Possible Cause for Beatification for LITTLE EDEN Founders
In a move which has been described as a major event for the Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg, and the country, the recent plenary session (August 2018) of the South African Bishops’ Conference, approved, and laid the foundations for the opening of the Cause of possible beatification and canonisation for Daniel (Danny) and Maria (Domitilla) Hyams, founders of LITTLE EDEN Society.
Over the past number of months, the Archdiocese has been reflecting on the lives of Danny and Domitilla Hyams, co-founders of LITTLE EDEN Society, an organisation that cares for children and adults with profound intellectual disability. Domitilla had always felt a calling to be a missionary in Africa, and LITTLE EDEN became the way in which she not only gave expression to that calling but allowed her life to reflect the values and virtues that are consistent with holiness.
However, what makes this case special is that the Archdiocese is looking at both Danny and Domitilla Hyams as a couple (such as Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus). In other words, the Archdiocese will be researching how they lived out the virtues (such as prudence, charity, faith and hope) in their married and family life, within their parish community of Edenvale, and in their work of establishing and running LITTLE EDEN.
With both having passed away more than 7 years ago, this reflection is the first step in a long process that will investigate whether there are sufficient grounds for their case to be considered for possible beatification and canonisation. Following the necessary documentary and attested appointments subsequently formalised, the two Libellus (one for Domitilla and one for Danny) were presented to His Grace, the Archbishop. (A Libellus consists of the biographical review of the person whose Cause is being considered including a review of his/her heroic cardinal and theological virtues as well as his/her reputation of holiness. In addition the Libellus includes a listing of all people who personally knew the person and who could be called upon at the witness inquiry stage.) Following approval from the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference to proceed with this Cause, this documentary evidence concerning Domitilla and Danny was submitted to the Vatican (Congregation for the Causes of Saints) for approval to proceed to the next step which is the diocesan interviewing of the witnesses and a review of all written material by an historical commission.
It is not possible to give a timeline for this process as a separate independent inquiry will then be required by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints including meticulous and thorough inquiries into any alleged miracles attributed to the person whose Cause is under consideration. Some saints were only canonised as such centuries after their death. It is little wonder then that the procedural investigations towards sainthood has been described as one of the most rigorous yet formulated. Nevertheless as the greater family of LITTLE EDEN Society we continue to pray daily for a successful outcome – and for this we also request your prayers (special prayer cards are available at LITTLE EDEN Society for this Cause). Prayer, for Domitilla and Danny, was their publically stated most powerful ‘tool’. May it also be ours and yours for the couple’s eventual canonisation – which would be Africa’s first and only the world’s third couple to be honoured as saints!
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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.
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!…”
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.
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