Down Memory Lane: By Seema Monippallikalayil, SCN
Memories of my childhood evoke a lot of joy within me. My twin sister, Valsamma and I, Elsamma are known as SCNs Anila and Seema in the Congregation. We had the opportunity of being pampered by our maternal aunts, as well as by our grandparents who lived in the neighborhood. Thus we did not feel the absence of elder siblings initially. Our parents, grandparents and the entire family had migrated to Malabar, North Kerala in 1959. All got involved in cultivating the land they had purchased. They faced a lot of financial difficulties but the land yielded enough produce to sustain us all.
Our parents worked very hard during the day and always gathered for the family prayer before the evening meal. Later, three more siblings, Lailamma, Jacob and Missy were born. Holidays were full of fun with so many cousins coming to our home. Our parents were very happy and hospitable. Even today we talk about those days. Life was very simple and there was a spirit of sharing. We always had a good relationship with our neighbors. All these values have sustained me over the years.
I remember attending the summer camps in the parish during my high school years. The preached retreats were very inspiring. Stories about missionaries and their lives in the remote areas of North India used to fascinate me. My sister and I shared the same interest. It was in June 1973 while we were waiting for the SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) results, that two SCN Sisters visited our parish, St. Sebastian’s Church, Vellad. We met them and decided to join them. On July 26th, the birthday of our only brother, we left home to join the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Initially, we stayed about two months in Bangalore and then joined the rest of the Candidates in Mokama. Though a bit apprehensive of the unknown, I was not very frightened. In fact, I had imagined more difficult situations to face.
As Candidates, we completed our Intermediate studies before joining the Pre-novitiate in 1977. I had six months of mission and community experience in Chatra as a second-year Novice. Novitiate experiences truly laid a strong foundation of faith in me. Difficult times were there such as coping with personality problems, doubting my own vocation, etc. Comparison with others used to make me feel frustrated at times. But all these adverse situations drew me closer to God, who always sustained me. According to a psychological test to assess vocation to religious life, I was supposed to have no vocation. There were a few more in the same boat. In spite of it all, most of us survived contributing much to mission and community life. Though we were seven, only two of us made our First Vows on March 25, 1980. We missed our other companions on that day. God’s ways are beyond our comprehension. I can still recall the tremendous faith that moved me on. After the Vows, I was appointed to Chatra again till December 1980. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the small children there.
I joined the SCNs at Sale, Mahuadanr after my short stay in Chatra. People there were poor but generous. When visiting homes, they shared with us whatever they had. Like the people, we, too, lived in a small mud house. I remember the times that we sat up with an umbrella to protect ourselves from the leaking roof during the rainy season. On Mondays, we also went to the market to get the needed provisions for a week.
SCNs Ann Palatty and Agnes Tudu were very good at cycling. Priya Kalapurayil, SCN and I had not yet mastered the skill. We used to feel bad sending our older Sisters to the market. Sister Priya and I could not join them because the buses were extremely overcrowded and we could not get in. Gradually, with the help of a village boy, we learned to ride the bicycle. One day Sister Ann volunteered to accompany us to the market. In spite of her warning me to get off the bicycle at a steep slope, I continued to ride holding on to the brake with great confidence. Both sides of the road had deep drains formed by a heavy flow of rainwater. I did not know what was happening but I found myself sitting in the drain as though somebody just placed me there. I closed my eyes figuring out if all of my bones were alright. Imagine, not a single bone was broken! Sisters were frightened and suggested that we postpone the ride. But I truly wanted to proceed. I straightened the handles and pedals, continued the adventure. It was a good start for the coming years. I clearly remember another incident in the second year of my mission at Sale. All of us, Sisters were returning from the weekly market on our bicycles with the supplies needed for the week. I, being very slow was at the back and the others were far ahead of me. There was a big river to be crossed. Before I reached the river, I was caught in a dust storm, hailstones hitting my head. The storm was so strong that I could not breathe. It was very dark all around. I thought that it was the end of my life. There were 10 kilograms of wheat flour and a few more things on the carrier of the bicycle. I didn’t know what to do. I threw the bicycle on the roadside and looked for a place to save myself from the wind and hailstones. Suddenly I saw a trench dug around a tree to save it from animals. I jumped into it, covering my head with a shawl I had. I suddenly remembered a prayer that was taught to be said in such circumstances. I thought that was my last prayer and I would not be able to see my Sisters again. It was only for a short while but for me, it seemed like an eternity. When everything was suddenly calm, I heard somebody calling out my name. During the entire storm, the Sisters and some people had taken shelter under a bridge. Being the end of winter, there wasn’t much water in the river. The Sisters looked terribly worried but were relieved seeing me safe though thoroughly drenched. The wheat flour was already one with the rainwater flowing by the side of the road. Life was very tough yet I experienced something divine in all that. I felt I was a true missionary. Prayer came to me very spontaneously. The hard working poor people and the beautiful valley surrounded by hills made me feel the presence of the Lord always.
Being good at Hindi, Anila and I were sent to Allahabad University, Uttar Pradesh, to do our Bachelor of Arts in Hindi Honours. After my B.Ed. I was appointed as the principal of St. Michael’s High School, Sale. I had not had much experience in administration yet I found myself becoming confident in handling the day-to-day affairs of the school. The principals of the three other Catholic neighborhood schools were very helpful whenever I sought their assistance. Being in a rural area, I experienced the spirit of simplicity that brings in unity and not competition. I recall those golden days of collaboration with others. Struggles bring people together. There is no place for complacency. There were many challenges. The school not being recognized by the Government Education Board, the students could not write their Board Examination through our school. We had to approach other government schools to register our students for the Board Examinations. They used to charge us more money than required. The students were poor and they did not get any scholarship like the government affiliated schools. I could find no fund to help some of those poor students and felt miserable. Now the situation has changed. Education has empowered people to live a dignified life. Thanks to all the missionaries!
My next mission was to Gomoh, teaching the children of the leprosy patients. Those children needed one’s utmost care. Some of the parents were very badly affected by the dreadful disease and some children, too. Initially, I myself was very shocked at some of their conditions. Within a few days, my heart overcame all the inhibitions and I felt deep love and compassion for them. I learned to deal with some of the teenagers who had a lot of personality problems. Often I have wondered who I would have become if I had to face the same life experiences! I am sure the training they got at the school gave them the ability to face life with courage and dignity. I felt privileged to work with those children even if it was very little that I could do for them. They needed someone to listen to them, understand them and counsel them. Being the class teacher of Class X, I had a lot of opportunities to do as best as I could. I saw misery in reality when I visited the segregated colonies of the patients. What inspired me was their joyfulness and hospitality.
I was appointed to Damak, Nepal, from1986 to 1988. My community members were SCNs Francine Moozhil (deceased) and Elsy Vettickal. Initially, I taught the non-school going children of the tea-garden workers who were Tribal migrants from India. For the next two years, I taught in the parish owned Suryodaya English Medium School and in the afternoons I went to the tea garden workers’ settlement for the non-formal classes. I used to ring a bell as I reached the place for the children to gather. It was a beautiful sight to see boys and girls returning to their houses with their goats and cattle. They gathered very fast in the mud hall for their classes. I taught them for about two hours. Later some of the Nepali youth too wanted to learn to read and write. I taught them for a few weeks and in the night they would walk with me back to the village where we stayed. I enjoyed conversing with them and that improved my language skills in Nepali. Those days monarchy prevailed in Nepal. The tea garden manager came to know about the night classes for the youth and forbade them from attending the classes. I guess they were afraid of what might happen if these illiterate youth would become literate. I continued to teach tea garden children as nobody objected. Some of those children were admitted to the English medium school where I taught.
From 1989 to 1991, I was at Navjyoti Centre, as the principal for the mentally challenged children in Kathmandu with Rosita Kavilpurayidathil, SCN, as director. That was truly a challenging mission. I had no prior experience of being with such children nor had any special training. I was completely at a loss. But those children won me over in a short while. I was fascinated by their innocence and true love no matter what their age and disabilities were. They loved me and I became a changed person. I gradually recognized their worth. I still remember on my farewell day one of the children came to me very spontaneously and held my hand to tell me with his misty eyes ‘Thank you, Sister’. They had become very precious to me.
In the new millennium, that is from 2001 to 2005, I had the privilege of being in a few other missions in South India. First, to Kakkavayal to start a Plus Two School. That did not materialize as there were so many such schools going on in the nearest town and perhaps we may not have had anything very attractive to offer. That was an experience of failure in an endeavor, but I did not feel very sad about it as I myself was very skeptical about it. After that, I was asked to go to St. Vincent’s Matriculation School in Trichy for a year. I was also in Banakal for a few months as Rena Simon Fernandes, SCN, was alone after the transfer of Hilda Lobo, SCN. I was back again at Kakkavayal teaching at St. Joseph’s School, Battery, a diocesan endeavor for two years. From there I was transferred to XITE (Xavier Institute for Tribal Education), a Jesuit-run institution at Jamshedpur. Both institutions gave me insight into how different I felt being there. I was just a teacher. Nothing more mattered and I did my job well. There wasn’t any other interaction with the management. I wanted to be back in SCN institutions. However, in both of these places, I taught adolescents. I did enjoy those years of walking with them not only as a teacher but as a friend.
In 2007, I was appointed vice-principal of Nazareth Academy, Gaya. It was the first time in my life I had to deal with small children as I was in-charge of the Primary Division. Initially, though it was a bit difficult, I learned the techniques needed to deal with them. I realized no matter where you are children are more or less the same everywhere and are adorable. I have also taken the time to interact with many parents in the past nine years. I have been fortunate in working with the teachers, giving them timely inputs and feedback with encouragement. Most of the teachers were new and they needed close supervision and guidance. I also taught in the High School as well as in the Plus Two section. My past experiences with the teenage groups helped me to reach out to them with love and patience.
It was in 2016, that I was diagnosed with cancer. I resigned from the school, two months before my retirement on June 1, 2016.
God has been great! I am speechless to say how wonderfully I have been carried in God’s arms! I was an instrument of my God in places where He/She thought I would fit in. Everything was given to me as a free gift. “Thank You God for all the opportunities You gave me to follow You, though many times, I was not sure of myself, You prompted me on.”