Irmã Dulce [Sister Dulce]
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Last update: 14/02/2017
Maria Rita de Souza Brito Lopes Pontes was born in Salvador in 1914. She was the second of five children to the dentist and lawyer Augusto Lopes Pontes. He ran a school for needy people, and his greatest love was dedication to charities. Her mother’s name was Dulce Maria de Souza Brito Lopes Pontes, who died at the age of 26.
When visiting some deprived areas of Salvador with an aunt, Maria Rita manifested the desire to dedicate herself to religious life. She tried to enter the Convent of Desterro, but she was refused because she was too young. She was only 13 years old. However, concerned with misery, she turned the family home into a care centre and began to attend beggars and the sick, doing dressings and cutting their hair.
When she graduated from school, at age 18, her father asked her what she wanted as a graduation gift. Surprised, he heard the answer:
– “I do not want anything, I just want you to let me be a nun.”
Maria Rita received a lot of support from him and her sister, Dulcinha. However, the family did not imagine that this apparently fragile young girl would become a rock and a rare example of kindness and love to others.
She travelled to the city of São Cristóvão in Sergipe, and entered the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. There, at the age of 20, after a six-month novitiate period, she was ordained a nun, and became Sister Dulce, in honour of her mother. This was on 15 August 1934.
Back in Salvador, she worked as a volunteer nurse and geography teacher. But, thinking that she had no vocation to teach, she decided to dedicate herself to social work on the streets and to evangelisation in the working-class neighbourhoods of Salvador.
On Sundays, she went to the slums of Alagados – an old mangrove reclaimed with garbage and full of shacks – and Itapagipe, in the Lower City, to help the needy, and it was in these areas that her main activities and social work were concentrated. Sister Dulce played an accordion, enlivening the workers’ lunchtimes, and taught them the catechism. Upon verifying that they did not have any labour rights and did not have medical assistance, she called a meeting. The first meeting was attended by four men and six women. The nun thought about giving up. However, at the second meeting, two hundred people were present. Sister Dulce built a pharmacy, a medical post and a consumer cooperative in the area. To do so, she sought donations, talked to entrepreneurs, and in the end, managed to reach her goal.
To feed so many poor in the morning, she would leave with a pick-up truck and go to fairs and supermarkets, where shopkeepers would already be waiting for her with a sack of groceries, some cereal, or any other product they could or would want to donate. The important thing was not to return empty-handed.
She had the desire to found a workers’ movement, which offered material and religious assistance to the poor. To this end, she later joined a group of workers, who were coordinated by the German friar Hildebrando Kruthaup. The two groups merged, and on 10 January 1937, the Union Operária de São Francisco [St Francis Workers’ Union] (UOSF), the first Christian Workers’ Movement in Salvador, emerged. The institution was maintained with the income from three cinemas that the nun built with donations.
Subsequently, she founded the Círculo Operário da Bahia [Bahia Workers’ Circle], which provided cultural and recreational activities for workers and their families. She also founded a craft school, and in 1939 created the Santo Antônio College, a public educational institution for workers and their families.
Called Sister Dulce of the Poor, she occupied an abandoned shed on Ratos Island in the 1950s with the sick, the elderly, women, children and young people, and began her assistential work. However, the mayor of Salvador ordered everyone to leave. With no other options, the nun spoke to the Mother Superior, and she allowed the hen-house in the convent of Santo Antônio to be turned into a shelter for the poor. When she came to congratulate her on her work, the mother asked about the fate of her chickens. Quietly enough, Sister Dulce pointed to one of the patients and said, “They have turned into soup and are in their bellies.” This was the starting point of one of the greatest social projects in the country. The convent later gave birth to the Santo Antônio Hospital – a medical, social and educational centre that still serves the poor.
Sister Dulce did not read newspapers, did not watch television, barely ate, and slept little. She fasted three times a week. Her meals were limited to a little rice and vegetables, which fit onto a dessert plate. Meats, sweets and soft drinks were not part of her menu. She slept at most four hours a night, sitting in a chair of solid wood. She acted like this to pay for a promise she had made, but ended up sleeping on the chaise longue for thirty years. She only stopped the custom when her doctors forbade it. Her sacrifices, however, were proportionate to the happiness she felt.
In 1952, a great noise frightened the convent nuns. When Sister Dulce ran to the window, she could still see an explosion: a bus and a streetcar had collided. Before help arrived, she pulled out a hose, climbed onto a crate, broke the front window of the bus, and with her charred habit, managed to save twelve passengers. Sixteen people, however, were burned in the accident.
Despite her fragile health, she built and maintained one of the largest and most respected philanthropic institutions in the country. The people of Bahia considered her a “Good Angel”. She was so respected and loved that on his visit to Brazil in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II insisted on visiting her and getting to know her work.
She founded other establishments. Among them, an orphanage, the St Anthony Educational Centre in Salvador, which houses more than three hundred children and young people ages three to seventeen. This centre offers vocational courses, and greens and vegetables are grown there for their own consumption. She inaugurated an asylum, the Júlia Magalhães Geriatric Centre and founded the Santo Antônio Hospital, in the convent of the same name. Sister Dulce asked for donations in offices of governors, mayors, secretaries and presidents of the republic, always with the same determination.
Undergoing serious health problems – she had only a 30% respiratory capacity – she was hospitalised various times in 1990. When the doctors asked her how she had spent the night, she said: "I went to the nightclub". She called the nightclub the oxygen tube that kept her alive.
On the second visit of John Paul II to Brazil, Sister Dulce and the Pope met again at the Santo Antônio Convent on 20 October 1991. But she was already very sick. After sixteen months of agony, the nun requested: I want to die beside the poor. She died at the Santo Antônio Convent on 13 March 1992. Her wake in the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia brought together politicians, businessmen, artists, workers, thousands of people from all walks of life. The nun was buried on the altar of the Holy Christ, in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Conception of the Beach.
The Santo Antônio Hospital, founded by her in 1970 and expanded in 1983, now receives regular funds from the Federal Government, but donations continue to be essential. The institution has 1100 beds and attends four thousand people daily.
The Memorial Irmã Dulce (MID) in Salvador, inaugurated in 1993, maintains a permanent exhibition on the life and work of the Bahia nun, and receives about twenty thousand visitors a year. It is located in a building attached to the Santo Antônio Convent in the neighbourhood of Roma, and is part of the official tourist itinerary of the Bahia capital, in a decision of the Board of Directors of Bahiatursa – the state government’s tourism company. The memorial displays nine thousand items, including the habit used by the nun, photographs, documents, models and books. The institution has also preserved the room where Sister Dulce slept in a chaise lounge for more than thirty years, as it was left.
In the year 2000, she was awarded the title of “Servant of God” from the Pope. Most recently, she was recognised by the Vatican as “Venerable”, and the process of her beatification is underway in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Regardless of the decision the Vatican makes, Sister Dulce of the Poor will always remain in the imagination of Bahia as the “Good Angel” who spread her wings, protected the needy, and beside them, flew to Eternity.
Recife, 27 March 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.
CONGREGAÇÃO do Vaticano reconhece Irmã Dulce como venerável. Disponível em: <goo.gl/U8brpg>. Acesso em: 27 jan. 2009.
DE serva a “venerável”. Fala, Brasil. Época, São Paulo, n. 558, p. 17, jan. 2009.
INSTITUTO Irmã Dulce da Bahia. Disponível em: <http://institutoiidb.tripod.com/>. Acesso em: 27 jan. 2009.
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IRMÃ Dulce. Disponível em: http://www.netsaber.com.br/biografias/ver_biografia_c_502.html. Acesso em: 27 jan. 2009.
IRMÃ Dulce. Disponível em: <http://br.geocities.com/amorhumanno/irmadulce.htm>. Acesso em: 27 jan. 2009.
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IRMÃ Dulce [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <http://www.santoprotetor.com/irma-dulce-maria/>. Acesso em: 14 fev. 2017.
IRMÃ Dulce entra na fila do Vaticano para virar santa. Disponível em: <http://jbas.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/irma-dulce-entra-na-fila-do-vaticano-para-virar-santa/>. Acesso em: 27 jan. 2009.
MEMORIAL Irmã Dulce é incluído no roteiro turístico religioso de Salvador. Disponível em: <goo.gl/HPeOGz>. Acesso em: 27 jan. 2009.
SCHUMAHER, Schuma; BRAZIL, Erico Vital (Org.). Dicionário mulheres do Brasil: de 1500 até a atualidade. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2000.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Irmã Dulce. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/en/>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.