TEXT Leonor Machado
Tributes have rolled in since the death of Sister Juliana Devoy last month. Macao has said goodbye to a missionary who ‘led a life of fighting for others’ – principally, fellow women.
A kind person but most importantly a fighter.” This is how Macao legislator, writer and scholar Agnes Lam describes Macao Sister Mary Juliana Suzanne Devoy, who died aged 83 last month and who will be missed by many in the city. Better known as Juliana Devoy,
she was a devoted woman who dedicated her life to helping others. The missionary was known for her incredible work in the realm of women’s rights in Macao, as well as for her aid work for victims of domestic violence. For around 30 years, she headed the Good Shepherd Centre in the city, a Catholic refuge that’s dedicated to the welfare of women and girls, ‘especially those marginalised by society’.
Devoy was born in the US state of Nebraska on 7 February 1937. The second of seven siblings, she graduated as a missionary novitiate of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Los Angeles in 1954 and made her final vows in Angers, France, in 1960. Serving in China was always one of her dreams and she did exactly that, arriving in Hong Kong in 1963 before moving to Macao in 1988. By that time she’d already worked with teenage girls in a residential home in Hong Kong and performed missionary work across Asia. She founded the Good Shepherd Crisis Centre in Macao in 1990 and was its director for many years, as well as its executive co-ordinator for 22 years, right up to her last days.
Although Devoy died on 14 December, her memory will live on in Macao. She was cherished by many, especially the women she aided over the years – including all those she stayed in touch with and visited regularly. The new director of the Good Shepherd, Debbie Lai, vows to continue Devoy’s ‘work and plans’, ensuring her outstanding legacy of social service to the Macao community won’t be forgotten. ‘Creative’ and ‘a visionary’ are words Lai uses to describe the much-loved sister.
A great partnership
Lai says she’d seen Devoy’s church services in Macao before but it wasn’t until they met in the street in 1990 that their relationship started to bear fruit. They became friends and worked together for more than 30 years at the Good Shepherd with the aim of helping as many women as possible. “Sister Juliana fought to start a centre rather than a shelter,” says Lai, “because the intent was to provide shelter as well as to include awareness-raising activities on women’s rights and other issues.” Lai says the two women grew from ‘employer-employee to friends’ before finally becoming ‘mother and daughter’. Devoy even became Lai’s godmother. “Our hearts were connected,” remembers Lai, “because we had the same mindset and mission.”
Devoy and Lai worked on a case soon after the opening of the centre which Lai claims opened the door to a programme that began in 1992 and lasted for 12 years. “I remember,” says Lai, “that there was a lady who sought our help but not for shelter. As a single mother with financial problems, she went to [Catholic relief and development agency] Caritas and [Caritas Macau founder] Father Luis Ruiz redirected her to us, asking if we could teach her sewing skills so she could earn some money working from home.” Lai says that, as a result, a sewing centre was launched by the Good Shepherd. Women earned money by making clothes like Macao and Hong Kong school uniforms. According to Lai, Devoy ‘always fought for those who didn’t have a voice or couldn’t express themselves’.
Marjory Vendramini, president of non-profit organisation Cradle of Hope Association, which manages two children’s homes in Macao – Cradle of Hope and Fountain of Hope – also shares some warm memories of Devoy. “We started working together when she helped young mothers in need,”she says. “Sometimes the children of the women [from the Good Shepherd] stayed in our association.” Vendramini says that similar ideas and beliefs between the two women led them to ‘dream a lot together’ and their relationship tightened when they planned ways to help children whose parents were unfit but didn’t want to put them up for adoption. “Five years ago,” she recalls, “we created a group and did some talks and promotional activities regarding the adoption law in Macao and related issues.” Vendramini feels this group was paramount in accelerating the process of adoption in Macao. She also says that she exchanged emails about the group with Devoy just weeks before the sister died. “She was an incredible and loving person,” says Vendramini, “with a huge passion. She dedicated her life to others.”
Fighting human trafficking
Agnes Lam was a young journalist when she first came across Devoy’s work at the start of the 2000s – a time when human trafficking was a fairly unknown issue in Macao. “At the beginning [of Devoy’s time in Macao], she focused on young women who were pregnant or had small children,” says Lam, who adds that the city’s social services were not fully equipped to help victims of trafficking at the time. In 2008, however, both Lam and Devoy were appointed to the government’s Women and Children Affairs Committee. Here, Devoy ‘urged everyone to fight against human trafficking in Macao’.
“She told us about foreign girls in Macao who were forced to go into prostitution,” says Lam, “which made me want to know more and help.” Lam recalls the story of a Mongolian woman who reached out to her. “She didn’t speak Chinese, English or any language I could understand,” she says, “so I sent her to the police. I think that’s when I realised what Sister Juliana had said about human trafficking was right.” Lam believes the missionary was ‘one of the biggest advocates of women’s rights in Macao’, adding that the government ended up ‘taking some steps to improve the situation’.
Lam says that besides raising awareness, one of Devoy’s biggest battles – which she won – was the criminalisation of domestic violence in Macao. The missionary, in 2014, even travelled to Geneva in Switzerland, where she attended the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and urged the group to ‘exert its influence on the Macao authorities to formulate a just law that not only protects victims but also holds the aggressors responsible for their behaviour’. “Once [domestic violence in Macao] was criminalised,” adds Lam, “it was easier to raise awareness among the population that this isn’t a private matter. It’s a problem that concerns everyone.” That law was approved in 2016.
Agnes Lam also recalls the day when a woman whose husband had purposely burned her with acid sought her help in the matter. Both women went to Devoy for that help. “Sister Juliana was very upset when she saw the damage,” says Lam, “and she set out to help her.” Together, Devoy and Lam raised MOP 1.6 million (US$200,000) and the woman was sent to the UK for vital plastic surgery. Lam later discovered Devoy visited the woman every week after her return to Macao. “She led a life of fighting for others,” says Lam.
Sister Juliana Devoy, who spoke both English and Cantonese, left a legacy in Macao. Her work – whether that be with victims of domestic violence and human trafficking or with the furthering of women’s issues in the city – will be continued by many of her supporters for a long time. In 1997, she was awarded the Medal of Merit – Philanthropy for her work by the then Portuguese-administered Macao government and in 2012, she was given the Medal of Merit – Altruism by the Macao SAR government. But her biggest honour – or, at least, legacy – could be said to be the countless women she helped during her extraordinarily compassionate and devoted life.