150 years of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, educators par excellence

To be a Salesian

 Essere salesiane  DCM-009
01 October 2022

“Journey of Hope” is the Laura Vicuña Foundation’s project in the Philippines, which aims to rebuild the lives of children in disadvantaged urban and rural areas. An Environmental Camp Programme is offered in Korea to children aged 3 to 5 years, as part of the school’s education in ecological spirituality, which creates and develops friendship with nature, people and God in everyday life. In Benin, the school named after St Joseph and designed as a preventive response for unschooled boys and girls, who risk getting lost on the streets, wandering laborers for illegal economic activities, is called “alternative”. In Venezuela, in Alto Orinoco, the bilingual Yanomami Intercultural School, on the other hand, acts as a tool to facilitate intercultural dialogue. While in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, education travels on the airwaves of a radio station, created after classes came to a halt due to the Covid epidemic.

These are just some of the dozens of “good practices” presented at the international conference in Rome to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, one of the largest orders of religious, with 11,000 sisters present in 97 Countries.

This is a roundup to speak of a charism that has been able to enculturate itself at different latitudes.  These programs are also recognised by international institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, where the Mary Help of Christians International Institute of the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco is present as a defender of the right to education for all and promoter of the empowerment of children, young people and women.

“A charism that remains the same as it was in its origins; we are women consecrated to God and to the education of the young, with all that education means today”, comments the Superior General of the Institute, Mother Maria Chiara Cazzuola. The thought goes to the foundress Mother Maria Domenica Mazzarello, who in Mornese, a small Italian village in Piedmont, the daughter of a large peasant family, in the mid-19th century, after a series of signs, realised what her vocation was and how to serve the young girls. “Her commitment to education was spent starting from their immediate needs, to rekindle hope, to orientate to values, to a wide-ranging mission of which we today are a sign and global actualization”.

Don Bosco recognised the value of Mazzarello’s work and, on 5 August 1872, gave the name to what was to become the Salesian experience for women. “Have as your glory your beautiful title of Daughters of Mary Help of Christians and often think that your Institute should be the living monument of Don Bosco’s gratitude to the Great Mother of God invoked as Helper of Christians”.

Today, adds Sister Chiara, reaffirming the “educational perspective of our preventive system means having a watchful eye on young people in a common project. In this panorama, integral formation in the Christian anthropological vision becomes a commitment to accompany them, supporting them in the search for the meaning of life, in the construction of a future of peace, fraternity and responsibility for the common home”.

A principle that today as yesterday reckons with history. In the beginning, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco who attach the initials FMA to their name, established boarding schools for girls who moved from the villages to the cities to work in the factories. Instead, the ecclesiastical geography challenges the present day. As Sister Chiara explains, “where religious sisters from countries at war work together on the same educational projects, as happened in the Eastern European Province of Georgia, which also includes Ukraine, Russia and Belarus; or in Myanmar, where there are all young sisters, who live without help from outside, since they are not allowed missionaries because they are foreign religious.”

Sr. Grazia Loparco, professor of Church History at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium comments, “What unites very different experiences and people is an educational passion embodied in concreteness; while the environmental situations, chronology, training, and operational outlets are what differentiate and connote them, manifesting the adaptability of the Salesian presence to remain at the side of the young girls. These have included missionaries, those cautious and courageous superiors, pioneers of expanding works, assistants and heads of foundations for the care of poorer minors, religious women at the foundations of institutions in close contact with society, public authorities and benefactors, or intent on building and fostering the development of important works for the city and a wide range of vision. But there were also situations of serious difficulties, which revealed a firm capacity for resistance and stainless like flexibility”. All these experiences, Loparco concludes, “are facets of a single educational vocation, which in a broad institutional organisation requires complementary roles and qualities”.

The women mentioned by Loparco have names and faces. Like that of Maria Cerna, who under the communist regime in Slovakia spent long years of forced labor in concentration camps for nuns (from 1950 to 1971) and was then a reference point for the support and clandestine training of nuns, thus contributing to the rebirth of the FMA Institute in the country. There is also Nancy Pereira in India, who, drawing on the approach of the Bank of the Poor of Bengali, economist and banker Muhammad Yunus, promoted entrepreneurship among those living on the margins, helping women in particular. Another is Angela Cardani, who in the 1990s, at the invitation of the Turin City Council to the FMA, brought her educational contribution to the Vallette district, She offered spaces for young people and women to play a leading role for over twenty years, and founded the NGO Vides Maìn, which promotes educational, school and non-school support projects, social integration for children, young people and families, and leisure time activities.

People and works that have responded to the demands of the times. So a little more than 50 years ago, in 1970, the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium was founded. This was “the only pontifical institution entrusted to women, counted by Saint Paul VI among the ‘sister’ faculties in the panorama of the other pontifical faculties with the aim of offering a contribution to the evangelising mission of the Church through education and care of the person in an integral way”, recalls Piera Ruffinatto, dean of the Auxilium. Since its establishment, its identity and task have been clear; “The study of the specific contribution that women can make to the Church in education, cultivating research in the field of educational sciences from an interdisciplinary and multidimensional perspective; the training of researchers, teachers, catechists, educators, psychologists in the field of education according to a Christian vision of reality and in harmony with the principles of the Christian pedagogical humanism of St Giovanni Bosco”.

Today, as a survey reveals, the face of the FMA is changing. The number of European and American religious is decreasing, while those from Asia, Oceania and Africa are increasing. The hypothesis that guided the research, explains Sister Maria Teresa Spiga, is that “generativity has been the transversal dimension that has allowed the identity and mission of the Institute to incarnate itself in space and time, giving life to multiple experiences, ‘generating’ new ones, ‘regenerating’ the already existing ones, crossing times beyond all geographical boundaries”.

The data about the FMA, the Houses and the Works reveal the history of the Institute from 1880 to 2020. Here are the details: 33,820 sisters have entered the Institute, 5730 of them (17 per cent) have left, while 16,865 (50 per cent) passed away. The highest number of entries (5,577) was recorded in 1960 and up to that year, entries were always higher than the previous year (except for 1910). From 1970 onwards, the opposite has happened, with the numbers decreasing compared to the previous year, except in 1990 (2,104). From 1970 to 1980, there were 2639 less entries. It was in 2020 that the lowest numbers of entries are recorded (1,301). In general, the increase in numbers of FMA sisters occurred in the years from 1880 to 1970 (from +39 to +2,234 FMA); while the decrease occurred from 1980 to 2020 (from -1094 to -2,364 FMA). As for the number of Houses, there were 1331 open in 2020. The highest number of closed Houses occurred in Europe (78%) and America (57%), i.e. the two continents where the Houses are oldest and where the Institute began its expansion. Instead, Asia has had the lowest percentage of Houses close (18 per cent). The figure for Oceania, the continent where the Institute arrived most recently, deserves attention. Here, 19 Houses were opened and just seven closed. Lastly, the research considers the projects, counting 6,400 in total, grouped into 12 categories: education (1,207); work formation (334); oratories-groups (162); religious formation (467); mission (133), associations (117), assistance (526) hospitality (288) homes and care services (116); domestic services (61) other (137).

The wealth of analyses, accompanied by a discussion on the survey presented, has initiated a series of reflections that can be summarized in the words of Sister Marcella Farina: “The awareness that the work of education requires skills that call for a turnaround in the formation of the FMA themselves as educators and formators is increasingly explicit and shared”. The real challenge, the fundamental one, is the anthropological problem, which calls for “a profound rethinking of humanism: we need deep thinking in which all knowledge is called into a great alliance”. In this sense, he adds, “we need to allow ourselves to be provoked by the ‘other’ sciences, with respect to the classical ones, by the new knowledge that in its own way reflects on the human according to the multifaceted contemporary humanistic sensibilities”.

Similar to what was done at its origins, it is necessary to take new formative paths. In the Sixties and Seventies, Farina simplifies, it was certainly not the order of the day “to send women religious abroad to study at university and in a ‘different’ field such as psychology, even less to think of sending them to theological faculties, which had just been opened to the laity; it was certainly easier to think of catechesis, philosophy, which were the classical sciences to which women had access”.

Furthermore, it is necessary to identify and share operational lines “to promote in girls and boys, women and men, in their context, a deeper awareness of their dignity as persons, in reciprocity, according to the culture of encounter, in order to contribute to building universal brotherhood”.

However, what is the greatest responsibility that the Superior General feels today?  “The fact of not losing sight of any reality”, replies Mother Cazzuola. “There are some who are more conspicuous and emerging, others who are small, hidden, and weaker for so many reasons. The advancing age of the sisters, the decreasing number, cultural or political situations that make our mission more difficult or even contingent, and historical factors. We must make the charism sprout and take care of the depth of the roots. These are all realities to be encouraged. Moreover, be careful not to lose sight of anyone, especially those who suffer the most”.

By Vittoria Prisciandaro
A Journalist with the San Paolo “Credere” and “Jesus” periodicals