They led them to jail. On that scorching day, the Wichí, a community from northern Argentina, were taken from their territories and locked in prison. It was 1976. The military dictatorship had decided to arrest them because they had no documents. Until then, they had lived without the need for documents. In their culture, they had their own name and they knew how to identify one another. Back then, not even urban society had required documents from them.
On that same day, Sr Magdalena Sofia went to the police station without being summoned. Looking directly into the eyes of the policeman in charge, she said, “They are not to blame!”, and then she added, “You have never ever cared for them! Please. I am looking into registering each of them to the registry office”. The result was immediate. There was a whistle from the chief of police that could be heard all the way to the most distant cells. Then he turned to his agents and ordered, “This is Sr Magdalena Sofia. She is taking care of registering them to the Registry Office. No one should disturb her. No one should disturb the Indigenous peoples”.
A few days earlier, the municipality had asked the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to find a way to register the group from the area of Mosconi in Salta, Argentina, with the civilian Registry Office. The Sisters did not ignore the need, which had become imperative due to changes in administration, but many of them did not have Argentinian nationality, a prerequisite for carrying out a public task; Sr Magdalena Sofia took on the responsibility. “I spent the whole week learning. I prepared forms. We had a four-wheel drive vehicle to travel into the mountains and get past the puddles”, she explained. They recorded each member of the Wichí community at the Registry Office. They were acquainted with them through their missionary work of accompaniment in the territory.
These words describe the spirit of service of Magdalena Sofia Kissner, who was born in Pampa Argentina in 1936 in a colony in which only German was spoken. Indeed, when she was a little girl, she struggled to interact in school because she did not understand Spanish. Perhaps it was then that she developed her sensitivity for integration, which blossomed many years later. She dedicated her life to education, as a history teacher, as an elementary teacher and in management positions, but just as she was approaching retirement, a new challenge appeared. She says that almost without wanting to, and spurred on by the people and by her community, she opened a school for children with disabilities in Villa Jardín, Lanús, Buenos Aires. To do so, she first trained at the Ann Sullivan Centre in Peru, an experience which transformed her. She recalls that it was there that she understood that the work should not be designed to have an impact only on children with disabilities but also on their families and communities. She realized that the cornerstone of her service was the fact that we all have different gifts and are enriched thanks to the uniqueness of each.
She thus established Saint Francis School, dedicated to children and the formation of their families, starting from the context of poverty in which they lived. To succeed in this, Sr Magdalena began to draft her dream: “We need an educational environment in which all members are involved in formation, not only in the classroom, but in everything: in the kitchen, in cleaning, in the halls, in the walls. Everything educates. No one is to blame for the conditions in which he or she is born”, she pencils in in her notebook. The help of the Sisters of the Congregation allowed her to formulate a complete proposal. “We have carried out projects for national and international foundations. The Congregation has helped me a great deal”, she says gratefully. One by one, all the actions were channelled into a sustainable process.
At the beginning, the school was housed in a neighbourhood church hall, where an educational psychologist made diagnoses and prescribed therapies. The parish priest had offered the hall because he was concerned that the heart of the community, that is, children with disabilities, were not being assisted. However, the space soon proved insufficient and it was necessary to move to a larger place, in which to construct a building and have a garden so that the children could feel comfortable. Thus, the school, which continues to be free of charge, arose within this context of poverty.
One of the teachers from that first period remembers that “Sister ‘Magda’ was always the first one to arrive. Everything was impeccable when she welcomed us. She washed the patio with buckets of water”. She also recollects a mother saying, “When I tell my son that if he misbehaves he will not go to school, he starts crying!”. School was not boring, but rather a source of joy. The Sister established a “way of doing” by which “we knew everyone’s name, we knew the name of each parent”, the teacher adds, moved. Magda defended children. She often repeated: “They are not to blame for being born with special conditions”. She was a relentless defender of the right to have the dignity of being children who are loved, and the students felt at ease. They participated joyfully and strengthened their hold on their place in a world, that sometimes considered them invisible. And for the Sister this was a way to live her vocation as a person consecrated to God, with special gratitude to her community: “The Sisters surrounded me with great affection, a lot of love and that is how I dreamed it. That was the life for me: to be a religious”.