Aunt Edna’s limitless love changed young lives forever

One year ago, many readers wrote to express thanks for my column about my Aunt Edna's life story. In short, hers was an Easter story of sacrificial love. Given its popularity, I decided to re-post it this year. 


Eleven years ago, my Aunt Edna passed away and thus moved on to her eternal reward, one richly deserved.

My mother’s sister, you see, spent much of her life in the service of sick children and orphans in Villavicencio, in the mountains of Colombia.

The “place of miracles,” as it would be called, possessed little medicine. It was a-then four hours’ drive from Bogota on Third-World mountain roads. Its official name and start, Paraiso Infantil, resulted from an early 1960s match-up between a Colombian preacher who publicized a need, and two American Protestant nurses who saw that same need as their faith’s calling.

As a later history of the mission would recount, it soon became evident that “the greatest need in Colombia was the children.”  

The nurses, after their arrival in the then-small city of 30,000, soon became acquainted with a house run by the Colombian health department. Children whose mothers had been hospitalized for tuberculosis were placed there for their own protection.

In addition to such assumed temporary charges, abandoned babies also increasingly ended up in the government home.

Thus, it was this break-your-heart reality that drew in the nurses; they believed in God and in this purpose for their lives: to save the most vulnerable. The first child, Frankie, was sick and malnourished. They asked if they could care for him in their own apartment. They soon did; Frankie survived. 

That first baby was followed by others whose illnesses were life-threatening: tuberculosis, parasites, malnutrition and cystic diseases among others. 

After moving into a larger apartment soon overflowing with children, the Americans found a 2 1/2-acre parcel four miles outside Villavicencio. It was there that an orphanage, clinic, nursery and school would be built. It was also where my Aunt Edna, from Calgary, would join them in 1967, this after a brief stint at a mission hospital in Bogota.

Edna and an American southerner, Nancy, would together run Paraiso Infantil for most of the next three decades. Here’s how my aunt was described by one who recounted her own time at the mission with fondness and in the present tense: “Edna is small in stature, blonde, with intense blue eyes. She has a warm personality and quickly endeared herself to the children and the workers.”

The writer also captured this element of my aunt’s personality:  “She loved intensely, but she also moved swiftly to deal with a problem,” wrote the author. “The children knew they could not misbehave when Miss Edna was around.”

My aunt always visited us when she returned to Canada. As a boy, I was mesmerized by Edna’s stories, especially if they involved snakes. Apparently, one slithery creature swallowed the favourite compound dog.

Somehow, the snake was found, trapped and killed. If memory serves, it was my swiftly moving aunt who freed the canine from the snake’s stomach — and the dog lived. Miracles were apparently not just limited to children. 

Single her entire life, my aunt Edna loved Colombia, the people and the Spanish language, her nieces, nephews and her God-given gifts — the children in her Colombian mission. For Edna, love was unlimited. It never needed to be apportioned.

I recall my missionary aunt in 2017 and not just because her life is a metaphor for Easter (she believed her Christian faith and intensely so) but for another reason: In an increasingly irreligious age, faith, especially in a post 9/11 world, is seen by some as only problematic. That’s a truncated conception of the passion that inspired my aunt.

A few years back, one of my sisters met one of the many children adopted out from the Colombian mission decades before. Now an adult with her own children, this lady and my sister shared tears of remembrance, of lives changed forever by my aunt and her loving faith.

Mark Milke, Calgary Herald, April 15, 2017, A14

Mark Milke