Author: Salesian Missions

Publication Date: March 09, 2020

Walking in Mama Margherita’s Footsteps

She was raising five children as a single mother—yet still had enough love to give to others. Hearing the call to serve, Berta André approached Salesian missionaries in Luanda, Angola, and soon discovered herself caring for some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. Today, she remains an invaluable partner at the Mama Margherita Home—and an inspiration for the community at large.

In retrospect, the fit seemed preordained. More than a century and a half ago, a woman named Margherita Occhiena followed her son John into the darkest corners of Turin, Italy, to help needy children. Herself a widow and single mother, she acted as a surrogate mother for the “poor little outcasts” her son educated and served, helping to get them off the streets and achieve their full potential. This is the legacy of St. John Bosco and “Mama Margherita.” Berta models this same maternal example each and every day, overseeing a house where—to date—more than 100 former street children have successfully turned their lives around.

The road hasn’t been easy for her. Having grown up in one of Luanda’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods—and having been abandoned by an alcoholic husband who left her with few resources to spare—Berta related to many of the struggles these children faced. Despite her own challenges, however, her instinct to get involved was so strong that Berta quit her job and moved her family into the Mama Margherita Home. On those rare days when the work seemed too much—when she felt like just giving up—she prayed for strength.

“The Lord and Mary Help of Christians have always helped me,” she says. “When you work with your heart, everything is easier.” Early on, Berta’s children contributed to the work—selflessly committing themselves as helpers and role models. Together, the family would wake Mama Margherita’s residents, prepare breakfast, take them to school, and tend to them when they were sick. “We have managed to help many children by preparing them to return to their families and to society, restoring their dignity,” she reflects.

Today, her own family grown and moved on, Berta continues to serve—and has become so much more than a mother. She has fulfilled the roles of teacher, nurse and even a bricklayer, and has become a shining symbol of hope for the whole neighborhood.

“Berta is an example of just how important lay volunteers and supporters are to our missionaries’ success around the world,” observes Father Gus Baek, director of Salesian Missions. “In so many communities, our programs operate with limited staff and resources, yet we are called to serve as many people in need as they can. Compassionate and devoted people like Berta mean that so many children in Luanda who otherwise may have been lost to the streets have succeeded in building better lives.”

Following a devastating civil war that lasted from 1975-2002, Salesian missionaries have been making a meaningful difference in Angola. In addition to rebuilding damaged infrastructure including schools, training centers, medical clinics, and transportation facilities, they operate programs to assist community members struggling to overcome poverty and unemployment. With 45 percent of the country’s population under the age of 15, access to quality education is critical for the country’s success—yet remains out of reach for many. Only 20 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 receive secondary education. In addition to shelters and rehabilitation programs for homeless youth, missionaries offer educational, training and support programs that provide hope and opportunity.

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Learn more about our work in Angola.

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