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God’s Work in Kerala: Caring for the Aged

India’s Nirmala Dasi Sisters persevere in their work with elderly.

Some 30 years ago, in the southwestern Indian city of Trichur, an impoverished old woman was approached by a priest, who offered her charity. She turned down his generous offer of 100 rupees, pleading, “Father, please give me just 10 paise (a dime) so that I can buy a tiny pill of rat poison to end my miserable life!“

The priest was so moved by her desperation that he devoted the rest of his life to the poor. His name was Father Joseph Kundukulam. Eventually this humble priest became the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Trichur. He was, however, known throughout India, until his death on 25 April, as the Father of the Poor.

Perhaps inspired by that poor old woman, one of the Archbishop’s major apostolates was caring for the elderly poor; his caregivers were the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, a religious community that he established while still a priest.

In the late 1960’s, Father Joseph organized a group of women from his parish, originally to assist him in caring for the children of unwed mothers. As the success and size of this group grew, the women asked that they be reorganized into a Syro-Malabar Catholic religious community. One reason was for the safety of these selfless women who, as nuns, were less likely to become victims of abuse while caring for the children. As a result, the Society of the Nirmala Dasi (the Servants of God) was formed in 1971.

The Nirmala Dasi Sisters take a vow of extreme poverty: they receive no pay for their work and have no personal possessions. Everything in the community is owned in common. In addition, the sisters follow a strict rule of behavior – for example, they do not watch television or read novels. They are not allowed to take time off, except to visit sick relatives.

“Working with a strong but gentle faith,” one observer writes, “the sisters bring love and healing to people otherwise overlooked by society.” This is the mission of the Society of the Nirmala Dasi.

The sisters care for the alienated and the needy, such as orphans, the physically and mentally handicapped and the elderly poor. The community’s care of unwed mothers and their children at St. Christina’s Home, and their care for people with Hansen’s disease at the Damien Leprosy Institute – both of which are supported by CNEWA – are well appreciated.

At St. Joseph’s Home, the sisters care for elderly women who have nowhere to turn. Love knows no bounds in this place.

Traditionally, Indian sons care for aging parents by moving them in with their own families. But the time-honored extended family system of social welfare is breaking down. Societal changes, limited housing space, individualism and the breakup of the extended family have placed a strain on the aged. Many are abandoned and must fend for themselves unless they can find a reliable long-term care facility.

Tears well up in 78-year-old Mary’s eyes as she recounts her grim tale. Her husband died 40 years ago, so she worked as a housekeeper and raised her three children on her own. Both of Mary’s sons married, moved away and refused to care for their mother. Her daughter visits occasionally, but her economic situation, as well as a heart condition, do not allow her to look after her frail mother. As a result, Mary has been at St. Joseph’s for three years. She says she is very happy with the care and kindness she receives.

St. Joseph’s is full of elderly women who have been victimized and might otherwise have been left to beg on the streets. At St. Joseph’s they can spend their days in dignity and in the company of others.

Set in private gardens that the residents are encouraged to cultivate, St. Joseph’s is located about four miles from the center of Trichur. It is a cool concrete building with several dormitories and bedrooms, forming a quadrangle around a spacious central courtyard. Four to six women live in the smaller rooms while the larger rooms have beds for up to a dozen. There is also a large dining room and a common room with a television set.

Sixty-year-old Sister Thankama has spent two years at the home and recounts the long path that brought her there. She entered religious life at 24, and as a Franciscan nun studied at university. From there she proceeded to Germany where she continued her studies and her work for 10 years.

Sister Thankama returned to Kerala and joined the Nirmala Dasi, working in many of the apostolates in the community, including care for people with Hansen’s disease, unmarried mothers, orphans and now the aged. The nun explained that she loves the people at the institute and lives the way Christ wants her to live, by “serving the poor and being poor myself.”

St. Joseph’s has about 100 elderly women living on its grounds; in addition, 20 children and about 20 mentally impaired women also reside there. Some of the elderly women take care of the mentally impaired, but Sister Thankama believes it is sometimes difficult to serve everyone. Each group has separate needs and sometimes it can be a challenge to meet all of them. In spite of these obstacles, a highly structured schedule helps things flow smoothly at St. Joseph’s.

The director of the home, Father Franco, explains how the day is organized. Everyone is awake by 5:00 A.M. for morning prayer and meditation. At 6:15, Father Franco celebrates the liturgy with the women. Coffee, housework and a curry breakfast in the large, airy canteen follow. After the morning meal there is time for personal chores, the washing and mending of clothes and the distributing of medicines. At 11:00 there is recitation of the rosary. At noon, those who are capable help the sisters prepare lunch, which usually consists of rice, beans and vegetables.

A short nap, gardening, tea and coffee and the preparation of the evening meal round out the afternoon. Baths at 6:00 are followed by spiritual reading. The sisters retreat for the recitation of their own private rosary and prayer; supper follows. The residents finish their day with some recreation, such as television or reading, until bedtime around 9:30. The sisters, meanwhile, continue their own prayers until 10:00.

St. Joseph’s, like all Nirmala Dasi institutions, accepts all women regardless of caste or creed, so there are Christians, Hindus and Muslims among them. However, as an institution of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the spiritual orientation is understandably Christian. Christians have lived in Trichur for centuries; in fact, members of the community trace their acceptance of the faith to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle, who arrived in the area in 52 A.D.

Laxmi and Meera are a remarkable mother and daughter team residing at St. Joseph’s. Laxmi is 76 years old and Meera, 56, although they look more like sisters.

Laxmi married an office clerk when she was 17. He died two years later, leaving her pregnant and alone. Her daughter, Meera, contracted malaria at the age of eight, which left her deaf and dumb. Since then she has barely left her mother’s side. Over the years the two have been a successful team making handicrafts.

Laxmi showed me an article and photograph of the two women which had been published in a local newspaper many years ago. Serene and beautiful, Laxmi says she is happy living at St. Joseph’s, and feels particularly at ease because Meera will be cared for even after Laxmi is gone.

Eighty-year-old Rosy has lived at St. Joseph’s for 15 years. Her husband died 14 years earlier. He had sold their land and spent the money on alcohol, leaving the family in constant crisis. Her three sons married but did not want their mother living with them, so they sent her to St. Joseph’s. Rosy says that despite her past she is satisfied.

Rosy, Laxmi, Meera and Mary are just some of the 100 or so women who are peacefully enjoying their retirement in the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s. The institution is run almost entirely by charity and the residents pay nothing for their service and care. Standards are hardly luxurious – up to 12 women may live in one room and there can be an odd mix of the elderly and the younger mentally impaired – but things work out remarkably well and the majority of St. Joseph’s residents are happy.

Thanks to the devotion of the Father of the Poor, and the added love and care of the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, St. Joseph’s provides a lifeline for those who would otherwise be abandoned. It is hard to imagine a higher level of love and care.

Sean Sprague, a California-based photojournalist, travels frequently throughout “our world.”

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