Sr. Laura Girotto takes care of a child in the hospital she was instrumental in building in an area with an illiterate population that was devastated by the mid-1980s famine, and where young mothers — some as young as 12 — were ignorant of basic baby care, which led to far too many deaths. Photos courtesy of Sr. Laura Girotto

The world of Sr. Laura: Serving Ethiopians for more than 25 years

By 
  • March 14, 2019

OTTAWA – When Sr. Laura Girotto first set foot in Adwa, Ethiopia, in late 1993, it was hard to envision the miracle about to  unfold.

“I was asking the Lord, ‘Where do I start? What do I do?’ There was no food left for the people or the animals. … I had never experienced such misery,” she recalls.

The African nation was emerging from a bloody dictatorship. The economy was in ruins and nightmare memories of a 1980s famine, the country’s worst in a century, were still raw. The town of Adwa had been a frequent target of violence, including chemical warfare.

Into this walked Girotto, then 49, sent by her Mother Superior of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Italy to “see what has to be done.” The area was largely Coptic Orthodox. The Catholic presence had been mostly absent for centuries, though a priest had recently returned to the area.

“The people wanted Don Bosco there,” said Girotto, recalling her early days in Adwa during a February fund-raising visit to Ottawa.

For 10 months, she lived in a blue military tent until another sister joined her and they moved into a hut in the village. Children began to visit, communicating without words because of a language barrier.

“It started with the children,” Girotto said. “It was they who saved me in this tent, not knowing where to start.”

SrLaura Ethiopia02

She began by creating a little oratory for the children who “welcomed me with silence.” She gave them a skipping rope and began to educate them.

Not long after she arrived, she heard a woman crying and pleading outside the tent, about to give birth. She had been rejected for marrying someone outside her tribe. Girotto took her into the tent and helped deliver the baby. After the baby was born, the village women “took charge and took care of the mother and me,” and the new mother was welcomed back into her tribe.

Girotto began working with young children and mothers as young as 12, 13 and 14 years old and “in need of everything.” They were ignorant of basic baby care, house care and nutrition, in addition to being illiterate.  

Being an educational order, the Salesian sister’s mission was clear. She got to work creating a school that now  accommodates 1,500 children up to Grade 12. The school also offers a crèche so babies can receive care while their mothers attend class.

“Education is the highway to get away from poverty,” said Girotto. 

But despite the miracle of the school, built on the generosity of small donations, about 13 per cent of the mission’s children and young mothers were dying, due to illnesses, infections or complications from surgical procedures easily treatable in the West.

“After burying too many children, I decided we need to build a hospital,” Girotto said. Adwa, a city of about 40,000, had a hospital, but it was ill-equipped and considered a “place of death” by locals.

Girotto convinced her superior of the need for a hospital, but was told she could not count on her congregation for money or help. So she sought aid from the Cottolengo Sisters, whose charism is care of the sick, and the Memores Domini, consecrated lay men and women of Communion and Liberation. These orders sent not only money but members to help serve the poor.

“Ours is quite an unusual community,” said Girotto.  Each member reflects her own community’s charism, but they “live together, pray together, each with our own identity, all together serving the poor.”

Girotta’s life could have been much different.

Growing up in Turin, Italy, in the late 1940s, Girotto was one of seven children from a working-class family. With an admitted “passion for fashion” she earned a degree as a dress designer and began working at a fashion house.

But another career was waiting. To the consternation of her family, she “made the big jump” into consecrated life.  

Girotto’s desire to become a Salesian sister came from the love they showed her while they taught school. “I was a terror,” she recalled.

“I wanted to be one of the sisters who loved me and accepted me in that extraordinary way,” she said. “I wanted to be like them.”

Accompanying Girotto to Ottawa was Italian biologist Anna Carobene, a member of the consecrated lay association Memores Domini, who is helping create the medical laboratory at the hospital. The hospital is 70 per cent complete, but Girotto says 5-6 million euros ($7.5 to $9 million Cdn) are needed to finish the project, which includes a 200-bed hospital and 18 outpatient clinics. 

Carobene said the process of setting up a laboratory is far more difficult in Ethiopia because supplies cannot be easily ordered from the major supply companies that serve western countries. She is trying to create a network across Ethiopia to facilitate the purchase of supplies.

Carobene said she considers herself “very lucky” to be working with Girotto, whom she described as an indomitable character.

Nothing, including illnesses, has stopped her, Carobene said. 

“Her true strength, her energy that makes her untiring and tenacious in front of anything that happens, derives from her loving kindness,” said Carobene. “I’ve seen Sr. Laura cry several times because of the suffering of ‘her’ children. I’ve seen her kneeling, praying alone in silence, asking her ‘Boss’ the impossible.

“Don Bosco used to say, ‘Young people must not only be loved; but they must know they are loved,’ ” Carobene said. “That is exactly what happens in Adwa.”

The school, the hospital, the activities of the mission that is self-sustaining is “a reference point to show them what is possible,” she said. The point is to teach young people “they are to be the actors in their own future. They have to build their own country.”

“We prove it is possible by guaranteeing the basics,” Girotto said.

“We evangelize through education. The Church evangelizes through being attractive,” she said.

Many of her students have gone on to become professionals. One little girl who had been barefoot and hungry is now a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines. 

Carobene told the story of a young, very sick child, Militè, who told Girotto recently: “I’d like to become like you.”

“Sr. Laura asked her, ‘Why? Because I drive the car? Because I’m the boss and everyone obeys me?’ ”

“Militè replied, ‘Because you love the children.’ That is the real strength of Sr. Laura,” Carobene said.

 (To make a donation go to www.amicidiadwa.org., or send a cheque payable to “Les Souers Salesiennes,” 9299 Ave. Pierre de Coubertin, Montreal, Que., H1K 2H6. Indicate the cheque is for Adwa hospital in Tigray, Ethiopia. For instructions regarding wire transfers, email salesiennesmanager@gmail.com.)


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