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Fearless Grace

The Deivadan Sisters shelter Kerala’s abandoned

On an early morning in February, the sound of a breakfast bell fills the women’s quarters at the Deivadan Home in Malayatoor, a village nine miles north of Kerala’s commercial center of Ernakulam.

A group of hungry elderly women has already gathered around a large table in the facility’s dining hall. Moments after the ring has faded, Jaseena Muriyamvelil, a young novice of the Congregation of the Deivadan Sisters, emerges from the kitchen carrying a vat of rice and yellow curry. She places it in the center of the table and picks up the ladle. As if on cue, the eager women move in, pushing forward their metal plates and cups.

Thirty-year-old Sister Jiji Puthupparmbil, clothed in a saffron habit, paces around the perimeter. A large silver medallion, engraved with the words “To Serve The Poorest,” hangs around her neck. She engages the women in a lighthearted banter that brings wide smiles to their otherwise world-weary faces. She shares the circumstances of the women’s shattered lives.

“She had daughter-in-law problems,” says Sister Jiji, gesturing toward 75-year-old Thankamma, the first resident at the home when it opened its doors 13 years ago. Thrown out of her son’s home, Thankamma had no one to turn to and no place to go. She boarded a bus, not thinking about its destination and, somehow, found her way to the Deivadan Home.

Continuing around the table, Sister Jiji taps the shoulder of a frail, elderly woman seated next to Thankamma. “She’s a blind spinster.”

One by one, the sister identifies the reasons why the women ended up here, in what resembles a casting call for India’s most destitute — abandoned, deaf, mentally ill, chronically sick — each story as tragic as the next.

“Here, we admit everybody, the poorest of the poor, the depressed, the hated, the unwanted, the uncared for, from all religions — Christian, Muslim, Hindu. Very rough people. Very innocent people,” she says.

“Most are older than 70. We’re totally dedicated to them, feeding them, bathing them, cleaning their clothes, teaching them how to pray and love God.”

In recent years, a fast-paced, more secular and consumerist culture has been steadily supplanting Kerala’s time-honored agrarian culture, along with its traditional family structure. All too often, the elderly suffer most from the changing values of Kerala’s families.

“Normally, old people are looked after by their children,” explains 70-year-old Father Varghese Njaliath, the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Malayatoor and resident chaplain at the Deivadan Home. “But there is a trend here. When parents become ill or a problem, they’re put in a home or sometimes simply thrown out with nobody to look after them. That didn’t happen before. But this new generation likes to be very free. Parents at home can be a burden. They have to be cared for and looked after. So you can see why the Deivadan Home is truly a gift from God for these people.”

“There are institutions to look after the wealthy, taking money from them,” explains 44-year-old Sister Shubha Poovattil, who pursued her vocation against her mother’s wishes and became the congregation’s first member. “People who are poor with nobody to take care of them or sick with families that can’t afford to care for them, that’s who we accept here. Deivadan means God’s gift [in Malayalam, the local language]. So we treat everybody as God’s gift — our sisters, founding father, residents, sponsors, even you. We love and respect them, every one of them.”

Believe it or not, the women at the breakfast table are the more fortunate ones at the Deivadan Home. They still manage to get themselves to the dining hall on their own. About half of the 90 women and 65 men living at the home are bedridden or otherwise ?incapacitated by sickness or injury. Some are confined because of mental illness.

On the second floor, another novice, Anju Puthenparambil, unlocks and enters a room at the end of the hall, where three residents with severe mental illness and histories of violence live. The spartan room offers few comforts, and intentionally so. Loose objects offer too many opportunities for the residents to hurt themselves or others. Beds with thin plastic-laminated mattresses abut the walls. Iron bars crisscross the open windows. Treated with antipsychotic medications, the patients laze about in their own private altered states.

Anju’s task is simple: clean the quarters. While even those with the strongest of constitutions would proceed with great caution, if not fear, Anju is serene as she unhurriedly goes about her business. She strips the soiled bed sheets and gathers the dirty dishes. She scrubs the tile walls and cleans the porcelain toilet.

More astonishing than the fact that Anju voluntarily raised her hand to do this menial labor is that she has committed, alongside her sister Deivadans, to do it, quite possibly, every day for the rest of her life.

The source of inspiration for the members of this relatively new Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation is Father Abraham Kaippenplackal, a 96-year-old priest who has lived and worked barefoot for almost his entire life.

“I tried and found that without shoes we can live,” he explains. “It’s not so difficult. And a pair of shoes is so costly. With that I can support three or four people with food. You have to polish, repair, get new ones your whole life. That’s a chain of expenses that I can spare and spend on these people.”

Raised by a devout Christian mother who always taught him “to look to the low ground, like water going to low places, and be with the poor, love the poor and the low-caste people,” Father Kaippenplackal answered his calling to the priesthood early in life.

In 1969, he founded the Snehagiri Missionary Sisters, whose 460 sisters today run 60 homes throughout India and 8 overseas that care for the elderly and the mentally and physically disabled and offer educational programs for children and adults. In the late 1970’s, while recovering from a serious illness, Father Kaippenplackal grew increasingly concerned about the number of homeless elderly men on the streets of Pala, a town in southern Kerala and the seat of the eparchy where he worked. Soon after, he opened a shelter for them and, ten years later, he opened one for women.

Inspired by his selflessness, young women of faith flocked to the shelter to volunteer. This planted the seed in Father Kaippenplackal to create a community of women religious committed to serving the abandoned elderly. In 1998, the Deivadan Sisters were formally recognized as a religious congregation.

Today, the community numbers just 30 women, 7 of whom are novices. “Only by God’s grace are we little by little growing,” says Sister Shubha. Though they are few, the sisters undertake a colossal workload, operating eight homes in four districts and caring for a total of some 400 elderly persons.

“The sisters support them until they’re dead because there’s nobody else to look after them,” adds the priest.

For his part, Father Kaippenplackal continues to play a leading role in the congregation’s activities despite his declining health. He has been diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease. And, the knees that “have carried me so many years, are now tired,” he sighs. Nonetheless, three times each month, he makes the strenuous trip from Pala to Malayatoor.

“Our main objective is to live as the poor and help the poor,” the priest explains. “For that we work, spend our whole life and take our vows. Poverty, chastity and obedience are common for all religious. But we added another — the uplifting of the poor. We never take up schools, colleges or hospitals. Our only role, aim and work are to uplift the poor.”

While “serving the poor” may define in varying degrees the work of all women religious, direct involvement with the nitty-gritty of caring for the needy has become a lost art among some congregations in Kerala. The Syro-Malabar bishops have taken note of this shift in responsibilities, attributing to it, in no small measure, the decline in religious vocations among women across Kerala.

“We’ve been concentrating more on running institutions, where sisters don’t get the chance to experience what’s happening in the world,” says Mar Thomas Chakiath, auxiliary bishop of theArcheparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

These days, potential candidates see well- educated sisters and public-service oriented laity filling the same professional positions. These women wonder why they should respond to their calling if, at the end of the day, they will work as a teacher, nurse or administrator in institutions that also serve the wealthy.

Of course, many other social and economic factors weigh in on the decline of vocations in Kerala. Today, young couples are having fewer children, which means fewer potential candidates. Young women also enjoy greater opportunities in the global marketplace ?than ever before. In turn, the economy’s competitive forces compel youth to achieve more academically and pursue undergraduate and, more frequently, graduate studies. Lastly, Kerala’s younger generations have come of age in an increasingly consumerist culture.

“It’s difficult today because people want to be rich,” explains Sister Jiji. “Now people aren’t going to religious houses. Parents don’t allow it as much. They prefer to leave India and make money. Here, we need money only to survive and to look after poor people. It’s a hard life.”

“Hard life” is an understatement. Deivadan Sisters do not employ staff at any of their institutions. Apart from some help from healthy residents, who contribute wherever they can, the sisters do all the work.

“They’re completely selfless and dedicated to this life,” says Father Kaippenplackal. “They sacrifice their life, health and convenience.”

“Our total timetable is their [the residents’] timetable. From morning to night, we’re always on duty. Sometimes we don’t even get to sleep. If someone falls or gets frightened, we have to go directly from our bed to the patient,” adds Sister Shubha.

But it is precisely the austerity of this lifestyle that makes the Deivadan Sisters unique. Mar Thomas and others in the church’s leadership hope the new congregation will set a clear example for Kerala’s young candidates that answering a religious call does, in fact, mean something different.

It is no coincidence that the women attracted to the congregation come from underprivileged backgrounds. Eleven of the 23 sisters grew up in the eastern Idukki District, a rural area that has endured a decade-long economic crisis. Several other sisters come from the largely underdeveloped northern Malabar region.

“There’s not much office work in Idukki or Malabar,” remarks Sister Shubha. “But they’re God-loving, human-hearted people and willing to take on the work for the poor.”

Support for the Deivadan homes comes almost exclusively from the local community, who know and appreciate the sisters’ work. The congregation receives no financial assistance from the eparchy — a source of great pride among the women.

“Our gate is always open to the public,” says Sister Shubha. “They know our work. They’re the ones who bring people from the streets to us. And they visit here and help these people. Money, rice, bananas, firewood, anything and everything they bring to us. They treat the people as their own and see God’s face in them. So they offer to God directly through these people and get satisfaction.”

Siji Valavanal and her two daughters visit the Deivadan Home in Thankamany, in the Idukki District, a few afternoons each week. Established four years ago, the home takes in abandoned elderly women. On those days, Mrs. Valavanal picks up her daughters, 5-year-old Anna and 12-year-old Irin, from school and takes them to the market, where they purchase sacks of rice, tapioca, vegetables and other staples. They then head over to the Deivadan Home, knock on the door and offer the groceries. But more important for Mrs. Valavanal, she and her daughters stay awhile and visit with some of the residents.

Anna, wearing a bright pink-checkered dress, and Irin, wearing a pretty green dress, approach the bedside of a reclining resident. The frail woman sits up, reaches her hands out and clutches Irin’s hands. Irin smiles. She then gently caresses Anna’s cheeks. Anna blushes. The elderly woman beams.

On any given day, visitors drop in unannounced. Some bring sacks of rice, while others offer financial support. Together, as a community, they keep afloat these homes for the abandoned elderly. Some, such as Mrs. Valavanal and her daughters, have adopted the residents as additional parents and grandparents and stop by regularly.

“We’re happy when we come here. We sit and enjoy their company, feel their pain and hear their problems,” explains Mrs. Valavanal.

“Nowadays, society is always looking at the top level, not the low levels. Most people want to make relations with those with status, not to serve those in need. I want to create in my daughters’ minds the desire to serve others,” she says, echoing the wisdom of Father Kaippenplackal’s mother. For that lesson, Mrs. Valavanal could not have found her daughters better teachers than the Deivadan Sisters.

Back in Malayatoor, as he does each morning during his stay at the Deivadan Home, Father Kaippenplackal rises before dawn to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The sisters prepare his vestments. They lead him into the chapel and help him up to the altar, where he takes his place in the presider’s chair.

The liturgy has attracted some 35 elderly residents, who sit on a worn red rug in front of the altar. The bedridden and others unable to attend will listen to it in their rooms over the facility’s public-address system. On his right, a sister holds the reading. On his left, a novice holds the microphone. The celebrant adjusts his glasses. The liturgy begins.

His words begin to flow slowly, softly. After a few minutes, he pauses, having lost his place. The sister points to where he left off. But the pause continues for several moments. At last, he resumes reading and his voice grows stronger.

At the end of the liturgy, the sisters lead the priest to the men’s dining hall, where he takes a seat against a wall. In front of him, the bedraggled men form a single file to greet him that extends into the next room.

“This is the most pleasant time in my day,” admits Father Kaippenplackal, as he turns to greet Rajappan Paramattum, a sinewy 67-year-old Hindu and the home’s resident coffin-maker. “This is when I’m most at ease.”

Mr. Paramattum’s former supervisor at a local hotel where he worked brought him to the Deivadan Home 12 years ago. Estranged from his only son, he had fallen into a stupor, unable to speak, see, walk or eat. “He was a hopeless case seeking a good death,” says Sister Shubha, who smiles as she remembers the day he arrived. This morning, he bows before Father Kaippenplackal for a blessing.

Next in line is 72-year-old Joseph Madathingal. One night in 2004, a car hit and maimed him as he walked along the roadside. The accident cost him his business and, as a result, his family. According to Mr. Madathingal, his wife and four children no longer had any use for him. His new family at the Deivadan Home, in contrast, considers him indispensable. Each day, he goes to market for the sisters and helps with odd jobs. “I’m like their brother,” says Mr. Madathingal about the sisters. “And they’re like my sisters. We take care of each other.”

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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