Sister Chiara’s tale: “We are like a family here”

Sister Chiara is a Franciscan nun. From her convent in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone she busies herself, barefoot, helping those in need, including migrant women and their babies off the streets of Sicily.

“My name is Suor Chiara, I am part of the family of the ‘Sorelle Minori’ [little sisters] of the ‘Cuore Immacolato’ [Immaculate Heart],” begins Sister Chiara in almost a whisper, the sunlight early autumn casting golden rays across her face from the small window in the thick walls of the convent.

Sister Chiara is the mother superior here in this Franciscan convent, which is hidden in the corner of a narrow back street in Caltagirone, in Sicily. Although she seems quite young herself, she has also become a kind of mother figure to the migrants she helps. “Migrants tend to live on the margins, for all kinds of reasons, but for us, they are not a mass, they are valuable people, individuals who need to be cared for and loved.”

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She recounts how even women who have long since left the convent and found jobs all over Sicily will come back to visit at the weekend, “like children returning to their mother.”

“These are beautiful moments. We are just like a family here. They make me feel like a mother, because I try to love them as a mother would.”

Bare-foot nun

Sister Chiara and one of her fellow nuns, Sister Marta, walk barefoot not only around the cold stone floors inside, but also when they go on their outreach projects. If the roads are littered with sharp or dangerous objects, they may wear a pair of simple flip-flops or sandals, but generally prefer to remain barefoot.

Their habits also show the subtle and simple nature of their routine. On top of Sister Marta’s habit is a beautiful and practical apron made out of discarded denim jeans, it matches perfectly with the gray cloth of their washed out habit.

Both nuns have wide whites and bright eyes. Conversation with them is interrupted by regular prayers and the saying of the Angelus, a Catholic prayer. They live on donations and do not use electric light. A couple of oil heaters stand in a back room in the convent for when the weather gets really cold.

‘Our mission is to bring succor to the peripheries’

“Our mission is to bring support to those on the fringes of life. That includes street walkers [prostitutes] but really anyone who has found themselves on the fringes of their own life. We offer the possibility of them coming here and being cared for and being taken.” taking care of all the love the Lord gave us.”

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In Sister Chiara’s convent, over the years, many migrant women have found a place to stay, or a table to eat in, as well as help to look after their babies and children and an opportunity to build a new life for them themselves off the street.

“We have welcomed a number of women who found themselves pregnant and therefore were no longer able to work [on the street] and therefore could not afford to pay their own rent. We helped them bring their pregnancy to’ term and help them take care of their new babies. We try to find them work so they can re-establish themselves in society in the best possible way for them and their children.”

One of the women who is currently waiting calls in to say hello and Sister Chiara takes her baby in her arms and holds her high, before hugging her to her chest. Smiling lights up the room. It is clear how much she likes the children and women who share the life of the convent with them.

‘The miracle of life’

“I am always healthy when I talk about these children, the women often tease me about it. I often go to the delivery room with the women, so sometimes as soon as they are birth, they will give me the baby quickly. always crying at these moments, the miracle of life is just as beautiful to see. I keep a cradle in my cell, so I can help with the night work for these new mothers and their babies.”

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These babies “share everything we have in such a natural way. They are often present in the chapel, they sleep in the room with us, we go about our lives with them side by side side by side,” said Sister Chiara.

The women stay for different periods of time in the convent. “The Lord decides how long someone needs to wait, we never force anything. Someone might wait two or three months, someone else might need a year, someone else might stay much longer, so we can often watch these babies grow up, we take them to school, we take them to their activities, it’s great. In love time doesn’t tick, some wounds take a long time to heal, others will never heal completely, but we can’t put a time limit on it.”

‘I saw her dance with these women’

Sister Chiara often travels along the outskirts of the city, offering kind words, or to pray with the women waiting for their clients. The Sicilian journalist Alessandro Puglia, who writes regularly on the subject of migration for newspapers such as La Repubblica and Vita, accompanied her on one of these missions back in 2018.

“Her work is very impressive. The attitude she has with these girls. There’s a real level of intimacy with these girls. I saw her dance with these girls, and she plays the guitar in very good, and I saw them singing Nigerian songs in the street with her.”

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Puglia noticed that when potential customers looking for sex began to drive towards the women and then realized that the nuns were also present, they changed direction and disappeared. “When the girls see the car with Sister Chiara, they call her ‘Sister Chiara, Sister Chiara’.”

Although we meet one of the women who is currently staying with Sister Chiara, she is reluctant to talk to us. Her family knows where she is but not much about what she was doing before she got pregnant. She fears their disapproval if they find out.

Abuse in Libya

Nevertheless, Alessandro Puglia has spoken to many of the women over the years. “Unfortunately many of their stories are very similar. They often include cases of abuse in the detention camps in Libya. These stories never change and that is really frustrating.”

Until a few years ago, when the League Leader of the anti-immigrant party Matteo Salvini was in power, there was a huge reception camp on the site of an old airport between Catania and Caltagirone. The camp was known as Cara di Mineo and was closed down under his rule.

Puglia said that when the camp was still operating, and holding thousands of migrants, “there was a strong link in the camp between the Nigerian mafia and these women, so they ended up working on the streets.”

After talking to some of the women, he said that the majority really wanted to change jobs. “When I followed Sister Chiara [in 2018] she asked these women to write their own prayers. Many of them wrote ‘Please God, give me the strength to leave my job’.”

“God’s love,” said Sister Chiara “knows no borders, so we welcome anyone who wants to come here, we don’t care what faith they have, we welcome everyone to our hearts and our convent.”

‘I have learnt so much from the women’

“We get to know the family members of the people who stay with us, it’s about trust and developing a simple relationship with them,” explained Sister Chiara. “I have learned so much from the women we have helped, above all the generosity of the women. We live without money here, the Lord provides for us. One night, I received a call from a woman who needed help. We already had another woman here who had just given birth and only €10 to her name, that’s all the money she had in the world. When she heard that someone else needed my help like she did done, she gave me that €10 and told me to use it to go get the new woman, who she didn’t know but was calling her, and bring her to the convent. I didn’t want to , because I thought she needed the money to take care of her own baby. But she told me, ‘I’ve been in trouble so many times in my life, so I know what she needs, because I have had help. Take the money and go get her.’ I call these girls my princesses, we come from different places and different faiths, but we feel united.”

Also read: Aunties provide a safe space for women and girls in Palermo

The demand for places in the convent has been growing, mainly by word of mouth, says Sister Chiara. This led her to ask the Bishop for a larger convent. They were given a large building on the outskirts of Caltagirone, a former Cappucin monastery which they began to renovate in the summer. Alessandro Puglia reported on the renovation task which he tweets about here.

For the decenni è stato il luogo del degrado, dell’incuria e dell’abbandono. Il 15 giugno the ex istituto agrario di Caltagirone will become un luogo di rinascita

L’abbraccio di Chiara, Bernarda and Marta per le donne vittime di tratta via @VITAnonprofit

“That was such a beautiful day. We all came together, migrants, sailors, the community, and everyone offered what they could, as small as it could be. We became a chain of love and we began to renew the that building and cleared it of all the rubbish that had filled its walls and gardens,” said Sister Chiara.

‘Where there is suffering, there is God’

Sister Chiara also visits prisoners in the local prison. “Where there is suffering, there is also God. Because where there is suffering, there is a wound, and where there is a wound, there is an opening, a door that opens, and that is a gift.”

“I am honored to be able to go with these people, and wipe their tears. It is a sad place. We leave and they stay where they are, but if I manage to give a drop of hope, joy or love or comfort in. these wounds, then I feel good That helps build a fire of love that can be given in turn to others.

“We cannot be indifferent to women who work on the streets, or to prisoners who may have made many terrible mistakes. We are all children of God, and when we meet suffering, we becoming more human. Sometimes this suffering gives you a second chance. We are here with open arms to tell people, you can get up and walk on.”

The Mother Superior sees herself as the voice of these people who often do not have a voice, as support and a bridge for them to change the path of their lives. “When I go to meet the women on the street, I smile. Then I pray with them. I don’t see these women as prostitutes, I see them as wonderful women who have found themselves there because of the sadness in their lives.”

Also read: You are safe here, Centro Astalli in Catania

Outreach with a medic

Working on the street, says Sister Chiara, has many risks. Some women need help with sexually transmitted diseases or hepatitis, so the nuns take a doctor with them who can help give the women practical support and make sure they get their tests and any medications that they might need. The doctor also treats things like sunburn from standing for hours on the street waiting for customers. During the COVID pandemic, they also took oxygen with them for anyone who needs breathing equipment.

Sister Chiara says that the message she wants to send to any migrants who are having problems on the street is that she is “waiting for them. I would like them to know that they are not alone. If they they feel alone, we are here, we prepare a place for them, we want them to rediscover the dignity in their lives, and we want them to know that we are so happy to also welcome the treasures wonderful things they bring with them in their wombs.”

If you want help from Sister Chiara you can find her convent at Sorelle Minori del Cuore Immacolato, Via Gualtiero, 17, Caltagirone, or you can call the mobile phone +393278149152 and ask her for help.

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