Sister Julia Aguiar's knowledge and care have saved so many people that they call her "the angel of Benin."
Sister Julia Aguiar has been in Benin for 43 years. She says that it was God who put her there, in that small West African country from which, in 1966, the Camillians (the religious community founded by St. Camillus de Lellis) issued a call for reinforcements for their hospital.
At that time, Sister Julia was in Spain. She was born in Ourense (northwestern Spain), and by the age of 14, she had heard God’s call to religious life. She entered the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of the Mother of the Divine Shepherd. “I wanted to give my life to God and to the poor, but obviously I had no idea how it was going to happen,” she said in an interview. Before the age of 18, she left—with parental permission—for Venezuela and was going to be a missionary in Latin America.
However, she became ill and had to return to her homeland. During that stay, she, who had worked as a teacher, decided to take advantage of her time by training as a nurse. She realized that God had decided that her talent could be put to use in Africa. She said “yes” again: “I immediately replied that I was ready.”
She arrived in Cotonou, the capital of Benin, when the country was going through a series of coups d’état that would lead in 1975 to a single-party Marxist-Leninist system. In the midst of that storm of violence, she was working at a hospital in Zagnanado side by side with another missionary, Father Christian Steunou, an anaesthetist. They shared the same objective: “the health of the poor and the desire to give witness to God’s love for all”.
Sister Julia came face to face with a disease that was plaguing the population. “It was Buruli ulcer, a pathology that causes severe disabilities.” In Benin, the sufferer was considered the victim of a curse, and the sick were treated as pariahs. Nobody took care of them.
A world expert on Buruli ulcer
At the hospital, Sister Julia studied the disease and set up a system to deal with it. She had to overcome prejudice, superstition, and lack of resources. However, her knowledge and dedication triumphed—so much so that when the First International Congress on Buruli Ulcer was held in Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast), international organizations such as WHO used photographs of her patients to show the recovery process.
“Our stubbornness in the treatment of these patients ended up being the source of enormous progress against this scourge,” explains Sister Julia.
Because of her knowledge both in the diagnosis and treatment of Buruli ulcer, Sister Julia is considered an authority on the matter. In 2009, the University of Naples awarded her an Honorary Doctorate in Medicine and Surgery.
In 2018 she received the Anesvad Honorary Award, and once again she thanked the award committee for “giving a voice to those who have no voice.”
Children rejected because they have suffered “magic”
Sister Julia Aguiar’s vitality keeps her working in Benin. She just set up a center for children with disabilities and motor disorders. “Often these children are killed at birth, because they are considered ‘magicians’ who, bewitched, will ‘disturb’ the health of their own family … But these children also want to live. All you have to do is stay with them for one day to understand it!
Sister Julia asks that those of us at other latitudes remember Benin and see how we can contribute to the work of the people who she is helping directly. “The poor need our help … The poor need your support, God’s support! We are all privileged in [Europe], and we have a duty to think about it—not to make us feel guilty, but to roll up our sleeves and do something, all of us, each at our own level and according to what our heart tells us … Thanks to all those who help us, and especially thanks to God,” she concludes.