To the sons of this land
thou art a gentle mother,
thou art a gentle mother,
-- Brazilian National Anthem
For many years I’ve heard to of the Colônia Souza Araújo. I knew well the Servants of Mary who transformed the miserable appendage for hovels into a respectable and dignified Colônia (colony) – but I never visited it before.
I was going there now, accompanied by Fr. Heitor Turrini, of the Friar Servants of Mary, one of the two friars who worked on making this transformation happen. As we walked the paved street that today leads up to the Colônia, frei Heitor told me its story. At the end of the 1930s, leprocy the gravest health problem in Acre. Malnutrition, the poor socio-economic conditions and overcrowing at home, were directly responsible for the spread of the desease transmitted by direct contact.
Just like the Biblical Lazarus, lepers were discriminated against, avoided and segregated from the rest of the population. When the government of Acre decided to provide an abrigo (shelter) for the lepers, they chose an place far from Rio Branco (the capital) in the middle of the virgin mata (forest). It was the Colônia Souza Araújo that the Servants of Mary found when they arrived in Brazil.
Fr. Heitor is visibly moved as he tells of his first contacts with the Colônia: “I was at the town of Boca do Acre along with friar João at the parish of Fr. Agostinho Poli. We talking were in the kitchen when an elderly friend arrived and said: ‘There are three meninos (children) who are lepers living along the river Acre.’ So friar João and I took a canoazinha (little canoe) and went there.
“The shock was tremendous because the three were only crianças (children), eight, eleven and thirteen years old. It was more or less about three in the afternoon, forgetting that two were missing dedinhos (fingers), and the other’s fingers were infected as well as his pezinhos (toes), we asked:
‘Ó rapaziada (folks) did you eat today?’
They answered, ‘no, we didn’t eat.’
We continued, ‘but did you at least have a cafezinho (cup of coffee) this morning?
The oldest responded, ‘Last night we shared two bananas among the three of us.’
We looked at each other, frei João and I and decided to come back to the casa do padre (rectory). ‘Frei Agostinho, there are folks out there who haven’t eaten anything!’ And we returned bringing along some rice, beans and two ovos eggs.
“So we began talking and they told us their story. ‘So where are you coming from?’
They answered, ‘we are coming from the outskirts of Liberdade up the Purus river.’
We insisted, ‘But why are you traveling sozinhos (alone).’
‘Our pai (father) died, then our mãe (mother). We stayed with two older brothers, who were also sick, but they told us “you are pequeninhos (little) but vão embora (go anyway), vão embora.” We didn’t want to leave them sozinhos (alone, by themselves). So they lived in a house vizinho (nearby), so as not to ficar sozinhos (separate from us).’
“They then said that the three got into a canoazinha and began their trip floating down river helping the boat along a little in the curves. When they looked back, they saw that their house was em chamas (ablaze). The neighbors had set it afire because many people had already died there and were sick there. ‘So how long have you been traveling before arriving here?’ we asked.
They responded, ‘we were in the canoe for nine days, and when we arrived we landed the boat here. We want to go to the colônia dos leprosos (leper colony) in Rio Branco, but we have to go up river and we don’t have the strength to go agains the current. We asked for help of various other canoes that passed by. They stopped looked at us, ficavam sérios (thought about it) and told us that they weren’t heading to Rio Branco.”
“So with frei João Cardinale, we began to look for) a boat that would take them to Rio Branco. Manuel passed by and accepted. He asked that the canoe of the meninos be tied to his boat with a cord that he carried. We got the line, tied the canoe to the batelão (a type of Amazonian river boat) and a part of our coração (hearts) traveled up with the three.”
“We saw them in the colônia afterwards, but I must say that one’s stayed glued, in the casinha (little house) where we would find the three meninos, and a few years later, our bishops Dom Julio Mattioli, Dom Moacyr Crechi and Dom Joaquin asked me to do something for the hansenianos, to make a more dignified place for them to live. So we began to build the first enfermaria (clinic) and a few houses made of masonry to receive eight more cases. There was a family from Cino del Duca, who gave us 10,000 Reals -- which at that time was a lot of money -- out of which were built the first houses, with the hope that one day, all the barracks would be replaced by masonry houses.
“Later, Amadeu Barbosa donated 200 hectares of forest close to the Colônia. Dom Giocondo and Fr. Alberto Morini, courageously began the work, the Procuradoria das Missões (Mission’s Office) in São Paulo sent donations, a cruzeiro (Red Cross member) here, another there, rarely were there more than five cruzeiros, but there were a few.”
Fr. Heitor found himself emocionado (breaking up), and we did not talk more.
We arrived at the new colônia, today the Hospital Souza Araújo, a succession of white residences, all made of alvenaria. We went from house to house. Everyone was happy and grateful because visits are rare. I thought that the situation would be difficult and embarrassing. What a surprize! They made us forget their handicaps. We talked, we laughed, they told us their “causos” (stories). In one house we played dominoes, in the last house we celebrated Mass together. It was four hours of an emotional intensity that when we left, I felt like I spent an entire week with them.
The leper situation in Amazonia has changed substantially, especially in Acre, where it was most serious. The Government gives a pension to the infirm, medical assistance is available on a permanent basis, and the treatments are free. As the sickness becomes less contagious after the first treatment doses, many of the doentes now return to live with their families.
Around the Colônia two neighborhoods sprang up, Bairo Santa Cecília with more than 300 families and the Vila Albert Sampaio with some 250 families. The majority are former lepers who built their casinhas rebuilt their lives through their pensions and help from the government, families and friends.
The work set up in Acre by the Servants of Mary, in Rondônia by the Salesians, on the Solimões River by the Capuchins, or in many other dioceses across Amazonia has been heroic and innumerable friars died young.
The Friar Servants of Mary have been in Brazil for nearly 90 years. Along with the Servite Reparadora Sisters, the Servite Galeazza Sisters and the St. Joseph Teaching Society have realized many wonderful projects. These include the Colégio Santa Juliana en Sena Madureira – the oldest school in Acre, built in 1924 by the Servite Reparadora Sisters; 50 other primary schools built by Fr. Paulino in the middle of the forest; the development of a health care ministry, using indigenous alternative medicines, the free distribution of such medicines; a untiring defense of the rights of the ribeirinhos and the seringueiros; an unending fight against drugs; a continued denunciation of the destruction of the forest and a promotion of a sustainable alternative policies ... as well as the Souza Araújo Hospital and the Santa Juliana Hospital in Rio Branco which are the pilars of the Social Service ministry of the Servants of Mary and today’s Diocese of Rio Branco.