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.