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Sister Avelar Portrait

Natalia Petit / Casa da Saudade Library

New Bedford’s Mother Teresa, Sister Aurora Helena Avelar (1903-1999) was a Roman Catholic nun who devoted her life to the underserved. Her work extended beyond the classroom to the streets of New Bedford, where she networked for those in need. In 1996, the Sister Aurora Helena Avelar Community Center at Crapo and Thompson Streets was named in her honor.

Known as New Bedford’s Mother Teresa, Sister Aurora Helena Avelar (1903-1999) was a Roman Catholic nun who devoted her life to the underserved, notably those from her home country, Portuguese immigrants. Born in Corvo, Azores, to Manuel Joaquim and Helena (Bastides) de Avelar, Sister Avelar emigrated to the United States at age 20 and joined the Sisters of St. Dorothy in Bristol, Rhode Island and New York City. She spent most of her career at the Convent of the Sisters of St. Dorothy in New Bedford’s South End in service of the parish and school of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

Sister Avelar began her service in New Bedford as a full-time teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Dedicated to those in need, her work soon extended beyond teaching to social service. Regarding her move from the classroom to urban neighborhoods, Sister Avelar explained, “After Vatican II we were more free to work with secular people, so I help those who are in need. I think this is the best way I can serve the church.” Although she continued to teach Portuguese at the parish school each weekday morning, Sister Avelar would later assist countless people who requested her support. She became committed to the less privileged “because I see in them Christ.” The Sisters of St. Dorothy even bent the rules for her, providing her with her own telephone line and allowing her to skip lunch with the other Sisters at the convent.

Seven days a week, Sister Avelar was on a mission to bring support to all those in need throughout New Bedford. She mastered the art of networking so that all avenues of assistance were explored. She helped immigrants in their adjustment to a new country and language. As counselor and translator, she accompanied them to medical appointments, employment agencies, the courts, and the Office of Immigration and Naturalization. She guided the poor through the citizenship application process. Beyond immigration issues, Sister Avelar advocated for affordable housing, better medical coverage, mental health services and addiction treatment. Relying on public welfare only as a last resort, she ran a used furniture and clothing service from the basement of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. Her work was not limited to Portuguese immigrants. She assisted whomever needed her – troubled youth, unwed mothers, and struggling workers. Since she did not drive, she did much of her work on foot or by bus. When local relief was exhausted, she would travel to Boston to find answers.

By the 1980s, Sister Avelar began to be recognized for her unprecedented work. In a 1985 interview in The Standard-Times, she affirmed her faith in people, “Real Americans are good people, they love to help . . . We could love one another more than we do, we could care more for our neighbors than we do.” She received the 1987 Person of the Year Award from the New Bedford Chapter of the Prince Henry Society of Massachusetts. At the 1989 Heritage Day of Portugal festivities at the Massachusetts Statehouse, Sister Avelar was recognized for more than six decades of hard work for the church and her fellow citizens. In 1996, the Sister Aurora Helena Avelar Community Center was named in her honor. In the former Thompson Street School at Crapo and Thompson Streets, the center houses the Casa da Saudade Library and the Immigrants’ Assistance Center. Sister Avelar died in Taunton on June 22, 1999 and she is buried at St. John’s Cemetery in New Bedford. In 2000, her portrait by Swansea artist Natalia Petit was unveiled at the community center that bears her name.

Ann O’Leary

Information from

  • Ackerman, John. “Sister Avelar Cuts Through the Red Tape and Helps New Bedford’s Needy to Survive.” The Standard-Times 12 Aug. 1985.

  • Barcellos, Robert J. “Prince Henry Society Honors Nun, 84, for Long Service to Immigrants.” The Standard-Times 14 Sept. 1987.

  • Corrigan, Ernest J. “Portuguese Pay Tribute to Ethnic Pride.” The Standard-Times 8 June 1989.

  • “Sister Avelar Portrait to Be Unveiled Today.” SouthCoast Today, 12 Dec. 2000, http://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/20001212/news/312129978?start=2.

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