Hundreds of families assisted every day; 250,000 hot meals served in 2022; 2,500 square metres to continuously support over 1,000 people and thousands of lives transformed: these are the numbers that tell of a “place of the heart” in Brazil, where the living soul of those who dwell in Vila Maria da Conceição in the peripheries of Porto Alegre (capital of the State of Rio Grande do Sul) can be felt. In these peripheries, marked by conditions of extreme vulnerability, where the most basic services slip away and both the division of families and community violence prevail, the Missionaries of Jesus Crucified (Irmãs Missionárias de Jesus Crucificado — mjc) are a presence of hope and fraternity with the Pequena casa da criança (Little house for children), which has been working for a “great” cause for 66 years. In fact, the Institute is not simply a house for children. Here, young adults, the elderly and entire families also receive a warm welcome, shelter from life’s storms and space for dreams — as only a home can offer. After all, as Pliny the Elder said 2,000 years ago, “Home is where the heart is”.
“Pequena casa da criança is involved in the field of education and professional formation, its objective being to promote the integral development of human beings in all their dimensions — physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual — with the goal of making a socio-economic impact on the context in which it works, acting through Christian values”, explains Sr Pierina Lorenzoni, President of the Institute, in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano. “Of the 479 families who received assistance in 2022, 25 percent had a family income that was lower than the minimum salary. Around 70 percent of families are single-parent units, and 40 percent of heads of families have not even completed basic education. Eighty-six percent are women, while 70 percent are black or pardos (mestizos). Moreover, more than half the residences are cramped and unhealthy, because they lack up-to-standard water and sewage systems”. This scenario represents an obstacle in guaranteeing these people’s social rights, among them the one to education, thus strongly motivating the continuity of work carried forward by the Institute, which today, through different programmes, continuously sustains 937 people, including children, teenagers, young adults and elderly people: pre-school, and elementary school, attended by 419 children; assisted accommodation and strengthening of ties, after-school workshops for the 164 assisted children, ranging from six to 17 years old; street ministry, focused on the care of 252 children with a history of child labour, as well as indigent or homeless adults. The “young apprentice” project, which helps over 50 adolescents enter the labour market; groups for the elderly; psychological and social support for the community. In addition, the religious sisters are particularly attentive to the condition of women in the peripheries and to promoting access to culture.
But the seed that has brought forth these fruits comes from far away, explains Sr Lorenzoni. “It was 1919, when, in Campinas (State of São Paulo), thanks to the initiative of young Maria Villac, a group of women from different social contexts, different generations and ethnicities, formed. They started meeting, to meditate on the Via Crucis and to carry out works of mercy. At the time that meant spending time in the city’s peripheries, entering into houses of the poor, in factories, meeting with workers, and prisons”. Over the years, thanks to an intense apostolic and spiritual life, the group grew significantly, leading to the creation of the Association of the Missionaries of Jesus Crucified, whose mission is to visit disadvantaged families and organize centres for catechesis, in a context marked by social inequality, caused also by the acceleration of the industrialization process in the cities of São Paulo and Campinas. Trusting in the group’s evangelizing force, and in order to guarantee the continuity of this Christian experience, Msgr Francisco de Campos Barreto, then Bishop of Campinas, suggested transforming the association into a religious congregation “with one foot in the world and the other in the convent”.
Thus, in 1928 the mjc Congregation was born, with the charism “to go search for those most in need!”. One of the religious sisters who made a lasting impact on the history of the congregation was Nely Capuzzo. Born in Goiás, she was chosen to carry out her mission in the city of Porto Alegre, beginning to work with the poor families and children who lived in the area around the city’s port. However, after a flood struck the area, the families had to look for another place to live, and settled in Vila Maria da Conceição, known also as Morro da Maria Degolada. “It was precisely in this place, far from the centre and lacking facilities for healthcare, education and assistance, that the religious sister carried her work forward, founding in 1956 the Pequena casa da criança, a place for the protection and promotion of life. The Institute’s first headquarters at the time was a small wooden shack, which explains the project’s name. ‘House’ for us meant a place of welcome, of encounter, but also of celebration and catechesis, that is, a space where the community could come together. And still today, the Institute continues to be “the house of God”, which exists to do good to all, without distinctions”, stresses Sr Lorenzoni.
The story of the Little House is thus interwoven with that of the community, attentive to its specific needs. For instance, the Institute set aside part of its building to create a clinic that would guarantee the right to health. “The services offered are complex and multidimensional, precisely because they keep in mind the objective of promoting integral human development: not only access to necessary goods, among them nourishment, psychological and social accompaniment, but also spiritual activity, so as to promote the faith, the culture of peace and brotherhood, an essential force in fighting community violence”.
Quite some time ago, the Pequena casa da criança stopped being small. Despite ever more difficult challenges, “the congregation continues to caress the hope of constructing a new building, which will allow more people to sign up to pre-school and elementary school and double the number of people who benefit from the Home’s programmes”, explains Sr Pierina Lorenzoni.
Moreover, the mjc [sisters] are not only involved in several states in Brazil, but also in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Angola, Mozambique and Kenya. Being a living presence in these peripheries of the world is a sign of faithfulness to the congregation’s charism, whose mission from the very start, has always been to dedicate themselves to a form of evangelization that is attentive to the situation of the “poor”. Well, the religious sisters have travelled this path, and like a river in search of the sea they continue to cultivate new dreams, aware of the importance of continually “going forth”.
Alicia Lopes Araújo