SHEILA STILWELL, MBE, sportswoman and leading figure in the Anglo-Portuguese community, was born on October 21, 1924. She died on March 5, aged 79.
Attached to a wreath at Sheila Stilwell’s funeral service in the Penina church, which she and her husband helped to build near Alvor, was a message from APPACDM (the Portuguese Association of the Mentally Diminished Citizen). It read: “In the name of the 5,000 children and young people who have benefited from the APPACDM centres which were created, fruit of your efforts and dedication, we thank you for everything you provided for us. We hope to remain faithful to the dream you started on Candlemas day of February 2, 1962.”
Today that dream consists of 27 centres for the treatment of mentally handicapped children, situated in towns and villages throughout Portugal. The first of these, close to the Ajuda Palace in Lisbon, is named the Bonny Stilwell Centre, to commemorate the third of the four sons of Sheila and John Stilwell.
Bonny had been born with Down’s syndrome in 1954, at a time when little or no form of assistance for the education of mentally handicapped children existed in Portugal. It was to fill this gap that Sheila Stilwell, in conjunction with a distinguished Portuguese child psychologist, Alice Melo Tavares, resolved to found the APPACDM.
The association’s centres now cater for some 1,000 children in the Lisbon area alone and its flag-day collections, started by Stilwell in 1962, have become an established feature of Portuguese life. In 1975, the ‘Inglesinhos’ – the English Seminary, founded in 1622 and claimed to be the oldest English institution in Portugal – gave it their fine holiday property south of the Tagus, to use for protected workshops and as farmland.
Born Sheila French in Hatfield Peveral, Essex, and educated at St Mary’s Convent, Ascot, Stilwell was a renowned tennis player and a keen golfer. In 1940, at the age of 16, she was selected to play in the cancelled Wimbledon of that year, and she was a founder member of the Alto Golf and Penina golf clubs.
In 1948, she married John Stilwell who, like herself in 1987, was recently appointed MBE for services to the Anglo-Portuguese community. He survives her, together with three of their sons and their daughter.