Christian Dior. Pierre Cardin. Nina Ricci. These fashion designers are famous for their beautiful, stylish clothing, and for several years LDS convert Cècile Pelous played a role in their success by turning their design sketches into stunning pieces. But in 1986, a life-changing experience would teach Pelous that her talent for serving the poorest among us was even greater than her talent for clothing the wealthy.
Raised in a large Catholic family in an apartment outside of Paris, Pelous and her eight brothers learned at a young age the importance of giving and sharing. “With nine kids in the family, we learned to help each other out,” she recalls.
Growing up, Pelous’s parents encouraged her to pursue a career, but she was also expected to learn all the social graces of a “proper woman,” along with homemaking skills such as cooking, cleaning, and sewing. By age 15, Pelous was accepted into Paris’s top fashion design school, even though she didn’t like to sew. Soon, however, she discovered that she enjoyed the creative process as well as teaching others. But since teachers were required to sign a 10-year contract, she chose to enter the creative side of fashion and began working for Christian Dior when she was just 18 years old.
Pelous quickly became one of the most talented designers working in the fashion houses of Paris. And soon the gospel of Jesus Christ would add another layer of richness to her already successful life.
Finding the Gospel
In 1971, Pelous toured the United States with a group of French college students. One of the stops on their tour was Salt Lake City, and Pelous was instantly enamored with the unique surroundings. “The city had a spirit that was very holy,” she recalls. The group attended a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square—a performance that deeply moved Pelous. “It was
very emotional for me,” she says. In fact, she was so touched that her visit to Salt Lake City became her favorite part of the tour.
“Other students liked the big, glamorous cities like San Francisco or New York, so they were surprised when I said Salt Lake City was my favorite,” she says. “I was impressed with the Mormons. I felt something special there.”
Three years later, two LDS missionaries knocked on her door in Paris. Pelous had no intention of letting them in—until she learned they were from “the church with the choir.”
“I listened to their message, but I told them that I wouldn’t join their church until I knew for certain that what they were teaching me was true,” she says. “I felt the Spirit when I was with them, but I
needed to feel it by myself.”
The elders had given Pelous a Book of Mormon, but it sat untouched in her home for quite some time. Finally, Pelous told herself, I need to read this. She began to sincerely study the scriptures.
“One night, I knelt down to pray,” she says. “I asked if Jesus Christ really lived. I prayed all night long, and I told myself I wouldn’t stop praying until I got an answer.” And the answer came.
“I felt an overwhelming feeling of peace,” she says. “Everything made sense, and I knew that this was His church.”
After nine months of investigation, Pelous told the missionaries that she had received an answer to her prayers and had gained her own testimony of the gospel. She was baptized in 1975.
Searching for Something More
Pelous found joy in her newfound faith and soon married a fellow Church member. However, things got tough when they struggled to have children. “I went through all the procedures to have them,”
Pelous shares. “The procedures were difficult and painful. We did everything we could, but it still did not work out.”
Eventually, Pelous and her husband divorced.
As time went on, she began to feel her life was missing something. “Turning fashion designs into expensive clothing lacked meaning,” she says. “I felt that there was much more I could do.”
She continues, “I began to evaluate myself, and I realized I didn’t have the life that I wanted. I had many blessings and much to be grateful for—a loving family, an education, health, abundance, and the gospel. Many people in the world could only dream of a life like mine, and I knew I wanted to share these blessings with those who needed them most.”
So Pelous began searching for inspiration, which she found in the selfless example of Mother Teresa. “To me, she was the person who best exemplified helping and serving others,” she recalls. “So I wrote to her. One month later, I received a reply. It was a very short letter—just one sentence: ‘Come, all hands are needed.’”
A Pattern of Charity
In 1986, Pelous flew to Calcutta, India, to join Mother Teresa in caring for the sick and the poor. “I told her that I needed to find my way—that I wanted to feel useful in the world,” she says. “I began
caring for [leprosy victims] and delivering medical supplies. I visited the care centers and the orphanages.”
The orphanages of India were filled with children who had lost their parents to diseases caused by lack of proper hygiene or malnourishment. Some children had even been orphaned due to tiger attacks.
“[The children] suffered from many health problems,” Pelous says. “They had intestinal troubles, vitamin deficiencies, skin problems, and other diseases.”
Pelous herself contracted paratyphoid on her first trip to India and was bedridden for nine months. Still, she remained undeterred.
“When I saw the children in the orphanages, I knew I had to continue,” she recalls. “Their sweet faces and hopeful eyes touched my heart.”
After her first trip to India, Pelous was determined to return the following year, and she already knew exactly how she wanted to help. A local organization had built a poultry yard in Banipur with
120 hens—enough to provide the 800 orphans with one egg per week. Unfortunately, the hens were dying, and soon the children’s diets would suffer from lack of protein.
When Pelous returned to her work in Paris, she immediately began setting money aside to replace the poultry yard and buy feed for the hens. But soon she realized her savings would not be nearly enough. “I told my friends and family about my project, and I was deeply moved by their generosity,” she recalls. Church members from Pelous’s stake also donated, and the next year Pelous
returned to India with money to purchase building materials, 120 laying hens, 120 chickens, 30 laying ducks, and enough grain to feed the animals for a year.
But this was just one of the many projects Pelous would spearhead throughout India that would not only provide relief to families in need but would teach them how to become self-reliant. In the village of Pilkhana, for example, Pelous used her expertise in fashion to teach young women to make patterns and to cut and sew clothing. The girls would then make clothing for themselves
and the other orphans.
In Belari, Pelous also helped to create and fund a school and a nursery for undernourished babies. With money earned by the youth of Pelous’s Paris stake, villagers were able to drill a well and purchase a pump. And in Banipur, she helped cultivate a vegetable garden to feed the orphans, as well as a fishing pond that produces about 600 pounds of fish each year.
“I model my projects after the principles of the Church welfare system,” she explains. “Everyone helps. Even young children have responsibilities like feeding the chickens or tending the garden.”
Even with so many successes, Pelous still was not satisfied with her efforts.
“With each trip to India, I learned something new,” she says. “But I still felt there was something else for me.”
A Humanitarian by Design
That “something else” came in 1989 when one of Pelous’s friends, Father Francois Laborde, contacted her with a plea for help.
In the village of Nepalganj, Nepal, a teacher was trying to establish a home and school for orphans. “It was just a hut,” Pelous recalls. “The teacher was caring for 50 children on his own salary. There was no running water, no electricity, no beds, and no medical care. Children were sleeping on the ground completely naked.”
The task seemed insurmountable, but Pelous accepted the challenge.
She returned to Paris to work and save as much as she could—but she recognized yet again that her savings alone would not be enough to fund the Nepal project. Prayers were answered soon after when help came in the form of a real estate agent who made a very generous offer on her home in Paris. Pelous felt inspired to sell it.
“I knew this was the answer, so I sold my home and bought a much smaller one,” she explains. “I also sold many personal possessions. Then I returned to Nepal with a large sum of money.” With that money, Pelous built an orphanage, which she named Asha Ashram, or House of Hope.
“We would search for abandoned children and bring them to Asha Ashram,” she explains. “Once we found one boy who was abandoned and living alone in the jungle. We taught him how to read and write and how to use utensils. Soon, because of word of mouth, we didn’t need to search for children to help. They were being brought to us.”
As Pelous provided shelter, medical care, and an education for the children of Asha Ashram, her need to be near them grew greater, but she still needed to earn a living. Thankfully, her fashion skills were so valued and her humanitarian work so admired that her employer, Nina Ricci, generously paid her a full salary while allowing Pelous to spend three months each year caring for
Finally a Mother—to 79 Children
Pelous has legally adopted 79 orphans from Nepal, 72 of whom are now self-sufficient. “These children are my family. They are now part of my genealogy. I love them, and they love me.”
It was an early experience with a flooded village that led Pelous to begin these adoptions. When several children were orphaned in the flooding, local leaders came to Asha Ashram after the village
was rebuilt to reclaim the orphans without any proof that the children belonged to them. “I wanted the children to stay and receive an education. After that, I made sure I adopted the orphaned children so they could not be taken away,” she explains.
Over the years, many of Pelous’s adopted children have gone on to college and established successful careers. Two of her children have even joined the Church. “My daughter became the first
missionary to come from Nepal,” she says proudly.
“I used to ask Heavenly Father, ‘Why shouldn’t I have children?’ I was sad for many years, but then I finally understood—if I had children of my own, I would never have come to India or Nepal.”
Caring for 79 children has certainly been challenging, but Pelous says God has strengthened her along the way. “I never thought I could do this, but I have found energy beyond myself as I serve,” she says. “I’m just an ordinary person trying to do something extraordinary, and I want to make as many children happy as possible.”
Pelous retired in 2007 and now dedicates the majority of her time to creating a better life for children in need. In fact, since the devastating Nepal earthquake in 2014, Pelous has helped establish 27 orphanages that provide quality education for children in Arnokot and Melamchi. She has also expanded her humanitarian efforts to Morocco through her nonprofit organization Action Autonomie Avenir, or Action for a Self-Sufficient Future (aaa-asso.fr).
“We are supporting many projects in partnership with local programs there,” she says. “We have created a boarding school for children who live in remote, mountainous areas who could not otherwise get an education because the journey to and from school would be too difficult.” Other AAA projects in Morocco include the construction of a women’s literacy center and a kindergarten.
Pelous understands that most people can’t dedicate as much time as she does to serving others. Still, she says, everyone can help someone. “There are opportunities to serve all around us! Too many of us wait on the Church to be told when and where to serve.” She adds, “We need to do more than pray for the sick and the needy—we need to provide aid.” She adds, “The gospel is the pure love of Christ. When we follow His example, we want to help everyone.”
Photos courtesy of Bonneville Communications
For more inspiring stories, check out the LDS Living May/June 2017issue.