Jacqueline Stuyt: A life-changing legacy

Beth Brook, Head of Legacies at CAFOD, talks about Jacqueline Stuyt, one of the inspiring women whose lasting legacy has shaped CAFOD’s work

Occasionally in life you experience a moment that you know you’ll remember forever. In March 2009 I had such a feeling. I had been invited to the former flat of one of CAFOD’s founding mothers, Jacqueline Stuyt. Jacquie had sadly passed away the previous summer and alongside the gift she had so kindly left in her will to CAFOD, she had also left us two large cardboard boxes. Inside these expertly-organised boxes was her collection of materials relating to the very first Family Fast Days in 1960, ‘61 and ‘62.

The first Family Fast Days

For readers who don’t know about CAFOD’s origins, I should explain that we were born out of the compassion, generosity and commitment demonstrated by the Catholic community in response to those first Family Fast Days. They were organised by the National Board of Catholic Women to raise funds for a mother and baby clinic in Dominica. In 1962 the Bishop’s Conference set up CAFOD to focus all of the fundraising activities taking place across the dioceses. So imagine my delight when, on opening the first of Jacquie’s boxes, we discovered the hand-drawn originals for those first Fast Day leaflets! Then we came across the floor plans for the Infant Jesus Hospital in Dominica, letters discussing the clinic’s needs and progress, and photographs showing the clinic’s construction and its opening ceremony.

Fundraising for Infant Jesus Hospital in Dominica

There were also several cases of Kodak slides showing the clinic’s staff and volunteers with mothers and babies at the clinic. One photograph was mounted on card and entitled “The first saved!” It was an image of a nurse holding an emaciated child, whose eyes expressed the fear he or she must have felt while in the grip of starvation. It’s a photograph that we would be unlikely to publish now; but the life and death situation depicted is tragically still familiar to our staff, partners and the communities we work with. Reading through Jacquie’s notes, it became clear how desperately that clinic was needed. “This case is typical – a baby is brought in to the ‘Infant Jesus Hospital’ in the last stages of malnutrition; often in a coma, so dehydrated that it cannot even suck. Such cases are given intra-venous drips, injections to stimulate the heart, saline – most of them are saved, even in extremis. “Already the mortality rate in Roseau is dropping, because mothers have learned to bring their babies for care in time. But 48% of children still do not live to see their 5th year.”

Three things struck me as I read through Jacquie’s notes. Firstly, the sisters’ approach was one of partnership with the local community and with their overseas donors. This is still the underlying principle of CAFOD’s work today. Secondly, I was impressed by the holistic approach being taken by the sisters and volunteers. Alongside the new health clinic, other projects included water and sanitation provision, health and nutrition education, vocational and skills training, and horticultural and agricultural training. This determination to tackle the root causes of poverty and to enable people to build for the future is as true of our work today as it was then. It is the essence of what we’re about. Last, but certainly not least, Jacquie and the other Fast Day founders inspired hundreds of thousands of people to reach out and help their brothers and sisters in need. Even more than that, they inspired their children and grandchildren to take up the baton and continue the work they’d started. We who support, volunteer and work for CAFOD today are following in their footsteps. We must work hard to measure up to the example they’ve set us.

Jacquie’s legacy

54 years after that first Fast Day, the world has changed beyond all recognition. Our partner communities are facing challenges on a scale that my CAFOD predecessors couldn’t have predicted five decades ago. Climate change, AIDS and violence have altered the international development landscape; yet the values and principles that inspired the Catholic community to get involved all those years ago are still at the heart of everything we do today. At our 50th anniversary Mass in January 2012 I was given the honour of carrying a picture of Jacqueline Stuyt down the aisle of Westminster Cathedral. The image showed her holding a baby at the Infant Jesus clinic. She looked peaceful and fulfilled, as if she had found her true calling. The legacy she has left is more valuable than I can possibly describe.

Beth Brook, CAFOD

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