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A Ray of Hope in São Paulo's Slums
By Mary Breslin
Poor kids in a Brazilian ghetto are learning skills instead of doing drugs, thanks to an American nun who loves to dance.

Q U I C K S C A N

Pirouetting to the Convent
Bound for Brazil
Active Peacemakers
Hugs and Rules
Tireless Efforts Are Rewarded
Rising From Poverty and Despair
Commitment From Former Students

Sister Angela Mary Carey with children

PHOTO COURTESY OF PROJETO SOL

Holy Cross Sister Angela Mary Carey (standing) helped develop Projeto Sol (Project Sun), a program that enriches the lives of poor children in São Paulo.

IN SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL, SISTER Angela Mary Carey’s beloved pets rush to her side. Simultaneously, they push their cold, wet noses into her canvas bag and her pockets, sniffing for a treat, eager for attention. She speaks to them in Portuguese, commanding their obedience, comforting their anxieties, coaxing their manners in the presence of guests.

A gangly, still awkward female German shepherd pup and an adult “big brother” of mixed breed, the dogs scamper around the petite woman, noisily competing in a playful cacophony of welcoming sounds. Luanna and Silver, at the same time loyal friends and fierce protectors, are distracting delights for this 67-year-old Holy Cross nun.

From middle-class Chicago, Sister Angela Mary brought an extraordinary gift wrapped in limitless love for poor people in a sewage-strewn, disease-ridden, overpopulated slum-like favela (beehive) on the periphery of the world’s third-largest city.

Beyond an abiding affection and respect for animals, Sister Angela Mary would be the last person to compare herself to St. Francis. But all the earmarks of a parallel philosophy—applying the Gospel-like brilliant colors on an artist’s palette—are there.

Pirouetting to the Convent

Serving in the foreign missions was Patricia Mae Carey’s dream as early as fourth grade. She recalls eagerly responding to an assignment on vocations by creating a diorama of how she planned to spend her adult years.

Looking back, she acknowledges that, at the tender age of 10, she probably caused a stir in the classroom when she proudly carried in a cardboard shoebox: Inside the box, a doll was transformed into a nun who sported a habit and veil made from a worn, white pillowcase. A baby was at her feet against the construction-paper backdrop of a fiery orange sun and paper palm trees.

It was a profound commitment from a child and equally prophetic. A couple of decades later, she found herself living not so far from the equator, with more than a few children underfoot as the director of a center for youth, founded on the principles of respect for one another and justice for all.

Young Patricia had her feet firmly pointed toward the life of a vowed religious missionary. But that never stopped her from regularly lacing up pink-satin toe shoes, pirouetting across the wooden floors of mirror-walled studios, energetically dancing her way through high school and right to the doorstep of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in South Bend, Indiana, in the middle of her 18th year.

On the day she was received into the Holy Cross congregation, Sister Angela Mary recalls overhearing one senior sister whisper to another, “She’ll have to forget all about that dancing.”

Like St. Francis, who brought to his vocation a love of music and other fine arts, the novice may have left her patent-leather tap shoes behind as she embraced a religious vocation in the pre-Vatican II Church. But she never let go of the God-given gift of dance that would become the heart of a unique ministry to the poor.

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Bound for Brazil

After profession of final vows in the mid-1960s, Sister Angela Mary counted the days until permission came to board a Brazilian-bound plane, accompanied by a couple of other religious. All were intent upon dedicating their lives to the missions.

For nearly a decade, Sister Angela Mary worked as an educator and administrator at the Sisters of the Holy Cross-sponsored high school in an upper middle-class neighborhood near the city of São Paulo.

Still, she never lost the urgency that defines a missionary’s spirit. In 1976, she started doing outreach on weekends at a local parish that serves Favela Vinte, an area pulsating with families tangled in the grip of unforgiving poverty.

She teamed with a Brazilian sociology student, Luiz Carlos dos Santos. They assessed the area’s pervasive drug culture and determined that they had to implement a proactive program of prevention for the youth who wavered on the precipice of a destructive, downward-spiraling lifestyle.

Sister Angela Mary explains that in 1982 they took possession of a cramped, two-room wood shack in the favela. This gave a permanent first home for their ministry, which they named the Center for the Guidance and Education of Youth. In those early days, childlike curiosity drew a handful of boys and girls.

“That year, about 30 kids between the ages of seven and 17 came before or after school. We offered them dance classes and sports programs. Today, more than 20 years later, we have built up and out, adding more rooms—a total of eight—and we have about 250 boys and girls passing through these doors every day,” she says.

“Since the addition of an industrial kitchen in 2002, the children now receive a hot meal—either breakfast or lunch—and a nutritious fruit shake every day,” Sister Angela Mary points out.

The facility, which is open from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., is abuzz with activities supervised by five young women—such as 31-year-old Nilsete de Souza, a graduate of Santo Amaro University. At one time, all of these supervisors scampered about the cinder-block center themselves. Now they teach fine arts, creative writing, dance, computer skills, sculpting and more.

Active Peacemakers

Luiz Carlos dos Santos, 49, who graduated from the Pontifical University in São Paulo, oversees the center’s day-to-day management as well as the teams of soccer, volleyball and basketball players. He also spearheads the group’s social-justice program, called Take a Stand for Peace.

Sister Angela Mary claims this is the first movement of the poor to battle for peace. “Nobody notices or cares when a poor person is murdered,” she explains. “We tell our children that they must be active peacemakers.”

Sporting white T-shirts with their pro-peace message emblazoned across the front, the children and their adult leaders march to give visibility to their cause. “We have taken the children to the governor’s palace, to the cathedral, to the municipal theater, among other places in the city,” she notes. “We even marched to the bishop’s residence, where they were having a conference. One of the bishops came out and blessed us.”

She explains why dos Santos is personally invested in the movement: “He lost two brothers to violence and has channeled his grief into something positive.”

From time to time, the staff orders buses and takes a group of the children away from the chaos of the favela. Sometimes, they go to an overnight retreat center in the mountains or an oceanfront beach house donated to the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Occasionally, they see a traveling troupe of professional dancers.

“We are about enrichment,” says Sister Angela Mary. “The work here at the center complements their formal schooling. Our mission is to help them to be citizens, to build a faith life, to discover that beauty—whether it is in art, theater, music or dance—leads ultimately to God. Every child has the right to reach for the stars,” she says emphatically.

Hugs and Rules

When Sister Angela Mary arrives each morning at the center, the children are already busy with art projects, dance class, writing reflections on books they have read from the obviously well-used limited collection in the library or finding their way through a complicated computer program.

Some see her climbing the cement stairs and call out a polite greeting. “It’s one of the requirements for membership here,” Sister Angela Mary explains one morning as she returns the greetings. She calls each person by name, giving a handshake here and a hug there.

Beyond the respect that is called for, the participants understand that appropriate dress is the only way to be admitted to the center. Drugs, alcohol or behavior that is aggressive or violent are cause for immediate dismissal, Sister Angela Mary underlines.

Though the children are certainly not without a roof over their heads, that roof is likely to be tin and often leaking during the heavy rains, she says matter-of-factly.

One child approaches, at first timidly, then more insistently tugging at the nun’s sleeve: “Irma (Sister) Angela,” the girl pleads to get attention, then rattles off her cause in rapid-fire Portuguese.

Resolving the girl’s concerns and sending her on her way, Sister Angela Mary turns to her guests and speaks about the child: “Stephanie is just eight. She and her three brothers live with their mother in one room. Their mother ekes out a living as a school janitor—she has to walk three miles to and from work since she doesn’t have enough money for the bus.” She adds that the child is not only precocious but also shows great promise as a dancer: “Her brothers are gifted artists, too.”

The missionary nun has the drive, energy and stamina of a much younger woman. She remains fit and trim from a daily regimen of exercise, swimming and dancing. From time to time, she happily slips on her well-worn tap shoes and steps into the line to demonstrate a step, a leap or a complicated part of the choreography.

But mostly, she utilizes the ballerinas-turned-teachers to keep the center’s dance teams—boys and girls who don mostly handmade, colorful costumes—in tip-top shape in order to compete against other dance companies. In addition, they perform before civic and religious organizations.

Tireless Efforts Are Rewarded

Sister Angela Mary estimates that it costs $50 a month for each child who spends time at the center. The center has stayed afloat all these years on a modest annual stipend from her congregation, a steady but erratic stream of donations and, once in a while, a grant or a monetary award.

In order to expand, Sister Angela Mary realized she needed professional assistance. She turned first to Mara Jorge, a trusted friend who was once a student of hers from the early years in the high school classroom.

Mara networked with others from the community outside of the favela. Over time, they put together a Brazilian leadership team that included businesswomen, a fund-raiser, an engineer, a grant writer, an economist and an attorney.

Projeto Sol (Project Sun), as the umbrella organization has come to be known, carries the approval and blessing of Franciscan Bishop Fernando Antonio Figuereido, leader of the Diocese of Santo Amaro (part of the megalopolis of São Paulo). He wrote, “During many years as the bishop of Santo Amaro, I have closely accompanied this whole project. In spite of initial difficulties, little by little, the work took shape.”

Bishop Figuereido pointed out that Sister Angela Mary’s tireless efforts on behalf of the rights of children were rewarded on a warm night in August 1998, when hundreds of children and their parents packed into crowded buses. They journeyed from the favela to the city center of São Paulo to witness and cheer raucously as city council members conferred on the American nun the title of honorary citizen of that Brazilian city.

In 2001, a block of land was donated to Projeto Sol. It was an unsightly landfill dump, strewn with litter but within walking distance of the original center. The vision for a bigger, brighter space took form first on an architect’s drawing board.

Little by little, the concrete foundation was poured, and the walls rose up from what was once rubble and garbage. After countless starts, stops and frustrations over lack of funds, weather-related work stoppages and more, the tropical rains ceased and the sun shone brightly June 26, 2004, when Bishop Figuereido sprinkled holy water over the doorway to the Luiz Carlos dos Santos Cultural and Sports Center.

The bishop offered Mass for the youngsters who would fill the space with laughter and positive energy. He said, “I can only compliment all this work and effort which focuses on the good for innumerable young people, poor and suffering, on the margins of our city.”

Sister Angela Mary says that the next day “teams of children poured into the still-unfinished center and competed in regulation club soccer and volleyball.”

Rising From Poverty and Despair

Families are very much a part of the efforts to boost the morale and morals of the favela’s young people.

“The mothers are required to attend a meeting once a month and they meet informally for prayer, too,” Sister Angela Mary says. “We get together with them to talk over the obvious serious issues and then, sometimes, they come together in the evening for games and fun. These women work long and hard to help support their children. They need to play with carefree abandon now and then.”

It is no surprise that the favela’s overcrowded conditions frequently lead to arguments that often escalate to violence. Most of the children have either lost a family member in a drug-related gun battle or have witnessed such a crime.

Walking her guests through the dusty, crumbling streets of the neighborhood, Sister Angela Mary points out that each favela is typically an area of about eight square blocks, housing somewhere between 800 and 1,000 families. These days, the center’s work has extended to serve the neighboring favela. Thus, the numbers of children and families they help is expected to continue growing.

With the brisk movement of a professionally trained dancer, Sister Angela Mary leaves in her wake all those who didn’t have faith, who doubted that Projeto Sol could rise from the ashes of poverty and despair. She scoffs at the suggestion that the job is complete.

Almost breathlessly, she rattles off what looms on the horizon. “We have to find the funds somewhere to finish the construction [of the sports and recreation center], build locker rooms, add an art center, bakery, theater...,” her voice trails off. “We are a pilot project for the city of São Paulo and beyond.”

Commitment From Former Students

In the fall of 2005, former elementary and high school students of the Holy Cross Sisters in São Paolo offered their assistance. The Sanchez brothers, now 30-something successful Brazilian businessmen and co-owners of the Sinco Construction Company, were searching the Internet for an opportunity to give back to the community when they came across Projeto Sol.

After meeting face-to-face with the team and exploring the partially finished Cultural and Sports Center, these generous men committed to provide 40 percent of the labor and material so the plans and dreams of the American nun might come to fruition by June 2006.

Sister Angela Mary says the bottom line for the project’s completion is about $200,000 in American dollars. “I can already picture the dancers in their toe shoes pirouetting across the wooden floor, seeing their images in the mirror-covered wall,” she says. She also envisions an art room with a kiln, a playroom for younger children, a theater, a consultation room for volunteer doctors and bathrooms.

“All of this is within our reach now,” she adds, “in spite of threats and opposition from drug dealers and an unsavory element that tried to block our every move.”

When asked if she felt any kinship with St. Francis, who was another equally impatient religious and fellow artist, she laughs. Then, with characteristic humility and self-deprecating humor, she says, “I can’t tame a wolf but sometimes I can make my dogs behave.”

For more information about Projeto Sol, see the Web site for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Ministry With the Poor (www.cscsisters.org/development/development_southamerica_FY06.asp) or e-mail Sister Angela Mary at irmaangela@projetosol.org.br.


Mary Breslin, editor of the Catholic Explorer newspaper for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, spent six days in Brazil with Sister Angela Mary in March 2004..

 


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