Former Sisters of Charity president helped victims of human trafficking

She was both a dreamer and a doer on a scale few could even imagine. Shalini D’Souza, SCN, through the ministries she created and the many partnerships she forged, rescued countless women and children from human trafficking and deplorable conditions. Few could have imagined that the student from Bombay, India who traveled to Nazareth, Kentucky in 1960 to join the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCN), would one day be recognized by world and church leaders for her progressive thinking and initiatives, and elected by her own Sisters as the first Indian-born woman to lead the third largest American religious congregation.

Sister D’Souza, 76, a former Provincial and president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, died Nov. 6 at Kurji Holy Family Hospital in Patna, India. A Sister for 52 years, Sister D’Souza was described as prayerful and creative, tenacious and tireless. Sister D’Souza who had been in pre-novitiate training in India, was identified to be the first Sister to travel across the world to the Motherhouse at Nazareth in order to join a novitiate class there. Mary Ninette Manning, SCN, who was in her class of young women studying to become Sisters, recalls how on a cold January day in 1960, the class gathered on the steps of the Motherhouse to sing Shalini a song of welcome. She quickly fit in, noted Sister Manning, and classmates “Really forgot that Shalini came from India, she just became a part of us.” In the years that would follow, other Sisters from India would come to live and study at Nazareth.

Sister D’Souza earned a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education and social sciences from Nazareth College and a master’s in elementary education and guidance from Spalding College, now Spalding University. She taught at St. Matthias School in Columbus, Ohio and was vice-principal of Nazareth Academy in Gaya, India. In 1974, she became a formation director.

Sister D’Souza was elected and served as a Provincial in India from 1983-89. Following her term as Provincial, Sister D’Souza attended a Peace and Justice Program in Thailand in 1990, and then worked six months with the Good Shepherd Sisters in the ministry of caring for children sold into prostitution. She returned to India inspired by her experience, and from 1991-96, she was Director of Women’s Programs for the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, India. In collaboration with an Italian-based organization and other SCNs, Sister D’Souza would help found a ministry that would house and educate dozens of children of women trapped by prostitution, offering the children other choices in life.

In 1998, Sister D’Souza returned to Nazareth, after being elected vice president of the SCN Congregation. Five years later, she became the president. Many reporters would cross Sister D’Souza’s path over the years because of the radical and unusual ministries she pursued, and her outspoken nature. One of them, Arthur Jones, a National Catholic Reporter editor, wrote an article entitled, “The fire in her belly isn’t curry, it’s Christ.” Jones described Sister D’Souza’s ability to lead and bring about change. He had travelled to India to witness Sister D’Souza’s ministries in person and wrote, “Two decades ago, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Shalini D’Souza was a guiding star and mentor to the Indian SCN novices and young sisters in Mokama, India. The 1812-Kentucky-founded SCNs had begun work in India in 1947 at the invitation of U.S. Jesuits on mission there. Today she is the SCN president… She is also an intriguing and refreshing sign of the times for an out-of-Kentucky-soil American order, almost two centuries old. An Indian-born president. Surely a first…The fire in her belly isn’t curry, it’s Christ.

Another reporter, this one from The Kentucky Standard, would feel a call to become a Communications Specialist for the Sisters after interviewing Sister D’Souza. Raluca Barzu Loher recalled, “It was about 9 years ago that I met Sister Shalini D’Souza, SCN. I was a reporter, one year out of college and on my second newspaper gig, somewhat clueless and professionally lost, and not even sure what I was looking for. I was supposed to be interviewing Sister Shalini, a Catholic Sister from India about the tsunami and how her congregation was helping in the outreach. It was going to be an easy story. I had no idea when I entered that room that she would change my life forever… She was the president of the SCNs at the time and I remember that I immediately thought about how approachable and warm her presence was for someone in leadership.

“I am not sure if I took many notes that day. I was mesmerized with this person before me. You see, I worked for a small town newspaper in Kentucky, went to a small town college before that, and I had never interviewed someone as powerful as the whole entire world before…I wasn’t religious, nor did I know where I fit on the spiritual spectrum. But in that moment, I knew I wanted to be her. Or around her at least,” Loher said.

Sister D’Souza served as president until 2008 and oversaw several major transitions and accomplishments. She helped to plan for the first General Assembly to ever take place outside of Kentucky. It was successfully held in Bangalore, India. She would also preside over another historic moment, the vote to welcome another congregation, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity of Pittsburgh, Pa., as part of the SCN congregation. Sister D’Souza became a sought after speaker on embracing internationality, fighting injustice, and founding much needed radical ministries. She also served on numerous Boards and received an honorary doctorate from Spalding University.

Once her term ended, Sister D’Souza returned to India. She, along with other Sisters, initiated a ministry for female domestic workers to help educate and train women so that they might learn to stand up for themselves and their rights, and to be able to better provide for their families. She also joined other Sisters in once again rescuing trafficked women and children.

Messages of support and well wishes poured in from around the world after Sister D’Souza was diagnosed with cancer in January, and again upon the news of her death. Hundreds attended her funeral Nov. 9, which was concelebrated by the Archbishop of Patna and 11 other priests. SCN Vice President Sangeeta Ayithamattam shared many messages as well as her own words about the loss.

“Shalini’s passion for those on the margins took her down new paths and she invited the community and others to risk those paths with her,” Ayithamattam said. “She was nourished and energized by her ever deepening relationship with God and delighted in sharing with others what she had come to know… Shalini’s image and memory will remain etched in many of our hearts — whether it is the children, the young women, the co-workers, the church leaders, the civic community in India, Nepal, the United States, Belize or Botswana. No matter where and whom… many recall her warmth and the impact she made on their lives.”

Sister D’Souza last visited Nazareth in 2013 to attend the General Assembly. At the time she also connected with numerous organizations, like the Nelson County Human Trafficking Task Force, to share best practices for identifying and rescuing victims.

Sister D’Souza was also able to celebrate with her Novitiate Class the 50th anniversary of having become Sisters together at Nazareth. Little could the class dream that just a year and half later, they would come back together to memorialize their dear Shalini. Last week during a Memorial Service, classmates and Sisters who served in leadership with Sister D’Souza, read aloud a reflection written by Sister D’Souza in the weeks after she was diagnosed with aggressive oral cancer. She spoke of how her faith and lifelong friendships would help her navigate the unknown.

“I am truly living in an unusual time where I sense that nothing but God’s love can fulfill my deepest need to remain faithful to this present call,” she wrote. “At times a strange sadness overcomes me, and in it an enormous loneliness — but it does not frighten me, for I am aware of the invitation to intimacy and how safe I am in this new relationship with Jesus. In fact, there is a deep joy in all of this journey and I know it comes from the abundant prayers that are being offered for me … Whatever the future offers, I go into it with trust now — trust in the unconditional love of a loving God; trust in a community that has held and supported me for more than 50 years and trust in my family and friends whose concern, care and presence have sustained me so well during these days of learning to be and ‘being done unto.’”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 edition of The Kentucky Standard.

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