Claire decided to be a member of this “family” when she was 18. Until the end of her life, the AFI-ICA family remained very important to her, although she had experienced significant transformations of this association : initially only unmarried young women would be accepted in a spirit of direct service to the Church, today men and couples are also included and the commitment to social justice in a universal mind and respecting the values of each people is more important.
The first to be mentioned in this “family” is Yvonne Poncelet, first president of AFI-ICA (ALM in that time) who had accompanied Claire on her first trip to India. Although she died prematurely (in 1955 in a plane crash), she occupied an important place in the commitment of Claire, who willingly called her “my guru”.
When Claire arrived in India (1954), she was soon joined by Simone Liégeois and Hélène Eenberg. If the later already left India in 1956, Simone accompanied Claire in her work in Polambakkam until 1966. She then worked from Delhi for the Voluntary Health Association of India and was elected president of the Association of Catholic Nurses (India). It is in these two capacities that she has been travelling throughout India, visiting remotest villages to support and evaluate different medical projects, providing training in community health to hundreds of nurses religious and secular. After returning to Belgium to treat a breast cancer (1982 – 1984), she worked again with Claire in India for three years for the establishment of new leprosy projects in the North, funded by the Damien Foundation, before permanently settling down in Belgium. So Simone always remained very close to Claire and India, although in some respects, they did not always share the same opinions.
Subsequently, many AFI-ICA members came to work in Polambakkam and “teamed up” with Claire. We leave it to Claire to mention all these members and to share also the difficulties in living as a team.
In 1973, at a general assembly of AFI-ICA, the association lived significant changes which created some uncertainty in the AFI-ICA group of India. Some ended their membership in the association, others returned to their native country, and India team took two years for further reflections. In 1975, Simone Liégeois (still Belgian and considering that she would end her life in Belgium) joined the Prisme Unit in Belgium, while Claire joined the Near East Unit (Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon). While participating in several AFI-ICA meetings in Ramallah and Egypt, Claire renewed her deep friendship with Geo Wilmet (president of AFI-ICA, who succeeded Yvonne) and Huguette Boullé who had already visited Claire in Polambakkam in 1958. In late 1995, when Geo had to return to Belgium for medical reasons, Huguette and Claire decided to accompany her in Belgium. They settled three of hem in an apartment in Brussels, and Huguette and Claire took care of Geo until her death in 1996. As Indian, Claire had only a tourist visa for 3 months, and to extend her stay in Belgium — in order to care for Geo — she was advised to reapply for Belgian citizenship, which she finally got in January 1998 only, after the death of Geo and when she was already back in India.
After Geo’s death, Huguette decided to return to her native country, Mauritius, but Claire and she continued to share a deep friendship, through correspondence, audio cassettes and phone calls (!) and also several visits of Claire to the island. In 2006, Huguette still had the strength to come back to Belgium to celebrate Claire’s 80th anniversary with her family, but later on it was Claire who visited her almost every year until 2011.
Claire also developed a close friendship with another AFI-ICA member, Nalini Nayak. She was from India and has been working mainly in Kerala with the fishermen communities and women’s movements, but throughout Claire’s life in India, she remained a friend to whom Claire liked to share confidence, even if their occupations prevented them to meet as often as desired. We will discuss this friendship in the “family in India” chapter.
When she had professional responsibilities, Claire did not travel much in the world, if not for some business trips (for leprosy consultancies in Asia, International Leprosy Congress) and some holidays in Belgium. When handing over her duty as “secretary Damien Foundation” in 1992, she felt that, at the age of 66, she could “retire” and she took the opportunity to travel more. Her first trip was to meet AFI-ICA members : first a long stay in Egypt and Palestine (2 months) and then she flew to Chicago and Washington to meet several AFI-ICA members (or previously members ?) for over a month. Later, in 2006 , she took advantage of an invitation from her nephew Hubert to visit her in Japan, to visit the AFI-ICA members in Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Before giving the floor to AFI-ICA members themselves who wanted to express their links with Claire, we want to mention here Beatrice Colling and Peggy Siret who lived with her at St Joseph Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Brussels. Their presence was one of the reasons for Claire to chose to settle in this Home. The departure of Beatrice only one year after Claire’s arrival affected her deeply, but Peggy continued to accompany her until her last days and to support her in her efforts to overcome moments of discouragement.
We mentioned the names of the AFI-ICA members we directly known, or with whom we have been closely associated, or which Claire told us often. All those who have shared important moments with Claire, please do not hesitate to help us repair these oversights. Here are the testimonies received at the funeral of Claire. See also the testimony of Marie-Odile and Bie read at the funeral celebration on 26-09-2013 (see Farewell to Claire).