ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

God’s Servants of Action

A Syro-Malabar religious community for women maintains a strong but gentle faith in their native India.

The sisters of Nirmala Dasi (in English, the Servants of God) are the heart and soul of the many humanitarian projects begun by the Syro-Malabar bishop of Trichur, Mar Joseph Kundukulam.

This community began as a group of volunteers in Trichur, a town in central Kerala, the southwestern Indian state where Christians have had a presence since the time of St. Thomas the Apostle.

In the late 1960s, Mar Kundukulam, then vicar of a parish and director of an orphanage, asked for volunteers among his parishioners to help care for the women and children at St. Christina’s Home, a residence for unwed mothers he had founded in 1967.

The original group of 15 women grew in number and dedication. However India’s conservative culture inhibited their work – it is considered inappropriate for women to move around without an escort, especially if the women are single and of a marriageable age, as many of the women were.

In 1970, when he was ordained bishop of Trichur, Mar Kundukulam received permission from Rome to create a pious association for his volunteers.

After a few years, members of this pious association wanted to form a religious community. One practical reason at the time, said the bishop, was the protection offered by the habit. The verbal abuse the women received from people who assumed them to be unwed mothers as they worked with the children was unbearable at times. Wearing the religious habit, the women reasoned, would protect them from potential hostilities and abuse.

Again the bishop petitioned Rome and soon the community’s status was raised to a congregation of common life.

Today the Society of Nirmala Dasi has more than 200 sisters working in the Diocese of Trichur, the slums of Bombay, northern India and Kenya. And now the community plans to open a convent in Hungary.

Working with a strong but gentle faith, the Nirmala Dasi Sisters bring love and healing to people otherwise overlooked by society. Irrespective of caste and creed, all those whom the sisters care for are welcomed and accepted as children of God. This philosophy, expounded by Mar Kundukulam – who has been known as the “Father of the Poor” since his days as a young vicar – is nothing short of revolutionary.

I fully believe that God Our Creator loves each one of us, indicated the bishop, despite the differences of caste and creed, wealth and poverty.

It was in this spirit that the Society of Nirmala Dasi was conceived.

For all their energy and effort, they do not consider taking any remuneration for their services. Poverty is stipulated in their constitution.

“We eat, pray and work, everyone together, all the time,” said a sister who works at the Damien Institute, a hospital for people with Hansen’s disease staffed by the religious and supported by Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Although the work of the Society has spread to three continents, each community’s schedule is exactly alike, varying only to accommodate local conditions and traditions.

At 6 A.M. the sisters prepare for daily liturgy, which is celebrated in the ancient Syro-Malabar manner.

After liturgy at St. Christina’s Home, where the community’s novices spend their first novitiate year, the religious take morning tea before beginning the long work day.

In the nursery, they feed and bathe the babies with such love and care that, were it not for their habit – a crisp white sari and veil – they would be mistaken for the infants’ natural mothers. Meanwhile another sister teaches preschool children whose mothers reside at the home. Others assist the mothers who work in the kitchen, gardens and fields. At 10 A.M. they all gather for breakfast and then work until lunch.

At the St. Joseph Mental Health Care Home for women, Sister Rosily Kalathil, a nurse, and Sister Theresiamma Chowallor, the mother superior, quickly dish up plates of rice, meat and vegetables for the residents’ lunch. The newest diocesan project, St. Joseph’s does not yet have a separate residence for the sisters. They eat in their makeshift bedrooms or else they close off a portion of the dining room for a little privacy.

“At first we tried to eat with the residents,” said Sister Rosily, but the residents took so much interest in us that they were distracted from their meal.”

Other than separate prayer and meal times. the sisters are involved completely with the 40 women who reside at the home – individuals who suffer mental health problems ranging from the effects of substance abuse to schizophrenia.

Sister Theresiamma spends, she jokes, perhaps too much time with the patients. Sometimes she joins them while they work on small crafts projects. Often she assists them with the chores she organizes to keep them active. Except for two months’ training at another facility, Sister Theresiamma has no formal training in the mental health field. She tries to develop normal, friendly relations with the patients – no small feat for women whose families have abused or ostracized them. “The love she practices comes from the heart and is rooted in the charism of her community.

“We give love and medicine here,” said Sister Rosily, who has formal training in nursing. “Without love, medicine is useless.”

Prayer, study, household chores and field work fill the mornings of the community’s first year novices. The afternoon begins with the recitation of the rosary in the “power house of the Nirmala Dasi,” the octagonal brick oratory designed by Father Joseph Vilangaden, who co-founded the community with the bishop and has served as its director ever since. Following the rosary the novices move to a smaller chapel, which is cut into a wall of rock in the house of formation. There they receive guidance and direction about the life of a religious from the mistress of novices, Sister Rosily Pidiyath.

Recently transferred to the novitiate after serving the poor in the slums of Bombay for several years, Sister Rosily quietly admits that she is happy to be in the peace and quiet of the novitiate grounds seven miles from Trichur.

There, surrounded by groves of banana, coconut and rubber trees and peacocks, members of the community in various years of study (the program consists of six years) are formed. Mindful of Mar Kundukulam’s words, “be a good sister, pray with them, work well with them” and guided by experience and Father Joseph, Sister Rosily prays “to Jesus to ask him how to go.”

After the heat of the day has passed, they resume work in the fields. Later, as in other houses of the Nirmala Dasi, the novices spend an hour in prayer, either before or after dinner.

For the second year of novitiate, novices spend time at the Pope John Paul Peace Home for bedridden and incurable children and adults. More than 50 patients, most of whom suffer from severe mental disorders, depend solely on a small but dedicated staff of young religious and volunteers. Dinner lasts at least an hour as the staff roll into halls masses of rice, beans or overcooked vegetables and drop them into the opened mouths of the patients, much as a mother bird would feed her newly hatched chicks.

Peace Home is not a quiet place. The cacophony pierces the ear, but the sisters understand the cryptic languages of their wards, many of whom were deserted at regional hospitals.

After the tedious feeding process everyone is washed and dressed for the evening. By the time these chores are finished, it is time to watch a popular television program that features various dances and music from Kerala. Invariably some of the patients and not a few sisters and novices sing along. The more uninhibited ones dance clown the aisles between rows of vinyl-covered hospital beds generating great laughter. After things quiet down, the sisters slip off to their small dining room for grace and a simple supper.

Each evening the community gathers for recreation. Sometimes it is just a time to unwind, read the newspaper or discuss the events of the day. But it is often an opportunity for them to entertain each other with traditional dances and songs that illustrate the Gospel. At the Damien Institute postulants often entertain the community. Postulants wear no habit and still tie up their long black hair in a bun, but “their dress must be modest and free from all ostentation,” says the Society’s constitution.

These young aspirants have not yet experienced the intensity of formation. Their wide-eyed innocence betrays their youth, their inexperience and their enthusiasm.

Sister Elsy Illickal, a nurse at the Damien Institute, came to the hospital after her years at the house of formation, which lies just across the valley of rice paddies. Now, 13 years later, Sister Elsy has come full circle; a transfer has taken her back to the novitiate, where she will live until she departs for Goa to study theology for two years. Following her studies she will return to guide the young novices, to assist them as they begin “living a life consecrated to God…following as closely as possible Christ revealed in the Gospels and serving the people of God through their apostolate” (taken from the community’s constitution).

Toward the end of a novice’s second year of novitiate, she may apply to make her first promises, or vows. For two months the candidate prepares for the profession service. The climax of the liturgy is the discarding of the ochre sari of the novice and the donning of a white sari, which she will wear for the rest of her consecrated life. Then the new religious approaches the altar to receive Mar Kundukulam’s blessing. He presents each woman with a Bible, a ring symbolizing her union with Christ and the church, and a simple wooden cross that hangs from a string. A lock of hair is then ceremoniously cut off.

After three years as a junior sister, she will make final vows at an identical ceremony.

For the new religious, the habit is “meant to be simple and rough,” says the Nirmala Dasi constitution, “and shall he a symbol of [the sister’s] whole life, a sign of…profession and of…professed virtues.” The new religious is now a member of one family who share in common prayer, life and activity.

In every Nirmala Dasi house, recreation comes to a halt at 9 P.M. After a short prayer, the community assembles in the small candle-lit chapel. After 15 minutes of adoration, the community begins the rosary while kneeling on the grassy mats that cover the floor, arms outstretched, rosaries dangling from their sides. And after prayers, lights out.

All is quiet until 5:30 A.M., when the bells of St. Christina’s, Peace Home and the Damien Institute call the community to begin another day of prayer and work.

Lives are saved through the intervention of the Nirmala Dasi community. People of all ages are rescued from a system that neglects the poor, the handicapped, the mentally handicapped, people with Hansen’s disease and other “undesirables.” With love and kindness these people are given new life.

Cheryl Sheridan spent a month recently with the Nirmala Dasi community in Trichur.

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