“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy asked.
“Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you will find your treasure.”
What does this quote from the best-selling novel The Alchemist have to do with a Brazilian nun known variously as “St. Dulce of the Poor,” the “Mother Teresa of Brazil,” and the “Good Angel of Bahia”? The novel’s author, Paulo Coelho, felt personally indebted to Dulce. In 1967, at the age of twenty, he found himself in Bahia, Brazil, with a friend, completely broke. The two men heard about an organization called the Charitable Works Foundation of Sr. Dulce, so they headed there for a bowl of soup.
At the end of the line, they met Sr. Dulce, who had made a habit of greeting every person who came looking for help. When Coelho told her that he and his friend needed transportation to Rio de Janeiro, she acted. According to Coelho’s biographer,
The ragged appearance of these two mendicants spoke volumes, and so she asked no questions and wrote in tiny writing on a piece of paper bearing the name of the institution:
These young men are requesting free transport to Rio.
Irmã Dulce – 21/7/67
All they needed to do was to exchange the slip of paper at the bus station for two tickets. In Bahia, any piece of paper signed by the nun had the value of a voucher for a plate of food, having a relative taken into hospital or, as in their case, a bus ticket. (Fernando Morais, A Warrior’s Life: A Biography of Paulo Coelho)
Coelho never forgot Sr. Dulce’s small but vital act in his time of desperate need. He celebrated the canonization of Dulce—the first Brazilian-born female saint—by quoting her as saying, “Those who are busy planting love don’t have time to throw stones.”
Tiny Acts of Love. Through tiny acts like meeting every person in a soup line, Sr. Dulce managed to build a vast network of charitable organizations. She simply looked into the eyes of the person in front of her, assessed their need, and met it.
She came by it naturally. Maria Rita de Souza Brito Lopes Pontes was born on May 26, 1914, in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, to a well-to-do family with a heart for the poor and marginalized. A typical little girl, Maria loved her dolls, soccer, and flying kites. Her father, a dentist and professor, was known for his generosity to the poor. Her mother, Dulce, died when Maria was seven.
When Maria was thirteen, an aunt took her to a poverty-stricken part of the city, and Maria was deeply moved. She was already feeling the tug to religious life, so it’s possible that this experience cemented what would become her life’s calling. Like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, to whom Maria had a devotion, she believed tiny acts of love were the way to spread the love of Christ. Soon after her visit with her aunt, Maria flung open the doors of her family’s house and turned it into a refuge for people who were poor, needy, and sick. Determined not to turn anyone away, she begged her neighbors and relatives to help supply what was needed.
You can only imagine the typical family’s reaction to this, but Maria’s family was not typical. They all offered their support and encouragement to care for the sick.
“Another Christ Who Seeks Us.” In 1933, Maria, now eighteen years old, entered the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. The next year, she took the name Sr. Dulce (in Portuguese, Irmã Dulce) in honor of her mother. She was trained as a teacher and continued ministering to the poor with the support of her order. “If God would come to our door,” she once asked, “how would he be received? No matter who knocks at our door, if seeking comfort for his pain, for his suffering, [he] is another Christ who seeks us.”
In the early years of her ministry, Sr. Dulce steered the homeless and sick to empty buildings in a destitute part of Bahia known as Rats’ Island. (One shudders over the reason for that name.) Her charges waited as she sought necessities they desperately needed, from food and clothing to medical attention. Eventually the city evicted her from the area, but she was not deterred. She tried to occupy an abandoned fish market but was again evicted.
In 1949, with no other access to a useful space, she asked her Mother Superior for a spot. The only thing available was the chicken coop next to the convent. Her superior granted permission on one condition: that Sr. Dulce also take care of the chickens. She took care of them in the most practical way: they became dinner for the seventy people she had taken in!
Whether offering a haircut or handling a freshly butchered chicken, Sr. Dulce always trusted that God would provide what she needed. “Feel the voice of your heart,” she said. “It is through it that God speaks to us and gives us the strength we need to move forward, overcoming obstacles on our road.” These words seem almost prophetic now: the chicken yard eventually became the site of the Santo Antônio Hospital, another part of her legacy.
Seeking to Do More. Even with her emphasis on small acts of love, Sr. Dulce was a force to be reckoned with. She was a teacher, but she also opened her own school. She studied pharmacy, which enabled her to open a clinic. She began a library for workers, opened a hostel, and started the Roma Cinema and two other theaters, whose proceeds went straight into her never-ending social and healthcare work. She even founded the first Christian labor movement in Brazil: the Sao Francisco’s Worker’s Union (later called the Worker’s Center of Bahia).
If thirteen-year-old Maria had been told she would accomplish all this, she may have laughed. She simply wanted to heal wounds and give haircuts, but somehow these small acts grew exponentially. Like St. Teresa of Calcutta, Sr. Dulce always focused on the individual in need rather than on institutional help. Those efforts were rewarded over time through the growth of new organizations that sprouted from the seeds she had planted.
In 1959, with the help of her father, she founded the Obras Sociais Irmã Dulce. This collection of healthcare and social service organizations now cares for several million people every year. Its focus is mainly on offering free services to the elderly, people with disabilities, and those experiencing homelessness, addiction, and other hardships. Again, tiny acts of love add up.
An Example for Humanity. Though her spirit and resolve remained strong, for many years before her death, Sr. Dulce was plagued with her own health problems. Even with 70 percent of her respiratory capacity compromised, she forged ahead and continued to advocate and care for the needy. By the time she reached her late seventies, her respiratory problems had worsened, and she was hospitalized for nearly a year and a half. When she died on March 13, 1992, the entire country mourned her passing.
When Pope John Paul II met Sr. Dulce during his first visit to Brazil in 1980, he hailed her as “an example for humanity.” In 1988, Brazil’s president, José Sarney, nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. But even that high honor seems pale recognition for someone who would physically carry someone to the hospital if that was the only means at her disposal. Sr. Dulce’s cause for canonization was opened just eight years after her death, and she was canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019.
Always Plant Love. “Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” a boy in a book once asked—a book written by a man who had seen a heart of love in action. St. Dulce listened to her heart, which had become a dwelling place for the Spirit. What she heard there moved her to plant works of love. Finding Jesus in the poor and outcast, she found her one treasure. And in turn, she shared her treasures with a lonely and needy world.
As St. Dulce so beautifully did, may we be inspired to plant works of love. May we take her words to heart: “Love overcomes all obstacles, all sacrifices, no matter how much we do; everything is little in the face of what God does for us.”
Karen Edmisten is the author of The Companion Book of Catholic Days, which can be found at bookstore.wau.org.