Preeti Chalil, a martyr for the kingdom of God on earth, was brutally murdered on the night of February 13, 1993 at her mission in Teenkune, Dharan in East Nepal.
Preeti was born on July 26, 1950 to Kuruvilla Chalil and Thersiamma Vettathu at Bharanaganam in Kerala, India. Later, her family moved to Chemperi in Kannur. Her parents named her Aleykutty Kuruvilla. She had two brothers, Joseph and Paul and two sisters, Mary and Annamma. Later her family moved to Kannur district. Her name in the school was C. K. (Chalil Kuruvilla) Aleykutty. After obtaining the Secondary School Leaving Certificate, Aleykutty entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth at Mokama on May 10, 1970. As a candidate, she did her two-year Polytechnic training in typing and short-hand at Carmel Technical Institute, Patna. Aleykutty became a novice in the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Congregation on June 2, 1974 and took the name Preeti. Hers was one of the first groups of novices who spent around nine months at Kerwateri Ashram in Sokho to help start the experimental Indian type of novitiate under the direction of Sister Patricia Mary Kelley (Pat Kelley).
Preeti never wanted to miss any fun. Though she had a water phobia, she still went with her companions to the nearby river to wash clothes and to soak themselves in the water. Preeti sat on a rock close to the running stream and poured water on herself with a mug. She made first vows on June 21, 1976 along with her companions Abha Beck, Alice Mulavelipuram, Geeta Kochettonnil, Lata Thurackal, Philomena Kottoor and Shaila Vattamattam.
As a newly professed Sister, Preeti served as the secretary to the provincial, Sister Margaret Rodericks at Nazareth Convent, Mokama. In 1978, she appeared for the Intermediate Arts examination as a distance education student at Ranchi University. She continued as a regular student of Bachelor of Arts in History Honours at St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi while residing at Nazareth Convent, Ranchi. She enjoyed her studies and made many friends among the students.
In 1981 Preeti was appointed teacher at Pushpa Vidyalaya, Biharsharif. “She was a good teacher and valued friendships,” said Sister Mary Chackalackal, SCN, principal of the school. Preeti’s student companion in Ranchi and community member in Biharsharif, Sister Janice Rathappillil, SCN, said, “Preeti was a loving, caring and a cheerful person and was ever ready to reach out to others.” Sister Preeti had the privilege to make her perpetual vows on April 24, 1983 in Biharsharif.
Preeti was appointed headmistress of Pushpa Vidyalaya, Sokho in 1984. Since the school had been closed for a while and later reopened, the school had only around twenty students. She was the only Sister teacher in the school. Father Joseph Mulloor, the parish priest, started many developmental works. He and the Sisters visited the villagers to encourage them to send their children to the school. Within a short time, the enrolment was above one hundred. Preeti had a great love for the poor.
Preeti completed her Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1987. Her B. Ed. companion, Sister Sujata Maliakal, SCN, said, “Preeti was very positive in her outlook on life and people. She never complained about her physical hardships even if she had to travel for eight hours in Calcutta to teach an hour of practical student-teaching. She used to say that this may be our last stage of studies, so let us work hard and get good marks. She bought glucose to get instant energy to sit up late at night to study.”
Preeti excelled in whatever she did in her own quiet way. She felt tired often; hence she had a physical check-up in Mokama before she went to her next mission. The very next day she had to undergo an emergency operation to remove a large tumour. She submitted to the operation without any complaint.
Preeti served as the headmistress of Kristh Jyoti Vidyalaya, Hilsa from 1987 to 1990. Sisters Rena Fernandes and Susan Tudu who lived with Preeti in Hilsa shared, “Preeti’s simplicity was outstanding. She dressed simply. She never made a show of what she did or what she was going through. She was a good cook and made special dishes to make the Sisters happy. It was very easy to live with her in community. She was joyful and radiated that joy in whatever she did.”
In June 1990, Preeti went to Nazareth Academy, Gaya as a teacher. Sister Ann Palatty, the principal said, “I found her as a highly community-minded person, always ready to attend to the needs of everyone. In the school she was sincere, hard-working and committed. She loved the children under her care. As a principal I found it quite easy to deal with her. In a nutshell I would say that she was a good human being and a committed religious.” Sister Elsy Vettickal, SCN, one of Preeti’s close friends in Gaya community, said, “Preeti trusted in God’s providence. In fact, Preeti was unhappy to leave for Dharan and she used to say that obedience was the hardest vow to practice.”
Preeti joined as a teacher at Navjyoti School, Narayan Chowk, Dharan, in East Nepal on January 4, 1992. As the growing school needed more classrooms, Navjyoti Women’s Training Centre was moved to a small house at Bajhagara in Teenkune, three kilometres away from Narayan Chowk in August. Sisters Bibiana Kindo and Preeti moved to the women’s centre along with Sister Teresa Xavier Ponnazhath who led the social work. In October 1992, Preeti resigned from the school and was involved in the social ministry, helping the poor women and young girls by providing skills training.
Sister Preeti suffered from some stomach ailments, so she went to Mokama for treatment in the third week of November 1992. On December 4, she got a telegram from home that her mother was seriously ill. The next day she travelled to Kerala to see her ailing mother, though she herself was not fully well. When Preeti returned to Dharan on December 19 she looked sick and worn out, reported Sister Teresa Xavier. One of the Loreto Sisters instructed Sister Teresa Xavier on how to prepare some naturopathy medicine and appropriate food for Preeti and within a week, Preeti began to feel better.
Sisters Teresa Xavier and Preeti had decided to go to Kathmandu for the silver jubilee of Sister Roselyn Karakattu, SCN and that Preeti could consult a doctor while there. Preeti changed her mind and decided to stay back in the house in Dharan and to go for the Charismatic retreat in Kathmandu later and then take a few days of rest there. Though Sister Teresa Xavier suggested that someone stay with Preeti in the house since she was sick, Preeti felt comfortable enough staying alone. In fact, Sister Teresa Xavier had stayed alone in this house many times. Teresa made the necessary medicines and food for Preeti and left for Kathmandu by the afternoon of February 11th.
Sister Preeti surprised a thief in her convent on the night of February 13th and she was suffocated to death. Signs showed that Sister Preeti had struggled hard in her last hour. Students and staff of Navjyoti Women’s Training Centre alerted Sister Mary Manimala (now Mrs. Mary Murphy, former SCN), principal of Navjyoti School around 11:00 am on February 14 that the convent was locked from the outside and that Sister Preeti could be seen lying on the floor of the room. When the police broke open the door, Preeti was already dead. The examination of the body by a lady police, photographing the scene, searching the entire house and other legal formalities took several hours. Preeti’s body was taken to the British Camp Hospital mortuary by 7:00 pm and a post-mortem examination was scheduled for the next day.
(Excerpts from Cassilda Castell’s report to the community) Sister Preeti’s family was informed of her demise by telegram. The news of Preeti’s death reached Patna around 2:00 pm on February 14. Sisters Sarita Manavalan, provincial, Mary Joseph Pamplaniel, Mary Juliana Tuti, Alice Chirackanal along with Reverend Mathew Uzhuthal, vicar general of Patna diocese and the parish priest of Mokama left for Dharan in a jeep. On the way, they picked up Sisters Archana Valiaparambil and Sudha Puthoor from Bakhtiarpur. Reverend Father Thomas Vettikkatt joined them in Begusarai. No one was sure that it would be possible to bring the body of Preeti to Mokama for burial. Therefore, as many Sisters as possible were encouraged to go to Dharan. The jeep departing from Nazareth Hospital, Mokama left for Dharan around 4:00 pm with Sisters Alice Mulavelipuram, Anne Marie Thayilchirayil, Sangeeta Ayithamattam, Sarala Anithottathil, Shaila Vattamattam, Stella Kaiprampatt and Teresa Kotturan. To proceed alone without a convoy was dangerous in those days. The prayers of everyone, singing of bhajans and recitation of rosary helped to make headway without delay. After 10:00 pm, no vehicles were allowed in or out of Nepal and road permits were issued from 6:00 am till evening. The customs officials relented to the appeals of sympathy and cooperation. The Mokama jeep reached Dharan at 2:15 am and the Patna jeep by 5:00 am. When the Sisters and Father Mathew reached Dharan, two Cluny Sisters and Father John Kisku were with Sister Mary Manimala.
On hearing the news of Preeti’s death, Teresa Xavier reached Dharan around 8:30 am along with the Kathmandu Sisters and other SCNs who had come from India for the jubilee celebration. Sister Teresa Xavier mourned the death of Preeti, her dear friend for a long time.
Though the police had filed a case, Sister Sarita again filed a ‘First Information Report.’ The superintendent of police examined the crime scene. The search showed that the safe had been broken open, money and some clothes were taken away. Since the authorities had promised to finish the post-mortem by 2:30 pm and provide all necessary certificates needed for the transportation of the body, it was decided to take the body to Mokama for burial. The oral report given by the police after the post-mortem indicated murder. There was no evidence of rape.
After the post-mortem Sisters Mary Joseph, Lisa Perekkatt and Alice Mulavelipuram prepared Preeti’s body for the travel to Mokama. Doctor Cooper, Mr. Tony Murphy and Mr. Tom Hughes were very helpful in arranging a coffin and all the accessories needed to pack the body. At 2:30 pm Fathers George Alakulam, SDB, Mathew and Jerry Peters, MM, (Maryknoll) offered a Mass in the mortuary. Some friends and the hospital staff joined the Sisters to commend Sister Preeti to our God.
Sisters Roselyn, Mary Manimala, Lisa and Alice Mulavelipuram stayed back in Dharan. Sister Mary was needed there to continue with the investigations. She had borne the shock and trauma all alone on February 14, until the Cluny Sisters and Father Kisku went from Damak that evening.
With all the paperwork completed, the ambulance with Preeti’s body left Dharan at 4:05 pm. The vehicle was waved out at the border since the Indian Embassy officials and the customs high officials from Kathmandu had sent advance notice for cooperation. The journey homeward was a heavy-hearted one. The jeep carrying the mortal remains of Preeti reached Mokama around 1:30 am on February 16. Sisters kept all-night vigil praying and praising God for the gift of Preeti’s life with us. Priests and Sisters from various mission stations and our SCNs arrived throughout the night and early morning hours.
The funeral Mass began at 9:00 am with Most Reverend Bishop Benedict Osta as the main celebrant. Over thirty priests concelebrated the Mass. Bishop Osta, in his homily, congratulated Sister Preeti on having achieved the crown of martyrdom. He extended his congratulations to Sister Sarita and the SCN Congregation for the privilege gained in Preeti’s martyrdom. He said, “This death was an ideal and an example, for the rest of us to look up to.” He related a dream Preeti once had, regarding the practice of the vows. In this dream, Preeti had found it easy to practice poverty and chastity but she struggled with the vow of obedience. Preeti practiced her vow of obedience to its full in death and in saying ‘yes’ to mission wherever she was sent.
At the offertory procession, the gifts offered were: bread and wine, fruits, SCN Constitutions, a slate and pencil and a crucifix – all symbolizing Preeti’s life in community and mission. After the final blessing, Sister Sarita placed a copy of the vows in Preeti’s hand and she garlanded her on behalf of all the Sisters.
The funeral procession to the cemetery was led by the students of St. Xavier’s School, a sight that would have filled Preeti with joy. Though our hearts were heavy with sadness at the tragic death of Preeti, nature seemed to rejoice in its colourful flowers, the beautiful grounds, the blue sky and long procession of Preeti’s friends, Sisters, priests, doctors, nurses, hospital staff, teachers, parishioners and many more – all welcoming Preeti into her new and everlasting life.
Sister Preeti, 43, was in her 18th year of vows when she was martyred. Both of her parents were still living at the time of her death. After the Sisters made the phone contact with Preeti’s brother, he in turn contacted Sisters on the 15th and during the funeral Mass on the 16th.
The name, Preeti in Hindi means ‘joy’, ‘kindness’, ‘favour’, ‘grace’ and ‘love’. It is evident that it was an appropriate name for Preeti. Many who have lived and worked with Preeti testified that they have experienced all these qualities of her. Gentle, quiet, and unassuming, Preeti was truly dedicated to her mission. She loved her God, the SCN community and the people whom she served. Her life and death were likened to the parable of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies only to rise and give life to many (John 12:24). We, your Sisters are proud of you Preeti, our first martyr and the one who literally actualized this gospel passage. Truly, you have set an example for us to follow, a missionary to the very end. Rest in peace, Preeti!
Compiled by Malini Manjoly, SCN
February 9, 2021