Cécile Pelous

Once starving and disease-prone, children in the Dayal Ashram orphanage (left) now enjoy better health and improved living conditions through the efforts of Sister Pelous. In addition to providing supplies, she has also taught principles of self-reliance. Now, as they line up at mealtime (right), their diet includes vegetables, fish, and eggs. Sister Pelous pauses for a moment (far right) with one of her ashram friends, Milli.

Meal preparation at Banipur (left) includes vegetables grown by the children. In addition to receiving curry and rice for dinner, the children (right) now receive an egg each Sunday. The eggs come from chickens Sister Cécile Pelous bought with funds donated by Church members in her home stake in Paris. She also bought ducks, grain, and building material for a poultry yard.

Lives are being saved at a Bélari day-nursery (left), where each mother receives a weekly medical check-up and 250 grams of powdered milk for her baby. An order of 2,000 batik Christmas cards (right) provided an income for the young girls of the training center at Pilkana. Sister Pelous says she will never forget the face of a woman (far right) who brought a dehydrated, anemic child to a dispensary, pleading, “Please save my granddaughter!”