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A Refuge to Mend and Grow

Bethany Sisters help abandoned women in Kerala

By all appearances, Devi, a mother of three, lived happily in a good home surrounded by her loving husband, two sons and a daughter. But beneath the calm surface, all was not well. The first outward sign came when she stopped combing her hair, leaving it unkempt for days. Soon, her behavior reflected her disheveled hair; she became more mercurial and aggressive, prone to explosions of uncontrolled rage — even violence.

Distraught, her family felt frightened and powerless to help.

Through a relative, her husband learned about a center in northern Kerala run by the Bethany Sisters that helps women experiencing psychological problems. He decided to place his faith in these women religious.

The Trippadam Psychosocial Rehabilitation Center for Women received Devi into a warm environment, offering compassion and a broad range of professional care. The sisters fed her, befriended her and helped her integrate into the life of the center, encouraging her to participate in activities and pitching in with chores. Her family visited her regularly.

Once her health improved, the psychiatrist gave her the all clear to return home. Her husband came to pick her up, and today she is doing well.

“This is what we aim to do here,” says Sister Tabitha, the administrator of the center that cares for women, noting that “some of them are abandoned by their families.” Others, such as Devi, are simply brought here to convalesce for a time, she says.

“We’re here to help those who have nowhere else to go,” says Sister Tabitha. “This is our service to Jesus.”

Based in the quaint little hill town of Sultan Bathery in Kerala’s Wayanad district, the Trippadam (Malayalam for “the feet of Christ”) Center began in 2001 as a facility for single mothers and their children, as well as older women without a home. In 2013, it undertook a shift in focus, becoming a place where women with mental health problems can stay.

“Their families bring them here and leave them in our care,” Sister Tabitha says of the five sisters who, together with a few health care professionals, care for about 50 residents.

“Everyone needs love and care; someone to look after them. Some of the residents have children, a husband, extended family, but no one wants them. Their families have disowned and abandoned them.”

On an early evening in May, amid jackfruit season in Kerala, women help themselves to the huge jackfruits hanging from a large tree on the center’s property.

“We harvested quite a few,” Sister Tabitha says, the fragrance of the ripe fruit hanging heavy in the air.

“That’s what our women have been doing today. Cutting and chopping jackfruit is an art and it takes absolutely ages.” But, she says, the activity also gives focus to hand and mind.

That precisely is what the routine of the center is about. “The women here need discipline; they need their day to have structure and they need to know how their time is going to be filled,” she explains.

The residents wake up at 5:30, when the sisters bring them coffee in bed. They go to the chapel for prayer and meditation, followed by the Divine Liturgy. After breakfast, they collaborate on various tasks — such as cleaning the house, working in the garden, tending to the cattle and cooking. After lunch, they nap or otherwise relax. They gather again for evening prayer before supper, and finally retire to bed at 9.

“Prayer is a great cure; it is uplifting, it gives hope to the heart.” While a majority of residents is Christian, the center hosts Hindu and Muslim women as well. The sisters do not proselytize, but nevertheless invite all the women to pray together as a way to foster an inclusive environment.

“Everyone joins in to pray to God. It is his miracle that we are alive.”

Through their love and dedication, the sisters work to ensure these women at the margins of society are never truly abandoned.

The Congregation of the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, known colloquially as the Bethany Sisters, is a community of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. Founded in 1925 by Servant of God Mar Ivanios, the first metropolitan archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the Bethany Sisters lay emphasis on liturgical life, prayer and contemplation.

“One of the charisms of our congregation is the empowerment of women,” Sister Tabitha says.

In Kerala alone, there are 828 Bethany Sisters and 22 novices across the southwestern state of the Indian subcontinent. However, the sisters are present around the world, with activities extending from Asia to Europe, the Americas to Africa. Despite the challenges of distance, the leadership of the sisters keeps abreast of their apostolates. Of the Trippadam Center, Sister Tabitha notes, “we have a board, mother provincial and four councilors who get together every few months to see how we are doing.

“Most of our [center’s] residents are women from the north of Kerala because that is where we are geographically,” she says. “But some women also come from neighboring Tamil Nadu,” she says — such as Saroja Devi. Following the death of her husband, the 45-year-old had battled depression. After a few months at the center, her condition improved and she made strides in coping with her loss. Eventually, her mother-in-law took her back home.

“But not all stories end positively,” the sister says.

Left at the center by her parents, Tanuja behaved aggressively toward others. On her first night, she sat on the window ledge, dangled her legs out past the

guard and spent the whole night in the same spot. She kept imagining that someone was coming her way.

For about two weeks, she kept to herself, refusing all participation. Finally, her parents took her back home.

Then Lincy arrived. Her husband brought her to the center because she was violent and would physically abuse him. On two occasions while at the center, she let the water run in the bathroom, flooding the building.

Other residents have broken the bathroom door.

“Most of [the residents] are abandoned here for life,” Sister Tabitha says. “Reasons are mostly social; their younger siblings can’t get married if people find out there’s mental illness in the family. Sometimes families just don’t know how to handle them. A mental health problem is seen as a stigma; often women are blamed and beaten by their family members. But it’s not their fault.”

Some women have also been victims of sexual violence.

“Quite a few of the women in here have been through the trauma of sexual assault,” says Bethany Sister Christopher. “Some of them don’t have the right words to express themselves. It’s with time and understanding that we unfold what they’re trying to tell us. Keeping them safe is our number one priority.”

Sister Christopher recalls one of the women at the center was so traumatized that she wouldn’t use the bathroom for days. “It took a lot of cajoling, a lot of care and understanding to get her to talk to us. She improved once she was able to confide in us.”

Once a woman is offered a place in the center, the sisters reach out to her family members to urge them to arrange for a psychiatric evaluation. This provides a foundation for future treatment, access to prescription medications if needed, and helps the family become involved in the clinical and healing processes.

Some families become involved, and visit the women while in the center. Others fail to respond and cut off the patient as soon as she is received by the sisters.

“It’s a sad situation,” Sister Christopher says. Yet, she adds, no matter what else happens “we give our women security and a feeling of community.”

After they enter residency, the sisters arrange for their regular care.

“We take them to see the doctor once a month,” Sister Tabitha says. “There’s also a female counselor who visits once a week.” The local ayurvedic (or traditional Indian medicine) hospital treats them for other physical ailments, such as backache or other minor complaints.

A local governmental teacher comes in to give classes in English. The sisters also encourage residents to engage in artistic activities, such as dance and music.

“We work with them by encouraging dialogue — by congratulating them if they’ve done something good,” Sister Tabitha says. “They need to feel special; they need to feel they have a place in the world, too, that they’re appreciated. That’s what they lack.”

Spread over five acres of land, the Trippadam Center buzzes with activity. “There’s enough to keep the women here occupied,” Sister Tabitha says.

“We grow tapioca, yam, ginger, coffee and coconut,” she says, in addition to the jackfruit the women were enjoying earlier.

Moreover, the government’s agriculture center nearby has given the center a greenhouse, and provides seeds. “Cauliflower, beans, tomatoes — just enough to keep us going,” she says.

“That is actually perfect for us. The women love doing it because it’s a precise task.”

She adds: “We also raise chickens and cattle.”

While the center grows much of its own food, local donors also contribute.

“When there’s a wedding in a family here — say, a resident’s sibling gets married — they send us food, too. That’s always a welcome change.”

Such donations also follow from Kerala’s custom of sharing breakfast and/or lunch on death anniversaries.

However, not all activities need occur on the center’s grounds. “Some donors offer us a mini bus so we can take the women out sightseeing.”

These various donations, and the relationship with the broader community they illustrate, are a regular part of day-to-day operation of the center. It helps the sisters to secure various basics — whether clothes, bedsheets and soap, or even free medicines from the local government-run hospital. Thus, the sisters can devote their time fully to their charges.

But oftentimes, the women are not content to merely receive care, and use experience from their previous jobs at the center. Sister Tabitha greets one such woman, named Asha — a former nurse who had suffered a nervous breakdown.

“Her family felt her brother couldn’t get married because of her condition. They left her here,” Sister Tabitha says. “Now she helps out as a nurse.”

At 5:45, women at the center have gathered outside for evening prayer. There is a slight chill in the air, and it looks like it may rain. Up a few steep stairs and across the lawn, they sit and pray in the outdoor chapel.

“We praise the Lord together. It is because of Christ’s mercy that we have shelter and safety. He gives us the strength to carry on and help those in need,” Sister Tabitha says.

By their strength, they have endured much, but carrying on is key. Going around the center, basic amenities are often stretched thin.

“Most women come from families that aren’t financially sound. So they can’t help us with money,” Sister Darsana says. “All the monetary help we get from the provincial office is used up in maintaining the center. There’s never enough to get the extra work done.”

Nevertheless, centers such as this one have an important role to play — not only in Kerala, but India broadly.

“All around the country there are women with mental health problems. Women here are counseled and encouraged in their tasks — no matter how small,” Sister Darsana says.

As the sun sets on this May evening in Sultan Bathery, the residents at the Trippadam Psychosocial Rehabilitation Center for Women finish their prayers in the garden and head indoors. Sister Darsana leads them inside.

“Sometimes we are full of hope that things will get better for women here. But in our hearts we know that some of them will be with us until their last breath,” she says.

“We need help to provide better care and facilities for them. We have to give them more comfort, more warmth and more shelter.

“We know Christ is here with us and he will help us.”

Anubha George is a former BBC editor and writes on Kerala culture. Based in Cochin, her work has been published in, The Good Men Project among others. She also teaches journalism at India’s leading media schools.

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