Sister James on a health mission among tribal children. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Sister Helen and local children. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Doctor, pharmacist, and paramedic in Assisi Santi Bhavan pharmacy. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Young mothers learn mat weaving in Cochin. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Mother and child at Vimalalayam Centre. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The Way to Do Is to Be
In a dynamic grassroots commitment to the poor, hundreds of congregations of Christian women serve tens of thousands in imaginative ways throughout the Near East. Camps, boardings, orphanages, clinics, convents, prayer huts, schools, and hospitals serve on the basis of need, not creed. Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) funds many of these programs.
Congregations of sisters, moved by the plight of their own people, have emerged in underdeveloped countries. They are native sisters serving in their lands with a vigor and faith comparable to that of early Christians. Having heard the word of Christ, they put the Word into action. Vocations are not lacking. And contrary to popular opinion, they have entered religious life not to escape their personal poverty, but to share the wealth of their spirit.
Women religious throughout India exemplify this response in faith. In a dominantly Hindu society, Christian women form and live out community among local populations. Most of these women are young. Foresaking a prohibitively expensive dowry system, which can amount to thousands of dollars, they opt for lives of religious service. Not only do they save face through this choice, they also deepen their faith while improving their society. Some also become highly trained professionals who work in Western countries as the sole support of their sisters back home. But their continuing local involvement shows how their ingenuity and commitment evolve into long-term hope and far-reaching solutions.
Two of the many religious congregations in India show their achievements.
The Assisi Santi Bhavan Health Center of Narayanput in central India was formed by a group of women with medical education. Their mission is to combat the high incidence of Hansens disease, commonly known as leprosy. Their facility, the only one within some 70 miles, benefits Moslems, Hindus, and Christians with its special programs. Fourteen sisters provide therapy to eradicate the disease, do research and education, and grapple with financial and logistical problems. They fight disease with love and kindness, dispensed from a hospital which contains a pharmacy, laboratory, examination rooms, and twelve beds for in-house patients.
The sisters designed and helped build their compound. The facility includes the hospital, twelve family huts for longterm patients and their tending relatives, a communal well, as well as a vegetable garden and grazing lands all securely fenced from wild animals.
The sisters recognize that symptoms mean little to the poor, who are accustomed to suffering. Among most people the fear of having Hansens disease and its social stigma make them reluctant to seek medical care. To break down the fear and to educate people to symptoms, four sisters take their healing ministry to 340 villages. A sister-physician and three sister-paramedics go from hut to hut to examine villagers. When necessary they provide medication and training for ongoing care.
The sisters medical research revealed that multiple drug treatment, which requires hospitalization and family support, effectively overcomes the drug resistance common to Hansens disease. But patients needing long-term care might avoid the clinic unless they are driven by the intolerable pain of the final stages of the disease. So the sisters developed the family hut concept to encourage family support in the extensive treatment and testing of natives who fear entering the hospital.
This small band of courageous sisters has deliberately chosen a staggering but urgent task. Early detection and prevention are their goals. The sisters of Assisi Santi Bhavan also toil against widespread tuberculosis and malnutrition with the same heal and help attitude. Their success continues to grow.
The Vimalalayam Centre of Cochin in southern India also demonstrates how native sisters developed a practical, grassroots approach to empower the local community to achieve self-reliance. The Daughters of the Heart of Mary in Cochin have pioneered training women to use natural fibres to produce salable articles for home use. Their quality workmanship and colorful designs have made this Centre a leading exporter. Young girls and older women, thousands in number, earn an income while they learn a skill. The entire process of refining the fibres, dyeing, weaving, and designing articles is done by the sisters and the village artisans.
Sister Tereseamma George began this program in the south of India, where raw materials such as palm leaves, banana fibre, and coconut bark are available. So were girls without training or education who needed employment. Tereseamma had learned basket weaving when she was a girl, so this became the first skill she offered. Only five girls were willing to join her first class, but within a month 200 were working at the Centre. The project has been growing ever since. Today a community of 25 sisters under the direction of Therese DSouza extends the program to involve entire families. Among the programs that have evolved in their tiny compound are training in fibre work, cooking, home science, and secretarial skills. The Vimalalayam Centre also contains a hostel for students and working women who need overnight shelter, and a convent with chapel for the Daughters of the Heart of Mary.
This mission has a powerful effect in a region where labor in rice paddies earns a man ten rupees a day ($1.11) and a woman seven rupees (79 cents). A girl can bring her loom home once she has successfully completed her training. This home industry then brings supplementary income and new hope to families.
With the success at Cochin, the sisters have opened a second fibre center for backwater families on a small island called Panangad. With the help of Sister Marykuty Anthraper and four sisters, the islanders share personnel, expertise, sales outlets, food, fibre materials, and other resources with the community in Cochin.
The sisters continually develop support programs to meet local needs. For instance, women who first came to work at the Centre often fainted on the job from lack of food. The sisters instituted a warm noontime meal to sustain the women while respecting their independence. Soon the women brought their infants to share the meals. The sisters added instruction in mothering skills, such as nutrition and health care, in a new classroom under a large mango tree. As students invite them to their homes, the sisters can see other family needs and can respond with support.
The women of Cochin and Narayanput, along with hundreds of other religious communities, respond to local needs as zealous, effective, compassionate, and intelligent Christians. They are transforming their society in profound ways.
Sister Philomina Jose, director of the CNEWA program at Cochin, said, We used to think we gave Christ to others. Now we are seeing how we receive Christ from others. The faith of the poor is so great! Perhaps she sees a reflection of the sisters own faith. Seeing their work in India lets us experience the present and living Christ. These women, each exhibiting the special charism of her congregation, give witness to His peoples unity in the world.
Sister Christian is a Sister of Mercy on CNEWA’s staff in New York.