More MS news articles for Nov 2001

A Healer of a Special Flock

In Amityville, Dominican nun takes abused birds under her wing

November 6, 2001
Denise Flaim

YOU WOULDN'T THINK a flirt named CieCie would be living in a convent full of retired Dominican nuns, but then again, stranger things have happened.

"I tell her if she wants to make her final vows, she has to fit in," chuckles Sister Barbara Seaward about the 7-year-old Moluccan cockatoo whose name is pronounced "see-see" and who lives in the Queen of the Rosary Convent in Amityville.

And CieCie has apparently taken the advice to heart: Though most cockatoos are notorious squalkers, this big white bird with the peach-tinted feathers is uncharacteristically muted.

"Birds get to be addicting," says Sister Barbara, 54, who gave up a three- decade-long nursing career when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As she struggled with the disease and the limitations it started to place on her, she started to adopt handicapped and abused birds.

Her narrow bedroom at the convent is filled with cages and brightly colored toys and bells, bird stands and a license-plate frame from the Long Island Parrot Society, to which she belongs. "Let Go, Let God," reads a magnet clinging to the sides of one of the metal cages, near the fish tank. As a bird clock on the wall hits the hour, the warble of a house wren sounds.

On a nearby table is a small, plant-filled shrine with statues of some of Catholicism's animal-loving intercessors: St. Francis, of course, and St. Martin de Porres, who was a healer of animals, and St. Dominic, the founder of her order, "who is often imaged as a dog," Sister Barbara explains, her robin earrings bobbing. "Before she had him, his mother dreamed of a dog with a torch in its mouth."

The cage doors are open, and the birds wander at whim. "I believe birds should have as much freedom as possible," says Sister Barbara, though she's careful to cover her small television set's screen with a piece of Plexiglas in case CieCie gets too beaky.

Sister Barbara's flock also includes Angel, an African grey with a feather-plucking problem. Her teenage owner never paid any attention to her, leaving her unbathed and so calcium- depleted she was having petit mal seizures. Though she doesn't speak much, she's got a large repertoire of sounds - barks and meows and gurgles and whistles and the "bloop" from the Maxwell House jingle.

There's Lucky the Quaker parrot, who satisfies his nest-making instincts by weaving wooden coffee stirrers into the bars of his cage.

Dinkum is another Quaker - the species, not the denomination - who rooms with a lovebird named Darlin. They got their names from the endearments Sister Barbara's father gave her mother in the couple's World War II love letters. Dad, who was in the Coast Guard, was "Briny Marlin"; Mom was "Dinkum Darlin."

And then there are two gray cockatiels, Peter and Mary (Paul was adopted by someone else). "When we first got Peter, if you even looked at him, he'd scream," says Sister Barbara of the abused bird, who paced in his cage for two years before deciding to trust her and venture out.

Though Sister Barbara's illness closed the door to her nursing career, it opened another. "Through that illness, I got to adopt parrots," she says. And her "secondhand birds" inspired her to start a ministry she calls "On the Wings of Love." For the last three years, she has taken the birds to local nursing homes, where residents stroke, pet and murmur to these once-throwaway animals.

Dominican nuns are the "Order of Preachers," and Sister Barbara says her bird excursions fulfill that calling.

"I'm preaching that people matter, no matter where they find themselves," she says, adding that not everyone sees her work that way. Though she recently got a grant from her congregation, "most people don't think what I do has value. They just see me as someone playing with pets, not something deeper than that."

But deep it is, like when an uncommunicative resident raises his head and strokes a flirtatious CieCie - the first time he's interacted with anyone in months.

And for Sister Barbara, sharing herself through the birds she so loves fills the hole created when she left her nursing behind.

"Even though I'm not giving care, I'm still healing," she says. "I'm healing broken hearts, and loneliness and ignorance - ignorance of the preciousness of life."

Write to Denise Flaim c/o Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747

Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.