Servant of God: Maria ‘Domitilla’ Hyams née Rota
In compiling this biographical profile of Maria ‘Domitilla’ Hyams née Rota, extensive reference is made to the 16 hand written diaries (and some additional loose pages) which Domitilla wrote at different stages of her life starting in the early 1940s and culminating with the last known documents dated 27 February 1970. These unpublished diaries document events prior to her marriage and emigration to South Africa, her life as a wife and mother to her husband and family in her new home country, and the start and early days of LITTLE EDEN Society.
The Domitilla diaries are important and critical documents in attesting to the fact that she, together with her husband, Daniel ‘Danny’ George Hyams, lived a life of heroic virtue. This biographical profile shows how Domitilla lived a life of service to the most marginalised and, more importantly, a holy life in the footsteps and service of Our Lord and the Madonna.
Domitilla was one of those rare individuals who led a truly spiritually orientated driven life and as a result also created purpose and hope for countless others. A life of ‘simplicity’ not hindered by the baggage of remorse, guilt, subterfuge, materialism, jealousy or any such encumbrance. Her unfaltering faith and constant prayers were what characterised her life. She had unshakeable faith and childlike trust in the goodness and provision of God. In a remark to a LITTLE EDEN staff member she noted:
“I’m not worried about the future. We have Jesus and Mother Mary – we have no problem”.
Note: With reference to quotes, text in [ ] brackets has been included for the reader’s clarity.
LINEAGE & ADOLESCENCE
Maria Rota was born on 7 May 1918 in the house of her grandfather Carlo Pietro Rota (known as Carlù b. 3 May 1857; d. 1 October 1936) – the house known as ‘Grumello’in the village of Albenza, a locality of Almenno San Bartolomeo, which is in turn a Comune in the Province of Bergamo in the Italian Lombardy region. Grumello was originally where Carlo Pietro Rota kept his cows. Living quarters were then added most probably when Carlo Pietro Rota married Teresa Tironi (b. 27 November 1857; d. ?) on 28 April 1879. Domitilla was the second youngest of four siblings from the union of her father, Carlo Giuseppe Pietro Rota, known as Carlì ( b. 13 August 1886; d. 15 April 1920) and her mother, Elvira Mazzoleni (b. 11 July 1893; d. 22 April 1965). Domitilla also had three half-brothers and sisters. Her father was a widower when he married Elvira Mazzoleni.
His previous marriage on 13 May 1909 to Ester Rosa Rota (b. 28 September 1889; d. 8 January 1914 of typhoid fever) was blessed with three children. Domitilla was just under two years of age when her father passed away. Life was not easy for Elvira Rota, née Mazzoleni on the demise of her husband. She did not remarry and apart from serving the dual role of mother and father to her family in times of severe hardships, she and the house also accommodated Domitilla’s cousin Renza (who had lost her mother in childbirth), Pio (uncle), Teresa (aunt) and their seven children . With faith, fortitude and courage and as the matriarch of the family, Elvira Rota nevertheless ensured the deep faith, spiritual and family values in her offspring.
Without financial means and in a rural environment lacking in facilities, Domitilla attended rudimentary schooling to approximately 10 years of age. Thereafter she helped the household to survive by looking after the few animals in the meadows, collecting wood and chestnuts in the forest and attending to work in the fields but above all, according to her cousin Egidio ‘Gigi’ Rota, she lived in deep adoration of her mother. In spite of her rudimentary education, her passion for the intellect however remained strongly infused as witnessed by her self-studies in her latter twenties in the topics of music, the Italian language, mathematics and above all a keen desire for her own spiritual development.
Domitilla, of strong character and determination, was also one to challenge the social norms of the day. In order to supplement the meagre household income, she found work at the Caproni aeroplane factory at Ponte San Pietro. Domitilla worked in the production and assembly department fixing the canvas material onto the wings of the aircraft. Since she had to climb stairs up to the aircraft wings to affix the canvases, she was one of the first women in her district to wear trousers and to ride a bicycle to work thereby attracting much ridicule and criticism from the conservatively minded villagers. Nevertheless such derision merely served to strengthen her spirit of persistence and fortitude which was to prove invaluable later in her life when she faced the many obstacles and seemingly overwhelming odds during the early days of LITTLE EDEN Society.
Domitilla was baptised in the parish church of San Rocco, Albenza. Her family, like most other village families, had close ties to the parish church with members consecrated to the religious life. As a young girl, Domitilla had dreams and aspirations of becoming a missionary in Africa. She related to authors Laura di Teodoro and Giuseppe Zois:
“…I liked to pass my free time in contact with nature, gathering chestnuts and cherries, or looking after the cows in the green fields in the fresh air, or on my bicycle riding to my music lessons in Bergamo. Always singing and praying, dreaming of one day becoming a missionary in Africa.”
San Rocco was also the church where on 8 September 1947, Domitilla and her future husband Danny were married by the parish priest Don Francesco Gasparini in the presence of her cousin, Don Enrico Rota. The marriage was then recorded in the State Civil Register on 20 September 1947.
The first encounter of Domitilla and her future husband Danny during the latter stages of WWII is best described in Danny’s own words:
“…We first heard of the Elvira Rota family when a daughter, Ester, organised a safe trip for POWs to Domodossola on the Swiss border…. We had kept remarkably well during that first winter , notwithstanding our not having three meals a day, nor a hot shower every night! Later on a nasty boil developed below my chin and Palmina insisted I get help from la signora Elvira of Cà di Precc….
…In answer to the knock on the door, we were greeted by a smiling young lady, a daughter, Domitilla. She was not put off by the one fellow’s face which was wrapped in a piece of black cloth. The Rota family were no strangers to vagrant, mendicant prisoners, as for the previous 10 months, Domitilla had been taking a pot of minestra [a nutritious vegetable soup] daily to the group of Serbs hiding in the forest. This she did, notwithstanding that anyone found harbouring a prisoner could be summarily executed…Signora Elvira offered us shelter in an almost derelict building that had stood empty for many years. This brought us nearer to the other three South Africans and also we now visited the Rota girls more frequently, so much so that we were soon accepted as part of the family and the Signora changed to Mamma.
By the end of March (1945) the battle lines were still south of the river Po when Domitilla casually asked our advice about a proposal of marriage she had received from Mirko, one of the Serbs. Here was a 26-year old country girl asking two younger strangers for an opinion on such a delicate matter. In the absence of a male in the family, did she approach us as father, brother, friend, or counsellor, or, Heaven forbid! competing suitor? Counselling had not been part of our military training and we suggested she seek advice from Mamma, or Ester, or Pia, or from all three. Going “home” that night we were not particularly talkative, when suddenly Owen said, “I want to marry Domitilla” and I immediately replied, “I think I do too.” A lightning-flash awakening like St Paul’s Damascene experience. Were we crazy? What on earth did we find attractive in this unassuming young lady, with her simple innocence and fearless loyalty to her daily Mass? Perhaps, like me, Owen suddenly realised here was a pearl of great worth.
With the cessation of hostilities in Northern Italy in early May 1945, Domitilla and Danny visited the shrine of our Blessed Lady of Cornabusa where Domitilla gave Danny a souvenir ring of the Madonna as a pledge of their betrothal. On 20 May 1945, Danny recalled that he received his first peck on the cheek as he bade farewell to Domitilla, the Rota family and the many wonderful village folk who had assisted the POWs. His departing words to ‘mamma’ Elvira were:
“God willing, I will be back in two years to claim Domitilla!”
“To get married we had to wait two years. The time it took to complete the studies he had interrupted five years earlier because of the war. Few would have wagered that our story would continue. For my family for my friends it was difficult to think that a man would have waited two years for his bride distant 10 thousand kilometres but Daniele kept his promise and in 1947 our dream became true.”
With reference to the wedding day, Domitilla penned the following:
“Nuptial dawn Eight September 1947 Nuptial dawn! A radiant September morning! A dawn of light, poetry and enchantment. How filled I was with the joy of life! Unforgettable day of consecration of human love raised to the dignity of a sacrament. Shortly, after this unforgettable dawn, I will be the spouse of my beloved young man for all my life. From the decisive moment when the minister of God joins us in Holy matrimony the spirits, the thoughts, desires, anxieties and the pains of the one will also be those of the other. What moments of trepidation!…
…We both prepared for this holy day with a spiritual intensity of little sacrifices. Daniele thanked me the day before for my behaviour towards him and I thanked him for his loyalty and purity, how wonderful and great!…
…I also prepared myself with a course of holy spiritual exercises for engaged girls at the Villa Santa Maria from 28 August to first September 1947.We also both made a novena of Holy Masses and Holy Communions…
…Radiant spouses! For the first time we knelt together to receive the Bread of strength; the Life that gives life, Jesus in the Holy Eucharist! We left the temple of God with holy thoughts and radiant hearts that this halo of happiness would last a lifetime!…”
NEW LIFE IN SOUTH AFRICA
On 8 December 1947, exactly three months after their wedding, Domitilla and Danny Hyams bid farewell to Albenza, to Elvira, to family and friends and set off for distant South Africa arriving on 15 December 1947 where they were met by Danny’s family
For the first ten months the newly married couple lived with Danny’s mother, Agnes and her husband, Duket William Treurnich (b.6 July 1892; d.19 November 1956) on New Modder Gold Mine, near Benoni before moving into their own home at 47 Mary Street, Florida, Johannesburg. In those early days, life was calm with great hopes for a rosy future – even though it presented a daily struggle to make ends meet.
Soon a baby girl was on the way followed by another four daughters and a son. A woman of profound faith, Domitilla turned to the Madonna every day in her prayers and so all the children’s names incorporated the name ‘Mary’ in her honour. The 50s decade up to the mid-60s was a busy one for the Hyams parents – their hands fully occupied in caring for and raising six young children. But these were also times of strengthening the bonds of love, togetherness and companionship that was to last for the next sixty years. Notwithstanding the daily difficulties, the family grew up in a joyous and warm relationship. Family prayer time and attendance at Holy Mass was the norm notwithstanding that all travel to and from church was by foot.
As noted earlier, being an ardent diary writer, Domitilla kept an almost daily account right up to the end of 1954 of the progress, the trials and tribulations as experienced by herself and Danny as parents and also each of the children, but always punctuated with snippets of her and Danny’s devotion to Holy Mass, the sacraments, her love of Jesus, the Madonna and her husband.
“…from her conception we offered her [their first child] to Our Lady…Our desire: to see many children blossom from our holy union…blessed and glorified be God in the sublime order of nature and procreation…1950 Holy Year we… went … to Cornabusa to give thanks and to consecrate our child because Our Lady gave her to us…”
As the family grew a glimpse of their daily life routine is recounted by one of the daughters:
“We prayed together as a family, we were taught our prayers and every morning mom and dad said morning prayers with us as we prepared for school and while mom brushed and plaited our hair. At meals we always said grace before and after eating. At night we prayed the rosary and night prayers together and on Sundays the angelus at midday.
We were encouraged to make spiritual bouquets holy mass, rosary, sacrifices, and short prayers eg ‘Jesus I love you’); we offered our day to the lord and said special prayers; if someone died or was ill or needed prayers. We had chores and on Saturdays made sure we completed them all and so our Sundays were days of rest and fun. Benediction was part of our Sunday.
During Advent when we made a sacrifice we would put a piece of straw in a container to build a crib. Mom and Dad worked closely together, dad cutting out dress and pyjama patterns from newspaper and mom would do the sewing. Mom knitted our jerseys and socks she was always busy never without something in her hands, dad was always there to help her.
When aunty Lucy was living with us and father (the priest) brought her holy communion mom would put on all the lights from the front door and down the passage and she would put her pot plants along the passage and we would then join in around aunty and be present for the short service.
Mom and dad were always ready to help others. During the winter months mom would make a pot of soup for the family and would always send a small pot to an old Italian lady living near us in the old age home. Thursday evenings mom would send a bowl of pasta to the priests.
We children always enjoyed dad reading stories to us before we went to bed it was a very special time. I was never aware if my parents had a disagreement, they were always loving and supportive of each other.
When LITTLE EDEN started mom was very proactive and always wanted to improve the situation but dad was very cautious and at times did not agree with mom and letting others to agree to her requests.”
The diary stops with the last entry dated 30 November 1954 before the next known diary and its first entry dated October 1966. It is possible that with 5 small children, aged between 3 months and 5 years of age – and Tarcisio in 1957, Domitilla had more than enough on her hands merely in coping with the family needs.
INITIATION OF LITTLE EDEN SOCIETY
In 1965 during a visit to Italy to present Domitilla and Danny’s youngest child to Elvira Rota the family were almost persuaded by relatives to remain in Italy in view of the then increasingly repressive laws and ideologies being introduced by the then government in South Africa. Domitilla recounted that whilst on a short walk down a mountain path to Grumello, she became aware of a strong message, an inner voice, telling her that there was much work to be done in Africa. Only much later would she realise that this voice appeared to be that of her recently departed mother, who had died just before their arrival. Domitilla there and then convinced Danny that they would return to South Africa.
In one of Domitilla’s first diary entries dated October 1966 we find:
“Lately I feel that You, Oh Jesus, are transforming my soul. The thought of death used to make me shiver, but now it no longer matters to me, except for my dear ones. My life has a much greater value. Jesus is working in my soul. In Holy Mass I find much peace and happiness. Jesus loves me and I tremble at the thought that I offend him so often. Jesus calls me and teaches me to follow him step by step on the road to Calvary and to live these solemn moments at the foot of the Cross. Our Lady of Sorrows with pierced heart invites me to gaze upon that Jesus Immaculate Lamb, pierced by iniquity and wounded in his love. Jesus has given all of himself for us to redeem us from sin, a mortal offence. I wish to suffer with You Oh my Jesus the pain of Your Crucifixion but You only allow me to desire it. Jesus transform my soul, may it be near You and learn to meditate upon these great moments. I love You my All, may I suffer all for You my Jesus and learn to make amends for these our iniquities. Teach me Jesus to carry my daily cross, make me holy and sanctify my dear family. May I be to them light and guide along the way. The sudden death of my adored mother has opened the doors of my soul. I feel in me a force that urges me to the good. This loss has been a purification of my soul. Great grief that has broken me but I have found myself again and the strength to do good to those who suffer. These burning tears have found favour in the heart of Jesus and now flower blossom copiously. Mother was a Saint, an apostle, a martyr! Her life, strewn with sorrows, tears and virtue is the road that I too must follow.”
This sense or force “…that urges me to the good…” was clearly starting to become more prominent as we read in another diary entry shortly thereafter on 24 October 1966, when Domitilla wrote:
“My wish/My desire.
The time has come for me to express my ideas my desires that have been tormenting me for over a year. In this period I have expressed all this with the [clerical] authority and the reply: pray and pray that if it is God’s will your wish will come true.
Though unworthy, I have prayed and placed my faith in Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the Sacred Heart and in St Joseph! In Holy Mass I have turned to Jesus…”
“…I am so happy now because the Grace of God was working in that beautiful soul, teaching whoever came near that suffering is a blessing… I am a Legionary and my work is to visit the hospital weekly where I draw ever more strength and new ideas and desire to do good to my neighbour. My great wish if the Church authorities will allow it:
The perpetual adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament; let us pray and hope in Supernatural help. Or else one day a month on the first Friday or an hour a month if more is not permitted but do and give something to Jesus whom we so much offend….
Form our little ones into giants and true soldiers of Jesus. For now we visit the Most Holy Sacrament in the chapel of St Anne …visit the sick in hospitals, clinics, private homes, old neglected invalids, house by house.
Visit the priests, missionaries one or more times a month as needed…Gather the children from the streets and teach them Catechism…Visit the prisons take them the good word of God…
Firstly we must build these good works upon solid foundations. Here is the source: Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament. Talk to Jesus our Father, Doctor, turn to Him often, talk with him…
It must not be a parochial project but once established [and] organised, take flight for farther destinations and stop where duty calls.. Having a spiritual director is important for formation and guide on the road to good and to perfection…
…Our Lady of Mercy (24 September) be our Patroness, St Joseph the sponsor of good. [May] the Sacred Heart of Jesus grant us his Divine love. (Angels of Mercy) the name of the group…
Let us pray Divine Providence for supernatural help. We hope one day to have institutions where we can place these poor people that we will find and in many cases [are] burdens to their families. Let us pray and hope that Divine Providence will not leave us discouraged but that institutions and Homes arise as we need…
The Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament is very important, it is a heavenly devotion. Important for the formation of our children and to prepare them for life. Important for families where they will draw strength to defend their hearth and consequently vocations will flourish – now so scarce. Important for the afflicted, the sick infirm, they will find comfort for the alleviation of their suffering and to suffer with Jesus and for Jesus…
…Jesus our all must triumph and be publicly adored by his subjects. If this will be done with rightful intention one day the novitiates for priests, for the religious life will overflow with new shoots…
We know that Holy Mass is the greatest Sacrifice; it is all and we need to feed upon the bread of Angels but also to adore this Heavenly Bread! He who goes to the fountain slakes his thirst! And he who goes to Jesus this fountain of life finds life. We are human and we have very many miseries, passions. True life that redeems us from our weakness awaits us. Jesus our doctor awaits us to bind and heal our wounds! Jesus triumphant on the altars will be to us light, guide!
Again today I had the privilege of attending Holy Mass and with Our Lady of Sorrows to witness the Crucifixion of our Jesus. What great intimate moments. What have I done my Jesus to be so privileged… Jesus you love me, I love You my infinite good but I am ungrateful, rebellious, unfaithful to supernatural admonishments… I must be thankful day by day for this gift of life… I want You my Jesus my great infinite love. Teach me true beauty. My thought often joins You in the Tabernacle where You are enclosed waiting for me to speak to You, console You, keep You company… Oh Jesus let it be that one day not too far away in this country of ours, may triumph the perpetual adoration to the Most Holy Sacrament to Your pierced heart…”
This passage is important from a number of aspects, viz:
- For someone with a rudimentary education at best, the writings are significantly profound
- Sections of the writing, and as further seen in the diaries, are frequently a one-to-one communication with Jesus and/or Our Lady.
- Even at this early stage, the desire is expressed to help the needy and to do some charitable deeds. The idea of establishing a hospice based on solid faith foundations is expressed as well as the notion that this needs to take root elsewhere and not just a parochial event.
- For the very first time, the assistance of Divine Providence is mentioned. This aspect of her faith, is one that Domitilla would often refer to in her later years and one which came to be incorporated in the LITTLE EDEN Mission Statement .
- Just as evident is Domitilla’s early fervour in ensuring that souls are not lost – neither those at death’s door nor those of youngsters embarking on life’s journey
- Subsequent to the establishment of LITTLE EDEN, Domitilla and Danny remained concerned that although the physical care component was well catered for (also as evidenced in many other similar homes for the disabled), the spiritual care component was generally almost non-existent. In their minds this care ‘norm’ presented a serious and fundamental flaw, a critical missing link in the holistic lifetime care regime. For this reason, the Mission Statement of LITTLE EDEN was revised to include the spiritual care component.
- For Domitilla and Danny, the wellbeing of the religious and perpetual adoration were important aspects to be nurtured and promoted. In the early days following their move to Edenvale, they would often send a plate of food to the parish priest. Their house was always open to any visiting priest and religious. In the years that followed and with married children they initiated a weekly rosary evening every Tuesday where all siblings, grandchildren, the parish priest and any visiting religious were invited to a meal followed by the Rosary. With the establishment of the Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at the Edenvale home of LITTLE EDEN, a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration was initiated and continues to this day before every first Friday Holy Mass.
Towards the end of 1966 and after various discussions with her parish priest, and with other religious concerning her wish to visit hospital patients and her suggestion for Perpetual Adoration she wrote:
“… we know there will always be some soul in adoration every minute of the day and we will obtain graces on our works of mercy…”
When however she was informed by her then parish priest that henceforth she could no longer visit the male hospital patients and only the female patients, from her accounts, Domitilla took this news badly as she notes that for more than a year she had been visiting such patients. But if this was the instruction from the parish priest she would obey, noting:
“…Thus have I done but all this with regret but obedient and every time I visited the hospital I was aggrieved.”
Then follows a remarkably significant but simple statement which can be regarded as the seed of LITTLE EDEN:
“Jesus has rewarded me for this grief and now I am investigating plans to build a hospice to house the needy.”
Angels of Mercy support group and the Padre Pio prayer group
In the interim, Domitilla had formed a group consisting of 5 women who called themselves the Angels of Mercy whose purpose it was to visit and support the sick and old age. Regularly they would meet for prayer meetings as the Padre Pio prayer group. Accompanied by two members from this group, Domitilla went to the Edenvale municipality to request land in order to build:
“…an institution for our retarded , invalid, paralysed etc children…these poor creatures who live unknown abandoned.”
“…I prayed before Jesus in the Sacrament with all my heart for this project; I asked Him to bless this, my work which I hope is about to flower.…”
This action was initiated with no financial resources, no building plans, no business plan, no external support, no firm commitments, no medical or professional expertise but based purely and simply on faith, hope and the charity of desire to alleviate the lot of those less fortunate.
Establishment of LITTLE EDEN
On 1 February 1967, a historic first meeting took place at Domitilla and Danny’s home when a diverse group of people congregated with a common aim, viz. to assist handicapped children in the area and as a consequence to also assist the affected mothers. Domitilla recalled the meeting as follows:
“A great day today! Jesus, thank you!
Our first group of twenty-six people all interested in the plan to build a home to place mentally retarded children. We met at our house at 10 Saint Anne Road…My husband very kindly led the meeting …Pray and work must be our motto…”
Then followed many meetings and visits seeking support and suitable premises before LITTLE EDEN formally opened its doors on Monday, 15 May 1967. In the interim, Domitilla was fervent in her prayers that LITTLE EDEN would succeed as evidenced by a typical diary entry:
“…At the Offertory after having offered up as usual my dear ones etc, etc I placed in the chalice with the Host this project, this future Home, Little Eden. All this that I see in the future I placed in the chalice and I asked Jesus, Jesus take possession bless and render holy this work! May what we are about to begin be Your blessed work and may it bloom like a lovely garden in Spring and the loveliest flowers be these children. Thank you Oh my Jesus I was so moved this morning. I felt You so near in Holy Mass…. I was happy because I have been praying for nearly two years that Our Lady will help me. This Holy Mass will be the cornerstone on which we will build these good works. I asked Him to bless this, our project Little Eden. Thank you my Jesus!”
Before LITTLE EDEN was to formally open its doors, Domitilla had a very clear objective of what she wanted to achieve. In a diary entry dated 4 April 1967 she wrote:
“…I can dedicate myself to do good to the needy…I thought and thought could I not give a little of my time to alleviate human sufferings? There are a good number of families with abnormal children and these poor parents only know tears and broken nights especially if they look to the future. I thought and thought and prayed that Divine Providence would enlighten me on what to do and I feel in myself the strength to do something towards this aim. I would very much like to see a building raised to house, heal and alleviate human suffering… where human suffering will learn to smile and live its own life…By doing this we shall see parents smile dedicate themselves to their families with energy and vigour and they will say: Our child is happy…These children have a right to life like all of us and no matter that it is a limited one…”
Then follows an insightful and thought provoking passage:
“These little ones with an empty, vague gaze, due to their abnormality, their souls are more beautiful than bright sunshine, pure as the snow, sparkling like diamonds in the rays of the sun. They are angels, they are the most beautiful, they are our lightning conductors and we must protect them with veneration because these beautiful souls are our angels. God Creator could have created them normal; there must be a reason that we cannot see and we accept this as a sign of His predilection…”
Domitilla’s absolute conviction was that the severely intellectually handicapped could not consciously offend God and hence are the privileged ‘meeting points’ between God and man. Her reference to them being ‘angels’ reinforces this view – a term she often used thereafter. The reference to the handicapped being ‘lightning conductors’ is explained by Rt. Rev. Bishop Graham Rose as: “…they are the first to attract the compassion and the presence of God…”
Domitilla then continues:
“…Human suffering teaches us to be charitable not selfish, and dedicating ourselves to this suffering, our spirit is uplifted …We have no means, we have nothing but we look calmly to the future. Divine Providence will assist us and Little Eden will open its doors to the first children within a few days… The smile of these dear ones will be our great reward. Jesus I love You, I adore You!”
Domitilla regarded the human suffering which she saw in the children and parents of LITTLE EDEN as having redemptive value. Much later, she would note:
“The Madonna and Jesus are present in the corridors of LITTLE EDEN. I like to think that every night they pass by every bed placing a kiss on the forehead of every one of these little angels”
On 15 May 1967, LITTLE EDEN was officially opened although the first 3 children (all day-care at that stage) were only accommodated a week later on 22 May in the temporary accommodation provided by the Edenvale Methodist Church.
The trials and tribulations of the history of LITTLE EDEN are well documented in the published work ‘LITTLE EDEN – 50 Years of Love and Care’ by Luigi Slaviero and are not set out in this biographical profile. From an initial start as a day-care centre with no funds and looking after three little girls with intellectual disability, LITTLE EDEN, through the Grace of God and with unfailing trust in Divine Providence has flourished into two permanent facilities situated at Edenvale and at Bapsfontein. LITTLE EDEN today cares for 300 residents on a 24/7 basis, driven by its core Values of Respect, Sanctity of Life and Love & Care and with a committed staff of over 250 salaried personnel including local and overseas volunteers and the permanent presence of Indian Sisters of the Imitation of Christ (a Domitilla vision which came to fruition in 2010). Domitilla’s premise from day one was that LITTLE EDEN would help the most destitute and would not turn away anyone who could not contribute to their upkeep – a philosophy adhered to even today. The majority of residents have always been and still are either abandoned or come from indigent families. As such care is from cradle-to-grave and the ashes of many past residents are interned in the two chapels’ Wall of Remembrance. To date, LITTLE EDEN has cared for over 1 000 children with intellectual disability – the majority of whom were known to and cared for by the founders, Domitilla and Danny.
In the course of its progress during the last 50 years, LITTLE EDEN faced some very serious challenges to its sustainability. These were always countered by Domitilla’s standard response: “Pray, pray and Divine Providence will provide.” And so Divine Providence did – often in the most unexpected ways.
It is important for this biographical detail to outline an occurrence during this period which firmly cemented Domitilla’s beliefs that she was merely the conduit for the call of Jesus and the Madonna – but an occurrence which also caused her husband and family much disquiet. On 6 June 1967, Domitilla wrote:
“ … I was thinking also of the motto and emblem of our work and in a flash I saw a beautiful Madonna! Celestial creature lovely with arms open wide like the one of our church which I always admire and with a group of children as if seeking the protection of her beautiful mantle. Great figure, sweet, lovely, all pure immaculate! I have imprinted in my heart and in my soul..”.
Domitilla would later always affirm that she only saw the backs of the children (not their faces) and for this reason she was adamant that LITTLE EDEN would welcome (and did welcome) children of colour even when this was against the prevailing legislative frameworks.
There was an immediate scepticism about Domitilla’s assertion of the ‘apparition’ – which was never investigated. The resultant outcome however was far more difficult than positive for the family to the extent that Domitilla was even referred to as ‘unbalanced’ in certain quarters and her own children bore the brunt of derision and taunt. The general incredulity did not deter Domitilla from doing what she believes to be God’s work. Often when taking visitors around LITTLE EDEN she would remark that it was not her work but that of Jesus and the Madonna and that she was merely their ‘hands’.
Domitilla’s oft repeated reference that we are the ‘hands of Jesus and the Madonna’ has a thought-provoking anecdote – one of many similar over the course of LITTLE EDEN’s history. In 1967 whilst on a short holiday with Danny at the Mariannhill Monastery near Durban, Domitilla was later to recount that during a quiet moment in the monastery chapel she experienced a vision of Jesus which she later described as follows:
“I was on holiday with my family at the Marianhill Monastery in KwaZulu Natal when I saw Him. His eyes were sad, his hands were not visible and only one foot could be seen.”
That vision was the impetus for the future Elvira Rota Village. She interpreted this vision of ‘no hands’ as meaning that we, the people serving LITTLE EDEN, are His hands. Some years later Domitilla wanted a painting of this vision to be commissioned by a local artist. Whilst painting the picture the artist approached Domitilla noting that she was having difficulty in representing the hands of Jesus in a suitable manner at which point Domitilla replied that there were no visible hands. In the final product, the hands of Jesus are not visible being shrouded in a mist. In January 2003, a baby with intellectual disability was born at the Johannesburg Hospital and shortly thereafter LITTLE EDEN was contacted by the hospital enquiring whether there was a place for this infant. A bed being available, arrangements were made for the baby to be brought to LITTLE EDEN. On admission to the home on 19 March 2003 – the very day the painting was handed over to Domitilla – it became apparent for the first time that the baby had no arms – being afflicted with the Cornelia de Lange syndrome. The baby’s name was Karabo. ‘Karabo’ in the Sotho-Tswana indigenous language means; ‘Answer’. Reflecting on this Domitilla remarked:
“This was a symbol for us that we, at LITTLE EDEN, are the hands of Jesus, doing His work for Him.”
Karabo died shortly thereafter on 1 September 2003.
DEMISE OF MARIA ‘DOMITILLA’ HYAMS NÉE ROTA
In the decade following the new millennium, Domitilla was becoming progressively more and more frail due to old age. This condition worsened towards the end of 2010 and by then being very frail and weak took to her bed on 1 January 2011 for the last time and did not get up again. In a letter from the eldest daughter to the nun and good family friend, Sister de Potter, dated 16 February 2011, she recounts:
“…On Tuesday, 18 January 03h10 Agnes phones as Mom ‘is going’. By the time the rest of us got there at 03h20, mom had gone to her reward…”
Maria ‘Domitilla’ Hyams née Rota – affectionately known to all as ‘Doma’ – co-founder of LITTLE EDEN Society, had passed away.
That Tuesday morning, LITTLE EDEN issued a brief public news release as follows:
“It is with great sadness we announce the death on Tuesday 18 January 2011 of Cav. Domitilla Rota Hyams, founder of LITTLE EDEN Society, and wife of Danny Hyams. A vigil will be held, at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel, LITTLE EDEN, Edenvale Home (corner Wagenaar Road and Harris Avenue, Edenglen, Edenvale) on Sunday 30 January 2011 from 12:00 to 22:00, where the coffin will lie in repose.
The Requiem Mass followed by the burial will take place at the Holy Family Chapel, Elvira Rota Village, Bapsfontein on Monday 31 January at 14:00.”
The Requiem Mass and burial in the Holy Family Chapel at LITTLE EDEN Elvira Rota Village (ERV) on 31 January 2011 took place on the first anniversary of the opening of that chapel. The Holy Mass was presided over by the Most Reverend Archbishop George Francis Daniel Emeritus and concelebrated by His Eminence Wilfrid Cardinal Napier OFM, the Most Reverend Archbishops William Slattery OFM and Buti Tlhagale OMI, the Right Reverend Bishops Edward Risi OMI, Graham Rose, Giuseppe Sandri MCCJ, Michael P Rowland OFM Emeritus and Hugh Slattery MSC Emeritus. Alongside these nine bishops were a further fourteen priests, including the Rev Don Dante Cortinovis from Domitilla’s home town in Italy and St Thérèse parish priest , Rev Fr Joe Leathem OMI – Domitilla’s pillar of spiritual support, confessor, trusted confidante and counsellor. At the funeral the concelebrants did not wear the usual purple vestments but white as a sign of joy and celebration. Domitilla, clothed in her pink pyjamas, and as per her wishes, bare-foot was buried in a simple pine coffin without any embellishments, except for a crucifix, alongside the ERV Chapel under the eaves.
Countless letters of condolences, telephone calls, cards, emails and telegrams poured in from many parts of the world.
One may well wonder why the pink pyjamas and bare feet. The answer is best expressed by author Daniela Taiocchi in her work, ‘Vuoti a rendere’, when she wrote:
“She was buried wearing her pink pyjamas because, as she said; ‘Death is but a little sleep before the Resurrection’ and with her feet bare at her request; ‘I was born poor, poor I remained and I wish to be poor before God, trusting in His infinite goodness’. Her rosary was placed in her hands: inseparable companion, favourite working tool, all day long, all through her life…”
The passing of Domitilla marked the end of an era. But she left behind a remarkable legacy of compassion and love for children and adults with intellectual disabilities whom she always called her ‘angels’. Domitilla strove and laboured selflessly in the face of numerous challenges to bring joy into their lives. Her endurance and unwavering devotion, strength and faith in her work, her Jesus and her Madonna have touched the lives of countless individuals and remain an inspiration to many today. Her spirit continues to live on in the hearts and minds of all associated with LITTLE EDEN.
Domitilla’s goal and vision was very simple; to ensure that children and individuals with intellectual disability always have a place where they can live in dignity, in peace and in the love of the Lord and one’s fellow neighbour. She always treated them as ‘blessings from the Lord’. On being praised or congratulated on the work and progress at LITTLE EDEN, Domitilla would always (and without exception) reply:
‘It’s not my work, but that of the Madonna.’
The life’s work that Domitilla did over the course of over 40 years for the care of the intellectually disabled did not go unnoticed – both locally and overseas. In this period, and posthumously, she received various acknowledgements for her pioneering initiatives. Amongst these were the following:
- STAR Unsung Heroine (1980)
- Cavaliere Repubblica Italiana (1999)
- Honorary Citizenship (Gold) Almenno San Bartolomeo, Italy (2004)
- Bene Merenti Award (2008)
- Rotary Paul Harris Fellow (2010)
- Street named ‘Via Domitilla Rota Hyams’ in Albenza, Italy (2016) (posthumous)
- Official recognition of Albenza locality as the birthplace of Domitilla Rota Hyams (posthumous)
Domitilla trusted implicitly in her Madonna and Jesus and in manifestations confirming such trust. It therefore comes as no surprise that in the closing stages of her final chapter, she herself was to become the instrument of such a manifestation.
For over two weeks prior to her demise Domitilla had been bedridden, weak and neither able to move nor eat. Her only sustenance was some liquids and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick administered by Rev Fr Joe Leathem OMI. To the visitors who had seen her in those closing days it was patently clear that she was unable to sit, her back seriously curved with degenerative osteoporosis and immobile. What happened then on 16 January 2011 just two days prior to her death, the youngest daughter diarised as follows:
“Today I am going to recall an event that I am still unsure how it happened!
On Sunday 16 January 2011 I was sitting in the chair next to Mom’s bed. Once again Peter was in the kitchen busy cooking, allowing me to spend time with Mom. It was just about 11:00 and the house was quiet. The gardener had been mowing the lawn outside Mom’s bedroom window but he had finished. Dad had been up and had breakfast and then decided to get back into his single bed and have another sleep before lunch. He was lying on his left side facing the window. Mom was propped up on her pillows with her head at the headboard and looking towards (facing) Dad’s bed. The sheet and light blanket was pulled up, covering her to just below her neck. Mom was calm this morning and I decided that I could slip out of the room to fetch a pen and paper to make notes for Nicholas’ 21st birthday party. I checked Mom, she had her eyes closed, her breathing was shallow. I went to my bedroom, picked up my pen, went through the kitchen to the (computer) desk to fetch paper and said to Peter: “I think Mom will be going soon, her breathing is very shallow.”
I then went back to Mom’s room and stopped in my tracks at the door. Mom was sitting, unsupported, on a plastic chair at the end of Dad’s bed, with her hands folded in her lap and her ankles crossed, her bare feet on the floor. I said: “MOM!!” Mom said “I don’t know who brought me here.” I did not ask Mom a question – just exclaimed that one word “MOM!!” I was out of that room not more than two to three minutes.
I called Peter to come and witness what I had seen. I woke up Dad and asked him if he had helped Mom out her bed or if he had seen anything and he said: “No.” The bed-clothes were as neat as if Mom was still IN the bed. They were not pulled back, not pulled aside, the bed was as if it had not been touched. The chair in which I had been sitting was very close to the bedside table and if Mom had walked by herself she would have had to have bumped the tray that was on the bedside table. The chair-side was touching the bed so she could not have climbed out of the bed without moving the heavy chair. On the other side of the bed were two chairs acting as barriers in case Mom moved. So?! What had happened? To me – Mom was transported by whom? Our Blessed Lady? The Angels? A miracle had happened and we were the witnesses of the event after it took place… We left Mom sitting in the chair, I put a blanket around her to keep her warm, until we had discussed this at length. No one of us could work out an ordinary explanation. What had taken place was most definitely extra-ordinary. As Dad said: “The angels must have moved her.”
Fr Leathem had told us on 2 January 2011, also a Sunday, that Our Blessed Lady would show us a sign when she would be coming to fetch Mom – what a sign!
Lucy then said: “Let us see if we can get Mom to stand up by herself and walk back to bed.” Lucy held both Mom’s hands and Mom tried a few times to stand up. Finally Mom managed to stand up but could NOT move one foot in front of the other – she was simply too weak.
“Remember, the last time Mom ate a meal with us at table was on Friday 31 December 2010 when Lucy brought supper to our house and we shared together. On Sat 1 January 2011 Mom slept in bed all day and at 5.30 in the evening Mary and I got mom sitting in the wheelchair and pushed her into the kitchen. Mary fed Mom – very slowly – two finger biscuits with custard – that was the last solid food that Mom ate. So by Sunday 16 January 2011 Mom could not have any strength left in her to walk, let alone walk on her own.”