Part of our History: A story of friendship in the back streets of Marseille

France MarseilleFrance Marseille

Marseilles, a cosmopolitan port city, was, and still is, a centre for prostitution. The industry is growing, with traffickers from eastern Europe now bringing women in from Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, Russia, and elsewhere.

Our story began with a chance encounter with a military nurse. He used to frequent the prostitution neighbourhood, not as a customer, but in order to give medical help to the women who requested it. He introduced us to one of them, O., who wanted to escape her violent pimp and get out of that hell. We were living in an area called La Charite, a real shanty town. As we got to know O., we began to enter into the poorest of the neighbourhoods known for prostitution.

By chance, at the same time we met a young woman at the hospital and struck up a friendship with her. Later, we met her again near a hotel which serviced the sex trade, where eleven women worked. Little by little we began to meet other women, and so, in 1957, we were able to make our first foundation in the milieu, with the agreement of our Bishop, who was a very open-minded man.

Living right in this neighbourhood gave us the opportunity to meet other women, who were often the victims of very violent pimps. We won their trust and became friends with many of them. Our witness was about simple and respectful presence, encouragement, and faith in them, leaving the professional roles to the social service agencies.

We have known and loved hundreds of women of all ages over the years, as well as transvestites and transsexuals, from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Our contacts with them happen very simply on the street, where the women wait for clients. Sometimes they come out of the bars to chat with us, in short conversations where they express their sufferings, their worries, their problems of conscience. Some tell about their traumatic childhood and youth, or their fears of aggression and even murder.

Other encounters take place with the women from the "American Bars." In the neighbourhood around the Opera House there are 17 of them. In the bars, the young "hostesses" welcome the clients and get them to drink. They are paid a certain percentage for each glass or bottle that the client drinks. The bars are open late at night, generally until the following morning. The inside is very dimly lit, facilitating erotic and often very risky behaviour For the women, working in these bars is a first step. They often change bars or get into prostitution from there. Some leave the area and we never see them again.

For us, listening is the most important thing, never judging the other, respectful of those who feel judged, humiliated, without hope. They cry out their suffering, as one of them wrote:

'If you see a prostitute in the street, you will see her body. Think of her heart, which you will not see, but which beats very strongly,too strongly, inside.'

And another cried, "I'm worth more than what I am doing."

Our presence continues at the hospital when one of them is sick, or at the prison where many stay for a while. We have also accompanied some in their solitude as they died alone in a hospital.

In the course of the years, how many miracles have been performed! Many of these friends were able to quit prostitution completely. But frequently they carry the dire consequences into their new lives: alcoholism, AIDS, disastrous health problems, difficult relationships with children who often reject their mothers when they become teenagers.

Some have discovered faith, especially when sickness strikes - a deep faith in the midst of suffering. One woman, dying of cancer, said simply, "I am the way of Jesus." How moving it was when another, watching a film with us about Jesus, heard the words "The prostitutes will precede you into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 21:31). She cried out, "If he said so, then I can go to heaven!"

We have witnessed reconciliations with families; forgiveness granted to abusive mothers; heroic forgiveness by one who had been abandoned by her boyfriend after she had visited and supported him for years while he was in prison. Returning from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, she covered his photo with that of Bernadette, saying, "This will be my only revenge."

Here is one woman's journey:

She stood in front of a bar every day, waiting from dawn till dusk. She had people call her Rita, because she had a deep devotion to St. Rita. She asked her patron saint for the strength to leave this squalid neighbourhood and the pimp who kept her in virtual slavery. Across from the bar, she could see the red tabernacle light in our little chapel. Later she told us, "Looking at that light and waiting, I was having my hour of adoration."

One day she had the courage to run away, to hide, to rebuild another life bit by bit with her husband and children whom she had abandoned earlier. In this little village where she lives now, who would guess anything about her former life - this woman who is in church every morning for Mass, filled with bottomless faith and thanksgiving? She wrote to us, "Pretty soon it will be thirty years since we got to know each other. The Lord has surely taken me by the hand. What a journey it has been! I never stop thanking the Lord for having left his ninety-nine other sheep and, with your help, come to look for me - me, the stray on the roadside. Believe me, you are in my prayers still this morning at Mass."

We think that the spirit in which we have tried to live has touched our friends deeply. Many have faith and pray, even if they don't practice organized religion or express it openly. But they have been deeply marked by this spirit we inherited from Little sister Magdeleine, who wrote to us,

'If only you could be a little ray of sunshine penetrating a dark and icy room to light it up and warm it...'

We little sisters also feel what we have received from our friends: their friendship, their humility, their gratitude. There is a reciprocity between those who suffer so much and us, who benefit from their hidden riches.