A retired CMC sister visits one of the community’s girls’ homes in Konnamavu, Kerala. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A working mom fine-tunes a voltage stabilizer. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Sewing 101: A CMC sister instructs one of her charges. (photo: Sean Sprague)
CMC novices at prayer. (photo: Sean Sprague)
In 1866, Blessed Kuriakose Elias Charara, a priest of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, and an Italian Discalced Carmelite, Father Leopold Boccaro, founded a congregation for women to support impoverished families, particularly women and children, who were then so prevalent in the southwest Indian state of Kerala.
Now, almost 135 years later, the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (or CMC sisters) has developed into a vast network providing health care, child care, pastoral care, education and other social services.
The Carmel Hospital in Ashoga Puram is a modern establishment specializing in infertility problems, gynecology and pediatrics. Care at Carmel, noted its Executive Director, Sister Chrisila, is superior to that offered by government hospitals. Yet, some 25 percent of those who are treated at Carmel Hospital pay nothing. Carmel applies a sliding scale depending on what the patient can afford if the patient cannot afford treatment, he or she may receive it free of charge. Thus, the hospital is not quite self-sufficient and bank loans are necessary to keep the hospital afloat.
In all, the CMC Sisters administer 18 hospitals throughout India, totaling over 1,300 beds. There are an additional 33 general hospitals in which the sisters offer their services. The sisters also run 18 dispensaries and operate 11 mobile clinics. Some 300 sisters are fully trained nurses; at least 30 are doctors and more than 200 work as lab technicians, pharmacists and x-ray technicians.
The sisters dedication to education is astounding and tireless. In all, this Syro-Malabar Catholic community works in roughly 500 institutions of education throughout India, with a concentration in Kerala. The sisters provide extensive educational opportunities in lower primary grades, high schools, colleges and specialty schools, as well as in 230 nursery schools that also act as day care centers for the children of working parents.
The CMC Sisters realize the invaluable role of women and their need for recognition in Indian society. As a result, the CMCs have organized various training programs and workshops that provide women with a chance to learn new skills.
At one such workshop several dozen women received three months training in the assembly of voltage stabilizers, after which they were offered full-time employment at competitive wages. Dressed in colorful saris and adorned with jewelry, these women are pros at soldering wires, coils and semiconductors in their light, airy village workshop.
The lives of the CMC Sisters are divided between their work with women and children and the spiritual life. They take their motto from the Gospel of St. John: I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
Young women interested in joining this vibrant community must first meet with a screening committee to determine suitability. Candidates must be at least 16 years old and nearly all hail from Syro-Malabar Catholic families; young women from the Latin Church can enter the community only with the permission of their bishop. After selection, the candidates enter a program that serves as an introduction to their new life and provides a getting-to-know-you period. Their first year is spent as aspirants, followed by a year and a half as postulants. Then, as novices, they continue in canonical novitiates for another year, followed by six months of regency, during which they work in hospitals or schools. Then they make their first vows.
After making their first vows, the sisters spend four years in their respective convents as junior sisters, with the final year spent at the Generalate. Their formation culminates in a 40-day retreat, followed by final vows. Sometimes the women study in secular colleges for a year or so between their aspirancy and postulancy in order to attain qualifications in teaching or health care. Although the process can be grueling, roughly 95 percent of those who enter religious life will make their vows.
One could have heard a pin drop in the chapel in Angamalee where more than 60 junior sisters were halfway through their 40-day retreat prior to final profession. Deep in meditation, the sisters were arranged in a semicircle facing the altar. It was the final stage of their nine-year journey to become fully professed members of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel.
Sister Rita, herself on final retreat, took time to explain how she developed a heightened self-awareness through such meditations and found enlightenment through the love of Jesus.
He is our spiritual guide, so we totally and permanently offer ourselves to him, she said. Often we visualize a favorite image of Jesus and we talk to him. We take a Bible passage and see how it relates to our own lives. We ask for grace to act correctly and we read about the saints and spiritual people like Mother Teresa and our founding fathers.
Before entering religious life, Sister Rita was a secular teacher of geography and history, with a degree in economics from a Syro-Malabar Catholic school. Some of her teaching colleagues were CMC Sisters. She saw how happy they were and decided to enter the community at the relatively late age of 24. Now 33, Sister Rita says that as a CMC Sister, her joy increases every year.
Sister Nancy, also 33, was about to take her final vows too. She grew up in a middle class Syro-Malabar Catholic family with five brothers and three sisters. Two of her aunts were CMC Sisters. She pursued higher education and received her Bachelor of Science in physics and a Bachelor of Education from a college in Ernakulam. She gained inspiration from her teachers, who were sisters.
Sister Nancy experienced an awakening when the sudden death of her mother made her realize that nothing can save us, not even family or money only God. Three months later she entered the CMC community. At first her father was opposed to her decision, but her aunts won him over. Sister Nancy spent her postulancy and novitiate in different CMC houses in northern India before returning to Kerala for her final year of formation. She confesses that she experienced a few nagging doubts along the way especially when her sister got married but during a one-month retreat she realized that her vocation is a gift from God.
The Congregation of the Mother of Carmel has 565 houses throughout India as well as communities in Germany, Rome, Tanzania and the United States. The 202 houses outside of Kerala are known as missions, where social work takes place. One of the missionary prime concerns is to uplift the underprivileged intellectually, culturally, materially and spiritually. Some of the sisters religious formation takes place right in the missions in this way, the sisters can learn the languages and customs of the people they will eventually serve, right from the start.
Since 1978, when the first non-Keralan sister, Mary Violet, made her final vows, many more non-Keralites have embraced the life of the community providentially, for the number of those in need is growing fast. Most Syro-Malabar Catholic missions opened after Vatican II, when permission was given to the sisters to work beyond the boundaries of Kerala. When Pope John Paul II visited India in 1986, he urged the sisters: You must enter into the lives of the people of India who are deeply rooted in religious values, by humbly serving the poor and by faithfully observing the vows you have made. There, in the spiritual life of the people, you must promote the growth of the kingdom of God.
The CMC Sisters activities seem boundless. They find themselves working in such challenging Indian states as Jammu-Kashmir, Punjab and Assam, all of which are politically sensitive and often dangerous. The sisters also find themselves working throughout the Hindu heartlands of northern India, in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where in recent years many violent attacks on Christians by Hindu fundamentalists have occurred. Despite this danger, however, the CMC Sisters enthusiastically continue their good work.
Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages.