When the American manufacturing landscape began shifting in the 1970s, Dick Bebon’s employer, Capital Mercury Apparel Ltd., established relationships with garment factories in Bangladesh. As an executive, Dick made regular visits to the factories. On one trip to the Dhaka office, he learned a co-worker’s sister was a member of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and lived locally. Dick wasn’t familiar with the Congregation but having attended Catholic schools all his life, he knew he wanted to meet Sister Philomena Quiah, CSC. Once he did, he made it his business to stop in and visit her every time he came to Bangladesh.
Dick remembers, “The sisters were right in the middle of town, a place called Farmgate. They had a grammar school and a high school. It was all fenced in. You had to beep the horn, then someone would open the gate to let you in. Then you hit a bell for the person you were visiting. Everyone had a special ring. If I remember correctly, Sister Philo’s ring was two long and one short. And here she’d come, bounding out across the campus, smiling. It brings tears to my eyes. She was just such a happy, happy person. We got to love her.”
Partnering in literacy
Sister Philomena was known for her infectious laughter and welcoming smile. She greeted friends and strangers with compassion so it was probably inevitable that Dick and Sister Philomena partnered to create a literacy program for the women at the factories. Attending classes in the early morning before their workday started, the women learned to read and write and use numbers.
“It gave me a good feeling thinking I could finally do something,” Dick says. “The people (in Bangladesh) were just wonderful, very poor, no education. It would break your heart every time you rode around town, but we did what we could do.”
What they did was significant. Before the program, the women could not count their wages or sign their names. Throughout the course of each year and for nearly 20 years, teachers and students from Holy Cross Girls High School in Dhaka conducted the classes. And while the students taught the women, the learning went both ways. The students came to understand the vital role of education in people’s lives and their own social responsibilities to others. They also gained greater insight into the lives of people who were not as financially or educationally privileged as they.
“And here she’d come, bounding out across the campus, smiling. It brings tears to my eyes. She was just such a happy, happy person.”
— Dick Bebon
Two decades of literacy
After almost two decades, the factory owners chose to halt the literacy program but Dick continued to make regular donations to the Congregation. He modestly credits his Catholic upbringing for compelling him to donate — “It’s just the right thing to do” — but he also knows that his money is continuing to do good.
“When you’re writing a check (to a charity), you’re not always sure where it’s going,” he says. “But with Sister Philo and the kids in Dhaka, you could zero in on what you were doing and why you were doing it and who you were doing it for. I think that’s important. You have a feeling of accomplishment when it’s all said and done.”
Dick’s commitment to doing the right thing was reflected in the way his company conducted business in Bangladesh and other poor countries. It mirrored the Congregation’s philosophy to care for the poor and vulnerable, and to establish right relationships with all creation. While most people don’t think much about who made their clothes or the working conditions under which they were made—Dick Bebon thought of this every day of his career.
“Our people would do surprise visits at every plant,” Dick explained. “They would have private conversations with the workers and look at the books, even go there at night to make sure no one was working after hours. If there was, we would go back the next day and confront the factory owners or managers.”
When Sister Philo died unexpectedly in 2012 at the young age of 54, Dick was moved to provide the funds for a scholarship in her name to help young women attain an education. It was a gesture of love that aligned with Sister Philo’s own personal philosophy, which she had shared in a publication of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious:
“…Trusting in Christ, I want to be a catalyst who brings peace and harmony between poor and rich, and who works for gender equality, the empowerment of women, and the protection of human values and dignity. Let us be women religious who are willing to ‘be’ and ‘do’ for the love of God. Finally, I say in Gandhi’s words, ‘My life is my message.’”In Bangla, “philo” means “light.” Sister Philomena was a light both to the Congregation and the people she served in Bangladesh and along the way. “I’ll never forget my trips to see her,” Dick said. “She was such a terrific lady. I’ll never forget her.”
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