San Gabriel da Cachoeira (Brazil). On 19 February 2023, in the gymnasium of São Gabriel school in San Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the State of Amazonas, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians with the Educating Communities of the Province of Our Lady of the Amazon (BRM), celebrated with joy and gratitude the 100th anniversary of FMA presence in the Amazon.
This is how the arrival is narrated of the first four missionaries on 16 February 1923, in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, after more than a month of travel:
“They had the courage to leave and, moved by the missionary ardor of those who follow Jesus, the great missionary of the Father, the first Salesian Sisters arrived in Amazonia, coming from the Province of Santa Catarina da Siena, San Paolo, at the request of Msgr. Pedro Massa, Salesian Bishop and then Prefect Apostolic of Rio Negro. The Provincial, Mother Anna Covi, chose the sisters ‘with care’ and organized the first group of missionaries who, leaving from Rio de Janeiro on 10 January 1923, arrived in Manaus on February 29 and in São Gabriel da Cachoeira on February 16. It was a 37-day boat trip. They came to help the Salesians already present, with the specific task of assisting indigenous women and taking care of the health of the people. They were: Mother Anna Masera, Sr. Antonia Beinotti, Sr. Caterina Oliveira, and Sr. Elisa Ferreira, accompanied by two young lay missionaries, Amélia de Mello and Antônia Alves. Women full of enthusiasm, because they are moved by the love of God”.
The journey was not without discomfort: “Despite the scares, the sisters were calm and courageous, serene and ready for any sacrifice, overcoming their natural aversion to that vegetation, the dark and agitated waters, typical of the mysterious nature of the Amazon. “After days of suffering, but full of hope and emotion and, above all, trust in the Lord who had chosen them to ‘cast their nets into deeper waters’, they arrived at the mission, the ‘promised land’. They were welcomed by a veritable fanfare, prepared by the Salesian brothers who rejoiced at the arrival of their sisters” (cf. “They Had Courage” p.52-53).
In the house Chronicle written by Sr. Elisa Ferreira, we read: “Finally we arrived in San Gabriel. We went to the parish to sing the “Te Deum”, receive the Eucharistic blessing and a few greetings. Everyone wanted to see the missionaries: men, women, children. They wanted to see us, touch us, examine us from head to toe. Everyone was amazed…”.
“If today it is still difficult to make this journey across the Rio Negro, imagine yourself in those times”, commented Msgr. Edson Damian, Bishop of the Diocese of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, who presided over the Eucharistic Celebration, concelebrated by twelve priests, including some natives, former pupils of the Salesian Sisters.
Present at this solemn moment were Sr. Paola Battagliola, Visiting Councilor of the FMA Institute, on behalf of the Mother General and the Council; the Provincial Sr. Carmelita Conceição, Vice-President of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM), numerous FMA and members of the Salesian.
At the beginning of the celebration, the arrival of the first four sisters was represented with creativity, a significant moment that aroused grateful memories, especially in those who were older and were students at the time of the first missionaries.
In his homily, Msgr. Damian highlighted the importance of the presence of the Salesian Family in the Rio Negro since 1915 with the male branch, and since 1923 with the sisters, who in a short time became part of the main indigenous communities. Fr. Edson recounted that upon their arrival, the indigenous leaders realized that they were different from the other whites who had come to the region for less noble purposes. The Salesians had come to share life with them and to pass on their knowledge, which made them welcome among the natives.
Msgr. Damian recalled that, in a Region in which the Government was absent until 1990, “those who took care of education and health were the Salesians and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians”, also helping to form indigenous young people in the schools of Manaus to make Catholicism prevail in the indigenous communities of the Diocese of São Gabriel da Cachoeira.
He also underlined that most of the FMA who work in the Brazilian Amazon are native to the region and there are many indigenous sisters. “It is a Congregation that has acquired an Amazonian and increasingly indigenous face”. On behalf of the Diocese, he expressed gratitude for the 100 years of heroic work of the Salesian Sisters, asking that “they continue to be here among us for many, many years, because they continue to do an immense good, an evangelization through education and their presence in families, in the community” (cf. CNBB Regional Norte 1).
Today, 100 years later, the 113 Daughters of Mary Help of Christians of the Province of Our Lady of the Amazon, with hearts full of gratitude to the God of life for the missionary passion of the first sisters and of many others who came after them, and through the heroism of the ad gentes missionaries of today, they continue this beautiful “story of salvation” with native vocations, bearing witness to the presence of the Risen Lord in daily life and walking with young people on the path to holiness.