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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Kerala’s Daughters

Resilience and courage motivate Kerala’s Daughters of St. Thomas

India’s Daughters of St. Thomas face an uphill challenge: While working with the poorest of the poor, their activities are scrutinized by officials who frown upon any activities they consider “missionary.”

Established in 1969, the sisters are based in southwest India’s verdant state of Kerala.

Though Kerala is only 20 percent Christian, the church’s presence, traced to the Apostle Thomas, is as ubiquitous as the coconut. For the sisters, the rest of the country is the challenge, which is why they are scattered throughout northern India, where they work in education and health care.

“I started the community to bring the Gospel to other parts of the country,” says Father Jacob Thazhathel, 91, who lives at the sisters novitiate near Palai.

“In northern India we have 18 convents, plus another 17 houses in Kerala. Sisters number some 266. We run 2 dispensaries, a hospital, social work center and printing press, 4 schools, 9 nurseries, several orphanages and a couple of tailoring centers.”

Sister Claris Thazhathuveettil, Assistant Superior General, recalls some of the early challenges she faced. “In 1982, two other sisters, a priest and I went to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh [the country’s largest state, in central India] to start a new mission in a village called Maksi,” she says. “There were no Christians living there. We had a small house with two rooms and shared a toilet. We visited nearby villages, all of which had water problems.

“There was only one well and that was reserved for high-caste Hindus,” Sister Claris says. “The dalits [untouchables] were not allowed to use it, though such discrimination is against the law in India. So we dug another well and started to supply the whole village. The water table was low and other people hadn’t been able to strike water, but we were lucky. We believed we were blessed by God and Jesus.”

People were impressed. “Hindus started to come to our house and sing Christian bhajans [devotional songs], which are chanted like mantras,” she continues. “They went, ‘Lord, give me light … Lord, give me peace … Lord, give me wisdom … Fill me with your joy.’ And everyone repeated it, slower and slower until it became like a meditation. It was mainly people of the low castes who came, but sometimes even the Brahmins joined in.”

From water, the sisters turned to education.

“We started a balwadi, a small school under a tree,” Sister Claris says. “One hundred students, mainly girls, came the first year. The following year, many boys came, too, and then we put up a building. I stayed there six years, and now there is a big school with 10 classrooms, 500 children and 7 sisters.”

The congregation also built a church and more than 1,000 people celebrated its consecration. “We are not allowed to baptize, as the government forbids it, though in the early days we brought into the church some old Protestant families whose conversion dates to British times,” Sister Claris says.

But with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which became the single-largest party after the May 1996 national elections, India’s Christians increasingly became imperiled.

Two years later, the BJP became the nation’s ruling party, though it has few supporters in Kerala. During this period, international monitoring groups such as Human Rights Watch chronicled mounting violence against Christians, including murders, rapes, forced conversions and the destruction of Christian institutions.

“Things changed with the BJP in power,” says Sister Claris. “They were always watching us to see if we were converting. Ujjain is deeply Hindu. We sisters were threatened and told we would be wiped out if we tried to convert. In 1995, a Franciscan nun named Rani Maria was working with the poor, helping bonded laborers find justice and freedom. She had released a few of them from their high-caste owners through the courts. But they threatened her, and one day she was dragged off a bus traveling through a lonely stretch of forest and stabbed 52 times. And there have been other cases. But the sisters will stay. We have courage.”

Last May, India’s BJP-led coalition government was ousted in the general elections. But while many expect the lot of Christians to improve under the leadership of the Congress Party, the Daughters of St. Thomas are steeled for any hardship.

“Our courage is that of St. Thomas who said, ‘Let us go and die with Jesus,’” says Sister Maria, director of the community’s novitiate, or house of formation. “That is the spirit of our congregation. After getting strength from Jesus we are sent out. We must take risks.”

Such courage is imbued at an early age through an arduous training process. An aspiring sister’s six-year training begins at age 16 or 17 with one year of preparation, an introduction to life as a novice. The young women study the Bible as well as English, music, cooking and gardening. (CNEWA helped finance a new house of formation for the sisters, as well as a convent in northern Kerala and an orphanage.)

As postulants the women begin two years of studies in science, humanities and language. Mariette Jose, an 18-year-old postulant, explains her decision to become a Daughter of St. Thomas.

“I want to be with the poor,” she says. “We want to pray with sick people and the needy, feed the hungry, teach the illiterate and spread the good news.”

After postulancy, the women spend one year in Ujjain where they finally get a taste of their future life’s work. “It was a three-day train journey to Ujjain,” recalls 20-year-old Anuba, who has just completed her year.

“When we got to our convent we had orientation classes and then went out into the villages to teach hygiene and to visit the sick and the poor at home.”

The young women return to Kerala for another two years as novices. Then they take their final vows, committing to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. They renew their vows communally every year on 3 July, the feast day of their patron, St. Thomas.

The sisters run a girls orphanage called Shanti Bhavan (House of Peace) in Aruvithura, not far from the motherhouse in Kerala. The orphanage is home to 45 girls, ages 5 to 18, a mix of Christians, Hindus and Muslims. They attend a nearby state school, but otherwise spend their time at the orphanage. On arrival, I was ushered into an auditorium to enjoy a spectacular display of dancing. The girls had just won several awards at a Kerala-wide talent contest.

Alongside the novitiate is a prayer house where up to five sisters at a time pray from periods ranging from a week to six months.

“We pray for peace in the world, for the church, the poor, for the intentions of the Holy Father and for all who ask us to pray,” says one sister. “We pray for the missions and our order. And we pray for any problems in the world that we hear of in the news.”

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to ONE.

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