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Sister Joan Margaret, a savior to Haiti's disabled

In 1954 when Hurricane Hazel hit Haiti with a fury, an infant named Gertie Gay was floating on a table down a flooded street. Sister Joan Margaret spied the baby and jumped out of her jeep, hiked up her nun's habit and waded through the turbulent waters to pluck her from the table. When the Anglican nun learned the girl's parents had been lost in the storm, Sister Joan became her surrogate mother.

Gay will recount this story today at the Society of St. Margaret in Roxbury.

About the same time in Haiti today, a man known as ''JoJo" will tell his story, how he was a boy without arms or legs when Sister Joan arranged for him to come to the states and be fitted with artificial limbs. Today he is an artist and sells his paintings to tourists.

Both will be speaking at funeral services for Sister Joan, who died Dec. 16 at Sherrill House in Brookline of pulmonary hypertension. She was 99.

''Sister Joan's dream was that handicapped people can lead a normal life and she made it happen for them," said Sister Marjorie Raphael, a retired member of the order, from Haiti yesterday. ''In Haiti, she is a tremendous figure and a great hero, and her life will be celebrated here as such."

For 49 years, Sister Joan, who grew up Elizabeth Simpson Burke in Newburyport, was a savior of Haiti's disabled children. Sixty years ago, she founded St. Vincent's School for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince, then the country's only hope for the handicapped.

''Sister Joan arrived in Haiti in 1944 and soon realized there was no help for handicapped people of any sort in Haiti," Sister Marjorie said. ''She started out caring for and teaching three children in a creche under a tree, one deaf, the other blind, and the third handicapped."

From there, Sister Joan, who was trained as a physical therapist, moved her clinic behind Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Eventually, the Anglican bishop gave her quarters nearby, the current site of the school.

Sister Joan also spent a lot of time fund-raising for the school, which gave free care and education to needy disabled children.

Now, according to Sister Marjorie, 360 deaf, blind, and handicapped pupils are enrolled in St. Vincent's program, 200 of them boarders. Grades are formed according to the achievement of the pupils, and degrees can be earned through college level.

And Sister Joan counseled all: ''Be all you can be, and don't feel sorry for yourself."

''Indomitable" is the word most used to describe Sister Joan.

''She was short and square and walked very quickly," Sister Marjorie said. ''At the convent, she would get up at 4 in the morning for her private prayer time until 6. Then, she would be off to the school and work there and at the clinics until night. She would drive to clinics all over the country to find people she felt could be helped at St. Vincent's."

Haitian-born Sister Claire Marie, now of the order's Boston house, recalled yesterday how her father had taken her as a legally blind 5-year-old on the six-hour bus trip from Gonaive to Port-au-Prince to determine whether Sister Joan could help. Instead of returning home, she stayed.

''Sister Joan loved us and cared for us and did everything she could to make a child get well," she said. ''When I was 9, she brought myself and another girl to Boston to be operated on by a surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. She would not let us be put aside as handicapped."

Sister Claire came to Boston to become a nun and returned to work at St. Vincent's. ''Sister Joan didn't tell us what to do," she said. ''She taught by example."

Sister Joan's work won her international recognition, said Sister Adele Marie.

''She traveled the world to conferences on the handicapped," she said. ''She formed an English handbell-ringing choir at St. Vincent's and traveled with them for performances in other countries."

Fluent in both French and Creole, Sister Joan had many successes at St. Vincent's, Sister Marjorie said. One is the world-known Haitian concert violinist Romel Joseph, who was born blind.

''His musical ability was discovered while he was at St. Vincent's during the music lessons Sister Joan provided," she said. ''He has a wonderful ear and she drew it out."

Whenever political unrest turned violent in Haiti, as it occasionally has, Sister Joan would leave the convent and sleep with the children at the school.

''She had enormous energy and could refresh herself with catnaps," Sister Marjorie said.

Sister Joan was born in Merrimac, Mass. When her mother died shortly after birth, she was adopted by Robert and Mabel (Simpson) Burke of Newburyport, according to Sister Adele. She took her vows in the order in 1937. Before being assigned to its Haitian missions, Sister Joan worked in Bracebridge, Ontario, a frontier mission at the time, and did parish work in Utica, N.Y.

For her dedication to Haiti's handicapped, Sister Joan has won 15 prestigious international awards. She left Haiti in 2003. ''Sister Joan was irreplaceable," said Sister Adele.

A funeral Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. today at St. Margaret's Convent in Roxbury. Sister Joan's ashes will be interred in the columbarium at the convent.

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