On 8 December the Missionaries of the Immaculate celebrate fifty years of presence in a context marked by much poverty, but also characterized by beautiful experiences of relationships and friendships consolidated over time
For fifty years they have guaranteed an authentically missionary presence in a difficult land, where what makes the difference is almost always closeness, listening and relationships. They are the Missionaries of the Immaculate who this year celebrate half a century of presence not in a remote place in the world, but in Italy, in Pozzuoli, in the hinterland of Naples. For the occasion, on December 8th at 5pm, Bishop Carlo Villano will celebrate a solemn mass at the Children’s Village followed by a moment of celebration and sharing.
«Staying in Pozzuoli – admits the head of the community, Sister Giovanna Minardi – means living a strong experience in contact with the many fragilities of this territory». Sicilian by origin, Sister Giovanna, 70 years old, spent two decades in Hong Kong before arriving here last year to get back into the game together with three other sisters; Sister Giampaola, who was born in these parts and spent 40 of her 83 years in the Far North of Cameroon; Sister Chiara, thirty-three years old from Pioltello, a suburb of Milan; and Sister Fatima Dias, 51 years old, Indian from Goa.
Four women, four very different stories, one great passion for the mission which in Pozzuoli is expressed in many ways: alongside the inmates of the women’s prison; with disabled people and their families of the Coordination for Parents of Handicapped People (Cgh); together with the young people of the Pime paths of Ducenta; with the children of the Licora after-school club; but also with many women who participate in moments of prayer and of and with a whole network of families, neighbors and people who express not only material needs, but often attention and listening. In turn, the nuns are supported by a group of very faithful lay people, who for over 25 years have shared the charism of the Missionaries of the Immaculate and their commitment in many fields.
«I am the latest arrival and the youngest – reflects Sister Chiara -, but from what I have been able to experience and understand, it is not the quantity of work that is done that is important, but the style of closeness that creates strong bonds that last in time. The nuns here have always been present in important moments of people’s lives.”
This can also be seen today from many small gestures and mutual kindness. Like the fact that in the beautiful house overlooking the gulf of Pozzuoli, donated by the then bishop of Velletri Luigi Punzolo, there is always a coming and going of people, who often leave small gifts and tasty dishes. But behind it there is a faithful commitment that, in fact, lasts over time.
The missionaries, in fact, have never abandoned the people here, especially in the most difficult moments, such as those of the earthquake in the 1980s, when many were evacuated and resettled in peripheral areas. They continued to be close to many families even in more recent times, when many of them had to leave their homes due to bradyseism, a phenomenon linked to the volcanism present in this area, which causes the ground level to lower or rise. A phenomenon which, in Pozzuoli, is clearly visible in many places, such as the port or the ancient Roman market, whose columns bear the signs of the sinking or lifting of the land. After all, last September there was yet another earthquake of magnitude 4.2, followed by a seismic swarm of dozens of other events. «We hardly pay attention to it anymore!», Sister Giovanna admits that, like the inhabitants here, she has learned to live with it. If anything, it is the long-term consequences that are being felt and are equally evident both in terms of urban and social degradation. It is not for nothing that the missionaries guarantee a presence in two of the most problematic and abandoned neighborhoods, such as Toiano and above all Licola a Mare. The latter, in particular, is truly a “mission territory” also for the local Church. Only two nuns of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple reside there permanently, while only rarely does a priest go there to celebrate Mass. The nuns have created a tensile structure next to their home where they carry out various activities especially with children, thanks to the help of some volunteers and the enthusiastic and competent support of Sister Chiara who is a pedagogist: «There are truly extreme situations of families disintegrated, crime, violence, dealing and drug use. But also of lack of services. Which are reflected on children. Some parents don’t even know the birth date of their children. The children themselves do not know when their birthday is. Almost everyone who comes to the after-school program is unable to read and write in second grade. There is great poverty in every sense, including educational.”
Toiano, on the other hand, is a working-class neighbourhood, with identical blocks of flats, few services, but a less torn social fabric. The parish priest is a Congolese priest supported by two compatriots who are in Italy to study. This is also a sign that cooperation between the Churches is now increasingly taking place from South to North. In Toiano, Sister Giampaola guarantees a constant presence at the CGH, where a group of disabled people meet every day, on the initiative of the same parents who founded this association in 1997 to make up for the lack of support from public institutions. Thanks to the help of volunteers and some operators, the children – now all adults and some with serious problems – meet together to carry out various activities or for moments of celebration and conviviality. Even for mothers – who often have to manage their children alone – it is a healthy moment of reunion and relief, in which Sister Giampaola also participates. «Once a week, I share with them the prayer of the rosary which is always awaited with joy and some moments of reflection starting from the biblical texts. Above all, however, my presence offers these mothers the opportunity to talk and let off steam. Many experience extremely difficult situations. Sharing the efforts with other parents and with the nun gives them strength and courage.”
Sister Giampaola is often accompanied by Sister Fatima who is a nurse and has worked for fourteen years in the hospitals and maternity centers of the Missionaries of the Immaculate in India. In the last six years, then, you have been at the Vimala Center in Mumbai, where for a very long time a great work of welcoming and caring for people suffering from leprosy has been carried out. «Even today I have contact with some of them, especially with the young people who appreciated our work very much because outside they were despised and marginalized even by their own families. They often told me that, through the big hearts of the nuns, they sensed a God who is great.” Today for her it is Italy that has become a mission land. Here she dedicates herself above all to the disabled people of the CGH, to the young people on the training courses carried out in the Ducenta house together with the PIME missionaries and to the children of the catechism in the nearby parish. «It takes time and patience: it’s like rekindling the fire of faith with the strength of our testimony. At the beginning there is a bit of distrust and difficulty in accepting what is different from them. And also for me in immersing myself in a different culture. But it’s a great challenge!
Even for Sister Giampaola, who is also originally from these areas, returning to Italy after 40 years of life in Cameroon was neither easy nor obvious. She returned five years ago for family reasons and found a much changed social and ecclesial fabric. But she hasn’t lost her desire to get back into the game: «I immediately got involved in the women’s prison – she says – following in the footsteps of other sisters. Here I found a nice atmosphere, very familiar, both with the inmates and with the staff, thanks also to the great commitment of Don Fernando Carannante, who is very capable of creating harmony.” Sister Giampaola goes to the penitentiary on Saturdays and Sundays, for moments of listening, reading the Bible and in the past also accompanying the sacraments. On Sundays we meet for Mass and it is always a nice opportunity for moments of reflection shared even during the prayers of the faithful, in which the women – many of them very young – remember their children and their loved ones.
«In all these contexts – Sister Giovanna points out – ours is a simple but essential presence. People show us their attachment in all ways and are sorry when for some reason we can’t be there. The same goes for the prayer groups that I follow in two peripheral neighborhoods of Pozzuoli, in Cigliano and in Cappella, where for decades we have regularly met with small groups of women passionate about the Word of God. After all, this is what I also did in Hong Kong . And I feel that here too it is truly a mission.”