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The silent forest Italia

“We live as workers among the workers to bring comfort to the White Houses”

The Pontiff in the house of a family in the White Houses
24 October 2020

Four Little Sisters of Jesus on the outskirts of Milan where Pope Francis met the most fragile ones

The Little Sisters of Jesus live in a social housing block on the outskirts of Milan, they call it the White House’s area. Since the end of August, there are four of them there: Giuliana, Rita and Valeria have been joined by Florence, from Nigeria. Their lives are dedicated to prayer in the small chapel inside their flat, and to hard work outside and within the neighborhood.

They are currently supporting themselves with cleaning work in the offices and in a home for the sick and families coming from outside the city. “A few years ago we were also worked for a cleaning company at the cancer institute, in the canteen of a kindergarten and as a domestic helper in private homes,” says little sister Giuliana.

Workers among the workers, which is how they want to feel. They live in this suburban neighborhood where immigrants - today mostly from North Africa, Central-South America, Sri Lanka, Philippines - represent 20 per cent of the local population. It has been like that ever since the White Houses -old railing houses built after the war to accommodate Milanese families in difficulty and immigrants from southern Italy- were built. A very old district, which until the fifteenth century housed the monastery of the Humiliati friars, a farmhouse with a closed courtyard with rustic farmhouses and monastic buildings to form a monastic grange, the grange of Monluè, until the dissolution of the Order by St Charles Borromeo. Even today, this neighborhood is enhanced by the presence of two houses for immigrants and political asylum seekers.

Le Piccole Sorelle, istituto religioso femminile di diritto pontificio, arrivarono qui nel 1954; poi nel 1977, quando le case minime furono demolite, si trasferirono nelle Case Bianche. La loro presenza, assidua e silenziosa, ha rappresentato un punto fermo di accoglienza e solidarietà per gli abitanti di questo territorio di confine.

The Little Sisters, a female religious institute of Pontifical right arrived here in 1954; then in 1977, when the little houses were demolished, they moved into the White Houses. Their assiduous and silent presence represented a point of reference of welcome and solidarity for the inhabitants of this border territory.

About 2,000 people live in the block of 477 flats of various sizes, including many lonely elderly people. The misery and unemployment sum up to years of neglect and abandonment and so it is often depicted as a desolated and delinquent place, an underworld stronghold. Yet, the Little Sister Giuliana explains, “It is not like this, there is more than just suffering”. On 25 March 2017, during his visit to Milan, Pope Francis, chose to come here to meet the most fragile and needy families. The White Houses ended up in the spotlight, and a few months ago, the first renovations began.

In the Little Sisters’ flat, there is constant flow of people looking for comfort, prayer, advice, someone with whom to speak. “And children - adds Giuliana - Sometimes they arrive with the excuse of being thirsty, then they stop to play, to draw. They too need to be heard. On other occasions it is their parents who ask us to keep an eye on them, as good neighbors do, while they are away”.

Sister Giuliana, like her sisters, goes out early in the morning, with the exception of Sister Rita who left her job at the Cancer Institute a few months ago to take care of the house and to be closer to the people in the neighborhood. Her humble, hard work is important to feel close to others, and consists of “jobs that help us to share the discomfort and daily life of so many people and shows solidarity even without as many words. Our routine puts us on the same level as our neighbors, helps us to develop those relationships of equality and mutual support that are fundamental to our mission. The fact that we are in their midst makes us equal and approachable. A small sign of the Kingdom of God, which we too discover within our reality, made up of meetings, exchanged glances, concrete gestures”. The Fraternity of the Little Sisters was founded in 1939 by little sister Magdeleine of Jesus. She had been drawn to found the fraternity by the testimony of Charles de Foucauld, the scion of a noble French military family who renounced everything, became a universal brother, priest, hermit and missionary, and whom was murdered in the Sahara in 1916.

He will soon be proclaimed a saint. His charisma helped to dismantle the prejudice against religious people as those who withdraw from everyday life.  The founder of the congregation, Sister Magdeleine, in her spiritual testament, addressing the Little Sisters stated, “You will live mixed with the human mass like yeast in the dough”. “This is not the most difficult neighborhood in Milan, but as in every suburb there is a concentration of both economic and personal hardship, partly due to a lack of work”, explains Sister Giuliana. Networking is essential.

For nine years, weekly meetings have been organized with foreigners - many of whom are Arabs and Muslims - to promote mutual understanding.  Recently, a Muslim couple began teaching Arabic, offering weekly lessons open to all who would like to develop a dialogue. On the other hand, the Little Sisters were founded on Islamic soil, among the nomads of the Algerian Sahara. It is “a delicate path, despite the good relations, adds Little Sister Giuliana. An assault on an Italian woman, who until that moment had enjoyed good relations with her Muslim neighbor with visits, exchanges of typical dishes, participation in their respective holidays, told us about her fear, and the Muslim woman about her feeling of being insecure. We helped them to reawaken the relationship of trust, without leaving them at the mercy of prejudices”.

Juliana was 21 when she met the Little Sisters of Jesus during a pilgrimage to Palestine. “In Bethlehem I was very impressed by their presence in an Arab neighborhood, by that very simple life, and by the fatigue of daily life, which was counterbalanced by the joy of sharing it with the locals. While there, I felt the invitation to know more and follow Jesus in that way. A few years later I asked to join the Fraternity”. The Little Sisters removed their religious habit and even relinquished their surname to be equal with others. They dress like the women of the places where they live, the poorest in the world, and adopt the language and habits of the places where they live. “And so that there are no distinctions between us on all five continents the sisters take the surname of Jesus” explains Sister Giuliana. Little Sister Magdeleine used to say, “There can exist a true friendship, a deep affection between people who do not have the same religion, the same race and are not from the same environment”. At the White Houses, they are trying.

by Lilli Mandara