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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
'Brazil's Mother Teresa' edges to sainthood
Irma Dulce
Many houses in Brazil are adorned with images of Irma Dulce
A campaign to have Irma Dulce, the Catholic nun dubbed the "Mother Teresa of Brazil", formally canonised has reached the Vatican.

Sister Dulce, already considered a saint in her home city of Salvador, was revered as a champion of the poor. She died 11 years ago at the age of 78.

Although the process to make Sister Dulce a saint began in Salvador three years ago, only now has it reached the head of the Catholic Church.

"We have hundreds of statements made about her miracles," Sister Dulce's niece, Maria Rita de Souza Pontes, told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme.

"I think her sainthood will depend mainly on people making a case for her.

"She was considered a saint during her life, but it is up to the Brazilian people - and of course her lawyer - to make a strong case for her."

Chicken-shed hospital

Sister Dulce is well-known for her efforts to treat the poorest of one of Brazil's most impoverished regions, including founding a hospital in a slum area of Salvador.

"Even when she was a child she was concerned by the needs of the city's poorest people," Ms Pontes said.

"She came from an upper-middle class background, and when she was just 13-years-old she told her father that she wanted to work to help the poor."

Salvador is in one of Brazil's poorest regions
Although at first her father was reluctant, and tried to persuade her to become a teacher, after her graduation at 19 he relented and gave her his blessing to join Salvador's Missionary Sisters.

"Her work began with education, but she started thinking just how she could help the poor," Ms Pontes stated.

Her work began in full seriousness when she persuaded the convent's Mother Superior to take in 70 people who were ill.

The Mother Superior offered Sister Dulce the convent chicken shed - which she transformed into a hospital, even using the chickens to make soup for the patients.

"That was how it all started - from this small space given to her by the Mother Superior," said Ms Pontes.

"She was never afraid of getting the public involved, and she would just ask people for help."

Continuing work

To begin with, her work mainly involved finding the sick places to stay and recover, either in abandoned houses or with friendly doctors, and she would walk the streets of Salvador at night.

Later on she built the largest hospital in Bahia State, the Santo Antonio Hospital.

The legacy of Sister Dulce's work has continued long after her death.

"She was an example to us all - she was ahead of her time, completely without prejudice, an obstinate woman who clung to her faith," Ms Pontes said.

Children play on the streets of Salvador
Sister Dulce had a long-standing concern for Salvador's poorest
"I personally remember her as a kindly person who lived to help others."

The hospital still functions, with all manner of things to keep people entertained - an essential part of Sister Dulce's philosophy.

The hospital was established on the principle of treating the whole person and not just the body, and stressed the importance of laughter to help patients recover.

"Last year we helped over a million people through her institution - the sick, the elderly, and the handicapped," Ms Pontes added.

"She is our Mother Teresa."

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