Thirty years ago in 1986, Dr. Mary Burns, a GP from Armoy, spent two and a half years in the village of Fontem in West Cameroon, Africa. There, she served and supported the Bangwa people as a doctor in the Maternity Department of the hospital.
Described by herself as ‘deeply enriching and challenging’, Mary worked together with people of different creeds and colours allowing her to see what could be achieved when people pulled together.
Mary volunteered in Cameroon with the Focolare Movement. The Focolare arrived in Fontem in 1966 to come to the aid of the Bangwa people. Back then nine out of every 10 babies did not live to see their first birthday.
The Focolare’s story in Fontem had humble beginnings with medicine being practised in a makeshift hut, but soon became a hospital where a vaccination for the fatal ‘sleeping sickness’ was developed.
The community in Fontem described Mary’s service as showing a “real love for the people” whom she “loved with all her heart, and gave her best in each moment with great patience and care”. It was heroic service like this which has contributed to Fontem being known as the “Miracle in the Forest”. A miracle, not only in medical terms but in terms of overcoming division and building a more united community.
This December marks the 50th anniversary of the Focolare’s involvement in Fontem. Sadly, Mary has since passed away, however her husband, Gerry and children, Rionach, Thomas, Conleth and Timothy, will go to Cameroon to be part of the 50th anniversary.
Conleth explained: “We will go in mid-December to mark this 50th anniversary. As we prepare for this trip we think of the heroic courage and commitment of Mammy and so many others in changing lives of so many people there.
“In Fontem, the current project is creating a multi-purpose hall for the school. The hall will give the students the chance to get involved in drama, public speaking, dance, sports and debating. It will allow a space for the community to grow stronger together. But for this to happen some money has to be raised.”
And on Saturday, October 1, the Burns family held a fundraising event at their Drones Road home.
Over 170 people gathered in the Burns’ house in Armoy to fundraise for the building of the hall in Fontem. An impressive £5,480 was raised on the night and donations are still coming in. Such genuine generosity.
But more importantly, it is a living tribute to Mary, who lived her life wanting to bring people and communities together.
Donations still most welcome, email Conleth Burns at email@example.com or ring 02820751032 for details.
* Dr. Burns was in her 56th year when she sadly passed away. However during her lifetime she enriched the lives of many not only in her work as a doctor in Ballymoney and latterly in Ballycastle but in the huge contribution she made to the social well-being of the community in the Armoy district.