A congregation of sisters with a mission — part of the Vincentian Family — are still reaching the poorest of the poor.
Sent to Malta to care for orphans 150 years ago, the Sisters of Charity of St Jeanne Antide have since been updating their services to cater for the poorest of the poor. Sarah Carabott of the Times of Malta spoke to Sr Teresa Tonna and Melanie Piscopo about the situation today.
Women roaming the roads for prostitution and the relatives of people with mental health problems are today’s poorest and most vulnerable, according to Sr Teresa Tonna, a Sister of Charity for 30 years.
“Our mission is to love and serve the poor, whoever they are, and we are continuously discovering new realities that the State does not yet cater for,” she told this newspaper.
“Our mission is only about people in need, whoever and whatever they are,” says Sr Teresa Tonna.
The nuns, who this year celebrate 250 years from the birth of their founder, Saint Jeanne Antide Thouret, came to Malta in 1868 to run the government orphanage in Valletta. Over the years, they worked at several places – from hospitals to homes for the elderly and from Corradino Correctional Facility to Id-Dar tal-Providenza in Siġġiewi.
At the beginning of the 20th century they opened a school for the children of those who could not afford paying for education. The school is still running today.
They also launched the St Jeanne Antide Foundation in collaboration with lay people to provide services for those who are not yet supported by the State, such as women involved in prostitution.
The foundation has a drop-in center where such women can eat, wash their clothes and take a shower during the day.
Our charism asks of us to support people wherever they are in their life, no matter the religion or what they could give in return.
Through this service, launched last year, they are also provided with accompaniment if, for example, they need to go to court. They can even be medically checked for STIs, as they might shy away from such services elsewhere. Foundation administrator Melanie Piscopo noted that breaking the ice with such women was challenging because it was difficult for them to understand that the foundation was providing a service without expecting anything back.
“Once, one of the service users asked the coordinator: ‘But why do you love me?’ They’ve never received unconditional love,” Sr Tonna pointed out. “Our charisma asks of us to support people wherever they are in their life, no matter the religion or what they could give in return. We are based in different countries, including places where vocations are impossible to come by.
“Our mission is only about people in need, whoever and whatever they are,” she added.
The sisters are based in 32 countries and, in Malta, the eldest is aged 106 and the youngest aged 30.
The foundation also tries to support those caring for people with mental health issues. Sometimes caregivers are so tired and stressed out that they risk developing mental health issues themselves, such as depression, so the foundation reaches out through a senior psychiatric nurse and home visits.
Sr Tonna noted that mental health problems seemed to be growing among school-age children.
Sr Tonna is studying communications. “One thing that worries me a lot at school is that there is a number of students who need help because of situations such as separation or an illness in the family.
“According to the law, we need the consent of both parents for any service, such as counselling or social working.
“If they don’t consent, our hands are tied. Unfortunately, I’m facing parents who do not want us to reach out for the sake of the children,” noted Sr Tonna, who is also the head teacher of the senior section of the St Jean Antide College, adding that she had met many parents who were in denial, even if the children themselves approached their teachers asking for counselling.
More information about the St Jeanne Antide Foundation and its work is available at www.antidemalta.com via Fondazzjoni St Jeanne Antide on Facebook.