From Salzburg to the slums of Colombia

A pensioner from Pongau in the Salzburg region is to be honoured on her 80th birthday in the province of her birth for her work over 60 years in Colombia in helping the poor and dispossessed.

Margaretha Moises, who is originally from Bad Hofgastein (Pongau), was voted as Salzburger of the year in 2006 and now to celebrate her 80th birthday, she has been invited back to Salzburg again.

Archbishop Alois Kothgasser gave her an official audience and on Tuesday she will be presented to the regional government.

She has spent most of her life working in a poor district in Colombia that was named after her sister who died five years ago. Her name already means a lot in the region and her belief is the solidarity allows people to achieve a lot. There they faced soldiers, fascist paramilitaries and guerrillas causing problems on all sides as they tried to live normal lives.

A civil war lasting 40 years in Colombia has caused vast numbers of dispossessed refugees.

She said: “The paramilitaries and the drug dealers have just taken the land away from a lot of people. They just turn up and say if you don’t clear off we’re going to shoot you.”

She gave up her job as a teacher and went to help the poor people – and never looked back.

She said: “I saw a child die of hunger and I decided never to work as a teacher again. That was a key moment for me – I said I don’t want to be working away in the school but I could really be doing something for these people here.”

She was born in 1932 – with numerous brothers and sisters – to a farming family living in the mountainous part of Bad Hofgastein. When she was aged 18, she and her older sister joined the Franciscan missionary sisters in Colombia.

In order to continue their work there they left the order although she still says she feels spiritually bound to the group.

At one point she and her sister had been arrested and her sister tortured. She said that later she met one of her sister’s torturers who told her that the bravery and spiritual strength that the woman had shown had taught him that the way he was behaving was wrong – and he had himself discovered God and stopped living the old life that he had before.

And despite a brief visit to Salzburg she says that she plans to spend the rest of her days continuing her work in Columbia.