Sister Emília and the Daughters of Charity

Sister Maria Emília Bernardino was born in 1933, in a village called Azinheira near Rio Maior. 

At the age of 22 she went to the Hospital da Misericórdia de Águeda, where nursing was provided by sisters Daughters of Charity of S. Vicente de Paulo. She was there for twenty-one years, and at the age of 43 she went to the Hospital da Misericórdia de Alenquer. She returned ten years later to Águeda, where for eight years she cared for the elderly in the Home. From there, she went to the Hospital Rovisco Pais, where she remained “thirty years, six months and fifteen days”. She was one of the last sisters to leave the old hospital in October 2019.


Of the experiences prior to Hospital Rovisco Pais, the one that most marked her was the one she experienced at Hospital da Misericórdia de Alenquer, where she was practically a decade. She still has very vivid memories: “(…) it was a hospital, but when I got there it was worse than an asylum! There was nothing to eat or clothes to wear. There were twenty-one abandoned children and several sick and elderly people … some who were found on the street and were taken there … It was the greatest poverty that existed, but it was where I felt most happy! “


The situation has been circumvented in several ways. “(…) The superior sister went to the square and asked for cabbages for the chickens… but there were no chickens… It was just to be able to take out the greenest cabbages to make the soup for the sick and for the children! There was a farm, but it was rented and it was bad. As I was from there, when I went home, I asked for beans and other seeds and took them. With some old people, who were better off, we started to cultivate the land… At the same time, I went to family homes to give injections and make dressings and I didn’t charge anything… so they gave me cabbages, potatoes, etc. I took advantage of everything they gave me … It was what I wanted … In order to feed the sick! It was poverty … But look, my lady: I felt so happy in the midst of all that poverty … I once wrote to Social Security to describe the conditions we had and ask for help. They sent chairs and mattresses, they helped a lot! When I left it was better and today it is a home …”


In Águeda she worked with a dermatologist where she developed her skills and techniques for caring for the elderly and treating wounds: “I didn’t want any patient with wounds… I didn’t rest until I healed them. And I knew all the ointments”, said Sister Emília.


These experiences, and the “old course” she took in Campolide (Lisbon), even when she was in Águeda, ended up being useful in the reality she found at the Hospital in Tocha where she arrived on April 1, 1989.


At Rovisco Pais Hospital there were still “about eighty patients, who were installed in the Hospital building and in the Family Center 4”. At that time, the Hospital had not yet been converted into a Rehabilitation Medicine Center.


At Conventinho, an old building of the religious Crúzios of Coimbra, where the nuns quarters were, Sister Emília went to join four more sisters who developed their work there. From the time she was at the Tocha, her memories begin with the episode that led to the departure of the Daughters of Charity of S. Vicente to that Hospital in 1947: “One day a sister fell ill and was operated on by Dr. Bissaya Barreto. In the end, the sister went to ask him how much he owed and he replied that it was nothing. On that same occasion he told him that he was going to start a hospital for lepers and that he needed sisters to help with the care. At the time there were many sisters, but what was asked for was a great sacrifice, as I could assume that the sisters who entered there could not leave. However, this fact did not apply, and the sisters always left and even gave catechesis abroad. No one has ever caught leprosy … At the Sanatorium of Covões, in Coimbra, it was not like that, and two sisters contracted tuberculosis! The visiting sister, recovered from the operation, went home and told the sisters about this hospital. Look … Everyone was determined to go. I already had more than I needed!”


About the sisters who preceded her, she goes on to report other aspects, which she has been hearing over the years: “Initially four came but there were twenty-five sisters at the same time. In total, there were about one hundred and twenty five sisters who passed through Hospital Rovisco Pais. ” She underlined that “The sisters were very generous and made a lot of sacrifices… In the beginning, when the sick played, asking for help, they had to go to the pavilions, day or night… look at the distance between pavilions… And at that time, the sisters did everything, they had no maids, because nobody wanted to go there and everyone was afraid of lepers! They dedicated themselves and gave themselves to the sick, lepers, and they always showed great consideration for them.”


The presence of sisters and a chaplain would have been decisive in carrying out the processions of Branches, Body of God, Our Lady that there are photographic records. Sister Emília confirms that she has heard of these pilgrimages. She mentioned the existence of stills and flags, as well as walkers painted by the sick. She also referred to the habit of the patients to decorate the streets where the processions passed and to make cribs in each of the pavilions and in each case there would be a kind of “contest” to see which one was better. The patients also made theaters and had a choral group that sang at Mass. These ceremonies and traditions were part of religious assistance, joining other practices such as the Eucharist in the Chapel of the Hospital, or the communions and baptisms of the children at Preventory and Nursery.


Sister Emília acknowledged that “in the early days it was hard for me to see those people… They looked like skulls, all deformed. They were cured, but they were very scarred by the disease. There were many sick little blind, without legs or arms … But it got used. Sister Judite, who always worked with children, when she got there and saw it all, was crying a lot … The sick didn’t like her to cry … The maids helped her a lot and, little by little, she adapted. Then, I already made the clothes for them, because I knew how to sew. They liked her very much. ”


The sisters’ activities were equivalent to those of a Regent. Each one was responsible for their pavilion: “(..) they took care of things, they were the ones who provided the syringes and compresses to the nurses, sent the material to be sterilized and when they didn’t come well sterilized, sent them back. They managed the clothes, the dishes and had to account for everything … to drop the warehouse or replace it, when something went bad. ” Sister Emília said that when she arrived, in addition to these responsibilities, she also provided nursing care, putting into practice everything she knew from previous experiences.


In recent times, patients have been followed up in specialist consultations in Coimbra or Figueira da Foz and Sister Emília was, according to her, “the lady in waiting.” On a daily basis, she also “bought them what they wanted in the square… what they needed, and at their request, raised their pension, kept their money and gave them everything.” In her opinion, “(…) what they needed most was affection!” And she remembers with longing that in her time “(…) they went on trips to Fátima and other places, and holiday camps were organized for the sick on the beaches of Barra – Aveiro, Esgueira, Sintra and the Algarve.”



Over the three decades that she was at the Hospital Rovisco Pais she was “collecting stories”, sometimes lived, and sometimes told by other sisters or by the patients. She speaks with friendship abaout the patients and recalls some of them during the interview: “There was a patient, named Valeriana… You know they were young and they liked each other. Then, they remembered to go out and go to Father Amândio who married them. But they caught us on the street and went to the hospital “jail”, where they were for a few days. Then, at the Hospital, there they were given a little house, in one of the Family Center, and went to live together. They had several children, who were raised in the nursery and in the preventive. One day, she said to me: – After all, the disease was not contagious, because my children were generated by the force of leprosy and they never got the disease!”


She also shared the story of Honorato, an Alentejo patient “who, when he went to the hospital, had nothing, nor what to wear! I would get him clothes that were given to him by a doctor, and Sister Judite adapted them for him. He was always well dressed. He had no nose, and I went with him to Coimbra every week to inject him with liquid in the face in order to be able to fix his nose. Then when he already had a nose, he was all happy, because he was already like the others. But, he was unlucky … Sometime later, a tumor appeared in his mouth. As he was not baptized, he prepared himself and we waited to see if he could improve. But, it got worse and worse. When we asked him if he wanted to be baptized, he nodded and was baptized, but after fifteen days he died. Look, he was all disfigured, he had no tongue… he suffered so much and without complaining, he never said anything…. There were some very sad cases!”


She also recalled the case of Anastácio, “(…) a boy who was born at Hospital Rovisco Pais, walked at the Preventory, who is now a priest and is on missions in Mozambique, and who, when he was ordained, held a new mass in the chapel of Rovisco Pais Hospital”.


Still on the patients, specifically on the process of mandatory admission to the hospital, Sister Emília said: “They went there… they did not accept much, because many went under arrest and did not want to go. For some, it was always a great chagrin… to leave family and children! That should cost a little bit. ” Regarding the existing rules, she said: “What was wrong was that they could not leave and if they did something wrong they would go to prison. But also if it weren’t so and with so many people … And then many of them didn’t get along with each other … They baptized themselves with nicknames and didn’t talk to each other.” And she added with some sadness: “It was something I noticed in my time, but I never realized why.”


Sister Emília also alluded to the conditions offered at the Hospital: “inside there was nothing lacking, neither material, nor religious, they had everything, food, clothes and even, the little work they did, they received money, which they added. I even got to do the papers with the hours they used to receive. It wasn’t much, but it was a stimulus. There was also a teacher who organized a kind of adult school and, in my time, some even took the 2nd year. In the Family Centers there was a garden and vegetable garden where they cultivated vegetables and more, and each family cooked their own meals. At Quinta da Fonte, with almost 150 hectares, there were also two football fields and a lagoon, where they would go for walks, picnics, go boating or fishing.”


Some of the patients she met at the hospital were discharged and left the hospital but returned for several reasons. Sister Emília also confessed, with some sadness, that “(…) some patients never received a visit from their families, however, when they died, if they left money they would go and get it soon! And there were cases of patients who had a good nest egg, and some, of those who left, rebuilt their lives and started their own businesses. But most have passed away. There are still four patients in the hospital. They are quite old but live in excellent conditions, at Pousadinha!”


(Text based on oral testimony, in 2020, validated by the interviewee. Interview and writing by Cristina Nogueira – CulturAge)