As Lebanon plunges deeper into economic collapse, the future of the country’s Catholic schools is at risk, says Sister Marie-Antoinette Saadeh, general superior of the Congregation of the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family.
“If we look at it from an accounting point of view, the majority of our schools should be closing because of the situation,” she said. “We are fighting with all we have in order to keep these schools open.”
In addition to her congregation’s commitment to Catholic education in Lebanon, Sister Marie-Antoinette serves as vice president of the Committee of Education in the Council of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon. She is also president of the Female General Superiors Union in Lebanon.
“We as a church, as religious orders and as institutions, have tried, and we basically have used up all our resources to survive. Financially, we cannot continue unless we get some help,” she said.
Lebanese parents typically go to great lengths to put their children in Catholic school because they know their children will receive an excellent education. However, the Lebanese currency has plummeted by more than 90 percent in two years, salaries have dwindled to barely a tenth of their previous dollar values and, for many families, money for tuition payments just isn’t there. According to the United Nations, 78 percent of Lebanese now live below the poverty line, up from less than 30 percent before 2019.
“If we need to save anything in Lebanon, it has to be the Catholic institutions — the schools, the hospitals and the social centers — to keep Lebanon as a place of dialogue, a beacon of light in the Middle East,” said Sister Marie-Antoinette.
Lebanon’s Catholic schools have a longstanding tradition of educating all Lebanese, regardless of religion, politics and social backgrounds, and of teaching people how “to live together and how to grow together and respect each other,” she said.
As an alumna of Catholic education in Lebanon, Sister Marie-Antoinette experienced this model first hand. Furthermore, she said, she first discerned her religious vocation as a teenage student at Our Lady of Lebanon School in the Achrafieh section of Beirut.
“The sisters really inspired me,” she said. “I wanted to be just like them.”
But now, years later, she sees how the situation of Catholic schools in Lebanon is dire and how the effects could be disastrous for the country.
“If Lebanon’s educational institutions crash, this will definitely bring down with it the identity of Lebanon,” she explained, and Lebanese “society will collapse.”
Without outside funding, she added, “we are going to have to close down many of our schools, even though we are doing everything we can to avoid this.”
“We have faith God will provide.”