From ONE Magazine

House of Blessings

On 6 December 1992, a mob of Hindu extremists — some 200,000 strong — descended on the Babri Mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya, tearing it down in minutes. In the months that followed, sectarian violence spread through the country, particularly in the slums of Mumbai. When the unrest subsided, more than 2,000 people had been killed.

As the riots spilled out across Mumbai, officials of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in the southern state of Kerala expressed concern for the safety of their religious sisters living there; Christians had been caught in the crossfire in the past. With this in mind, church officials sent a rescue party to the city’s largest slum, Dharavi, where a small community of Nirmala Dasi Sisters had been living since 1989.

But their fears proved unfounded. Residents of the slum, Hindu and Muslim alike, had stationed themselves in front of the convent, protecting the sisters from harm. It was a testament to the sisters’ work on behalf of the elderly, disabled and sickly. Irrespective of caste or creed, the sisters served those most in need — and their warring neighbors came together to protect them.

The sisters turned back the rescue party. Even amid some of the worst rioting in Mumbai, they felt safe.

The Society of Nirmala Dasi (Servants of God) was founded in 1971 by Mar Joseph Kundukulam, the late Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Trichur (a city in central Kerala), and Msgr. Joseph Vilangadan, who continues to serve the community as a spiritual director.

When serving as a parish priest, Mar Joseph asked for volunteers among his parishioners to help care for the women and children living at St. Christina’s Home, a residence he had founded in 1967 for unwed mothers and their children. A few years later, when ordained bishop of Trichur, Mar Joseph created a pious association for his volunteers, who asked to form a religious community. Today, the society’s 265 sisters operate 38 houses, most of which are in India.

Unlike other religious communities for women in India, the Nirmala Dasi Sisters do not own or operate schools or hospitals. And higher degrees or other professional credentials are not considered essential to their vocation as servants of God; refusing recompense for their services, however, is.

Anugraha Sadan (House of Blessings) is a typical Nirmala Dasi house. Located in Trichur, it serves 20 children and young adults with severe mental and physical disabilities. Some were abandoned as babies by their parents. Others were brought by well-meaning parents who felt they could not provide the special care their children required.

On a recent visit, the sisters were busy dressing Chinnu, a 3-year-old girl whose neurological disorder makes her unable to speak or walk. Her father abandoned the family shortly after Chinnu's birth. Chinnu’s mother works as a nurse, which is only possible because the Nirmala Dasi Sisters care for Chinnu.

“Whenever I enter the room, I spend time with Chinnu or she’ll cry,” said Sister Agnes, the superior of the house who supervises the other four sisters and five lay staff members.

Nearly all of the disabled here require assistance to dress, bathe and eat. Doctors make regular visits, yet for most of the patients there is little hope for permanent improvement.

But a few, like 5-year-old Manikandan, may not need such close attention for long. “I want to go to school and learn, and I am sure that the sisters will send me,” he said. Though he has minor physical disabilities, Manikandan is one of the few residents who can speak cogently. But for now, he prefers to stay at Anugraha Sadan.

“I don’t want to go home because this place is very nice to me. I have friends and food; I sing songs and watch television.”

The accommodations are clean but sparse. Beds are the only furniture, and there is a single television. The sisters are used to the simplicity — they take vows of poverty. But for the lay staff, the demands of the job can be daunting.

“When I first came here, I cried and didn’t want to do all that was required to help these children out,” said Sreeja, a young assistant. “But after two days, I jumped in. And getting love from these children is now the joy of my life.”

There are several other Nirmala Dasi houses nearby, including the motherhouse. In the nearby village of Edakalathur, a Nirmala Dasi home serves both the impoverished elderly and, like Anugraha Sadan, mentally and physically disabled children. At yet another house in the area, the Pope Paul Mercy Home, sisters tend to the mentally disabled and people with H.I.V. and AIDS.

“We are badly in need of more space to accommodate more patients,” said Sister Mercy Thattil, Mother General of the Nirmala Dasi Sisters.

While most of the society’s houses are in Kerala, the Nirmala Dasi Sisters operate throughout India. They also have opened houses in Kenya and Hungary.

“We are getting invitations to open houses in Germany, Italy and other European countries,” Msgr. Vilangadan said.

“But our congregation of sisters is devoted to the poorest and neediest of peoples. We prefer working in underdeveloped countries.”

In India, he said, much work remains to be done.

A photojournalist, Mercy Sister Christian Molidor is special assistant to CNEWA’s secretary general. Jomi Thomas is a staff writer for CNEWA’s Ernakulam office.