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Home: Freunde Waldorf

A Country with a Long Christian Tradition

(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 70-71, Note the Copyright!)

In Portugal, once a great seafaring nation rich in religious and cultural tradition, the history of Waldorf Education reaches back to the 1920s. In 1926 Julietta Leroi wanted to found a Waldorf School in her Portuguese homeland, so René Maikowski (1900-1992), a pupil of Rudolf Steiner and teacher of one of the first classes at the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, travelled to Lisbon to help. However, he did not succeed in building up a sufficiently large circle of people interested in doing this and so returned to Germany. A small group of expatriate Germans living in Lisbon heard about his intentions and then invited him to come and lecture on anthroposophy. This set the seed for the founding of the Anthroposophical Society in Portugal which finally bore fruit in 1980.

Parents seek help for their autistic child

Out of the whole range of educational work inspired by anthroposophy, curative education was the first to take root in Portugal. It began with the search of parents for care needed by their autistic son. His condition had been diagnosed at a centre in Germany and they had been advised to place him in an anthroposophical curative home. Via the Goetheanum in Switzerland they had been put in touch with Walter Junge in Portugal who had experienced the need and was making efforts to found a curative initiative there. Together with Henrique Westenfeld (an early chair-person of the Portuguese Anthroposophical Society), Padre Martinho (Catholic priest in the village of São Romão), Carlos Belo from the same village (owner of 12 ha of land which he donated for future work), and Mr and Mrs Nazareth (the parents of the boy in question), he founded the Casa de Santa Isabel Association at the end of 1975.

The name commemorated St Isabel, wife of Dominus Diniz (1279-1325), Queen of Portugal and relation of St Elisabeth of Thuringia. Having created the association, Walter Junge then embarked on finding curative teachers and therapists, made initial contact with various foundations who might help with finance, and conducted the first talks with the Ministry for Education and the Ministry for Social Affairs.

Curative education for orphans and poor children

In 1978, four trainee curative teachers (Taciano Zuzarte from Portugal, Anneke de Pagter and Philipp Steinmetz from the Netherlands and Jean Willinger from Sweden) formed an initiative group in the Netherlands, and thereafter rapid development followed. Negotiations with the ministries became more frequent because the special home school was intended primarily for poor children. Since it wanted to remain independent of the state, the Association did not ask for money for premises. What it needed was support for the pupils and subsidies for salaries.

Two years later enough donations had been collected in the Netherlands to erect Casa Elias, a prefabricated building. Work then began in earnest in May 1981 with 12 children and youngsters, some of them orphans and most from very poor backgrounds whose parents could neither read nor write. A number of villagers from São Romão joined in the work. Lessons took place provisionally in the dining room once the break-fast had been cleared away and the tables rearranged as a classroom. More space became available in the following year once Casa Gabriel had been added, with financial help mainly from Germany and Portugal. In the same year the Fundação Gulbenkian, Portugal’s largest cultural foundation, provided finance that covered the cost of building and equipping the school house. This building had three classrooms and a small festival hall. The pupils are taught in age groups of 10 to 13 and 13 to 17 by a Waldorf teacher and several experienced curative teachers. They are also given eurythmy, massage (Hauschka and Chirophonetic), eurythmy therapy, and individual lessons.

In 1984 the Ministry for Labour donated a building for workshops in which youngsters and adults with learning difficulties can learn weaving, pottery, carpentry, laundry work, baking and metalwork. Within about 15 minutes walking distance a small agricultural village community was also founded in the same year. Much has changed over the years in the “Formigo” as well. There are now two residential units housing about 25 individuals, adults and carers and carers’ children.

Integration versus boarding school

Since Portugal began to implement its new policy of care in the community it has been virtually impossible to find new pupils except for those with extreme difficulties or orphans with nowhere else to go. Negotiations with the Ministry for Education are ongoing on this matter. Curative teachers have been asked to work in state schools instead, and a day centre is being planned. Recently teachers’ unions have been objecting to the integration policy and are threatening to strike, so it is possible that the ideas about integration or normalization may still change completely.

Catholic tradition

Portugal is a strongly Catholic country with Fatima as one of Europe’s largest centres of pilgrimage. Every Sunday the church at São Romão is full of worshippers. Padre Martinho, the village priest and co-founder of Casa de Santa Isabel, knew from the start that the planned home school for special education would not be Catholic. In the early years the population and some officials were suspicious about the Christian aspects of the life in the school. Workers at Casa de Santa Isabel were reputed to be, among other things, communists or spiritualists. But thanks to a number of TV documentaries and positive reports in the press, many conversations with the authorities and a visit from Maria de Jesus Barroso Soares, wife of the former president, Waldorf Education and curative education are no longer controversial.

On the way to the much-wanted Waldorf School

In addition to the curative work of the Casa de Santa Isabel Association there have also been the São Jorge kindergarten in Lisbon since 1983 and the Jardim de Infância International at Lagos since 1992. Between 1988 and 1996, also at Lagos, there was a small German and English-speaking Waldorf School called Escola Primavera which had been founded by drop-outs from England and Germany and had the reputation of being a “hippy school”. Educational work in the capital city continues to raise hopes that a Waldorf School will be founded. Since 1999 there has been a group of about 30 statetrained teachers studying Waldorf Education for 3 years in block courses followed by practice stints abroad. This course is given by experienced Waldorf teachers from Portugal and elsewhere. Whether this part-time seminar will lead to the founding of a school depends on the impulses of the individuals involved.


Philipp C. J. F. Steinmetz
Co-founder of the Casa de Santa Isabel in Portugal.

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