Born on February 7, 1938, I am the third child of my beloved parents, P.J. (Panthapad Joseph) Joseph and Mariamma Cherian. We belong to the Holy Cross Forane Church, Pazhayangady, Changanacherry Diocese, Kerala. We were eight children growing up together in a happy middle class family. In the order of birth we are Joseph (Appachan), James (Kunjachan), Annamma (Kunjamma), Elisa (Elimma), Clare (Claramma), Antony (Antappan), Maria (Lilly Kutty) and Teresa (Ansamma). Before I was born my god-parents, my father’s close friends, had requested my parents to name their third child after them depending upon its sex. Thus I was baptized ‘Anna’ after my god-mother’s name. Since my god-parents had no children of their own, I was very much pampered by them. During the summer vacations they used to take me to their house and I would return with a new dress and other gifts. This caused a bit of commotion among my siblings and cousins who lived close by. One day the older boys ganged up together around me and decided to mimic my god-father who often went on a binge with his friends. Unable to defend myself, I wept bitterly to the utter merriment of my “persecutors”!
Evening prayers were a must in our family. On one end of the enclosed veranda, we had a three-tiered altar with large photos of the Sacred Heart, Mother Mary and St. Joseph. Candles and flowers were also part of the set up. Our prayers consisted of the Angelus, the Rosary and the Litany of our Blessed Mother. In the months of March, May and June there were special devotions with readings in honor of St. Joseph, Mother Mary and the Sacred Heart respectively. Older children were encouraged to go for daily Mass whenever possible. Since there were several Masses on Sundays, we were free to take part in any one of them but always with a companion.
One of my earliest memories is about my getting initiated into formal learning when I was probably between three-and-a-half to four years old. There was a ritual connected with it. My teacher was a well-respected Hindu whom everyone addressed as Aashan which means ‘teacher’. Sitting on a low stool, Aashan kept me on his lap and guided my little forefinger to write the first vowel of the Malayalam (my mother tongue) alphabet on a plate of uncooked rice placed in front of us. Unlike the first vowel in English, it was a complicated affair to write the first vowel of the alphabet in my language as it had several curves. For a child it was indeed an art to learn the fifty-two letters and their combinations of the said alphabet. One blessing of the Indian languages is that there is only one pronunciation for a particular letter and thus we children learned to read rapidly.
Our Kalari (Nursery School) was conducted in a Shrine of our Blessed Mother near our house. My uncle took me daily to school. Whenever I was too slow to walk, he carried me part of the way. It must have been amusing to see a lean man carrying a chubby little girl! Using his stylus, Aashan wrote our daily lesson on an ola (dried tender palm leaf). At the end of six months we were the proud owners of a bunch of olas with a good bit of knowledge in our little heads and we were ready to be graduated. The occasion called for a celebration. All the children came to my house and we were served the traditional snacks of beaten rice mixed with plenty of grated coconut and brown sugar and a banana each. For us children it was a feast and lots of fun.
For the next six months I went to an “advanced” nursery school in another shrine of Mother Mary where two Carmelite Sisters from our parish school came to teach us. Those months were eventful too. One day as we were waiting on the open verandah of the shrine, a neighbor’s cow got loose and ran by the side where we were sitting. Frightened to death, we ran to the opposite end of the verandah and, believe it or not, that crazy cow ate my first little picture book. Ever since then I have been mortally afraid of any big animals untethered or not attended to.
Sailing through primary, middle and high school (St. Antony’s Girl’s High School) was enjoyable for me as I was good in my studies. Two Carmelite Sisters, Mary Lourdes, math teacher and Xavier, who taught Hindi, were very special to me and vice versa. However, my ability in singing was nothing to be bragged about. In culinary skills, too, my younger sister was far superior to me. These and other limitations in my life have kept me humble, I suppose.
My eldest brother, Appachan passed away when he was only fifteen years old. He was an exceptionally intelligent boy and my father sent him to Leo XIII High School, an English medium school run by the Kerala Jesuits in Alleppey. One evening he came home with stomach ache and my mother gave him some natural remedies. As the pain did not subside, a doctor closest to our house treated him. The next morning he was still suffering from intense pain and our family doctor, a retired army physician came to see him. As he examined my brother he said, “He was such a fine boy” and from that I understood that Appachan already breathed his last. For his funeral several hundred of his school mates had come. It was from them that we came to know that he was accidently hit on the stomach by a football in a match in the school. It took my parents a long time to recover from the loss of their first-born child.
My religious vocation was born when I was in Class VI. Some Sisters from Patna had come to our school and had talked to us about their missionary work among the poor. From then on, I had a secret desire to join a missionary congregation. After I passed my matriculation examination (Class XI) I talked about it with my parents but in no way were they ready to listen to me. They were in a hurry to marry off their first daughter! Marriage proposals began coming, too, and I knew I had to get away soon. And so, one day after our sodality meetings, my classmate, Lilly Varghese (former Sister Theresa Martin) and I decided to meet Rev. Father Joseph in our sub-parish who promised to help us. He wrote to three different Congregations in Allahabad, Bombay and Patna. He said that whoever would answer his letter first that could be the congregation that we could join. To our good luck, Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman, SCN replied to his letter first and more correspondence followed. We were to be interviewed by SCNs Lawrencetta and Eugenia Muething at St. Thomas Hospital, Chethipuzha, then owned by the Medical Mission Sisters. Strong objection came in my way again and I resorted to go on a hunger strike (thanks to Gandhiji who gave me the idea) and refused to eat anything the whole day. The news about my fasting spread everywhere and my father came home straight from his office that day instead of helping my uncle in his shop. He coaxed me to eat our supper together and talk later but nothing happened in my favor. I went to Father Joseph again and asked him to plead with my father on my behalf. A few days later I overheard the conversation between my parents saying that if they did not let me go, God might not bless their other children. Father Joseph’s advice worked and my parents relented at long last.
January 9, 1957 was fixed for our journey to Mokama. The previous day all my family members and relatives gathered for a farewell dinner. The general atmosphere at home that day was so heavy that it looked as though someone had died in the family!
There were eighteen other girls in the train with us who were heading for Mokama for their nursing studies. I was glad to find out that one of them Mercy Zacharia (late Sister Xavier Valiakunnackal) was also an SCN candidate. The four day trip was adventurous but tedious. The extreme cold weather, North Indian food, and the need to learn to speak in English & Hindi – everything was very strange but the Sisters’ affection and care sustained us. After a few days, Sister Lawrencetta took us to Gaya for our candidacy. Under the direction of Sister Patricia Mary Kelley, we learned more English as well as lessons in piano and typing from Sister Eugenia. We learned our prayers in English but the Mass was in Latin, another unheard of language! Too many adjustments to make but nothing would deter me from my resolve to become a missionary.
We entered our ten months’ postulancy on January 6, 1958 followed by two years of novitiate under the wise guidance of Sister Lawrencetta. One of the hardest things I found in the formation period was the strict and solemn silence throughout the day except for an hour of recreation each after lunch and supper. We were to be gainfully engaged, too, during those times by mending our holey stockings and other items!
As a second year novice, my father’s sudden death on June 27, 1960 was a terrible shock for me. What made it more painful was that I could not attend his funeral because in those days no one was allowed to go home before she made her final vows.
December 21, 1960 the feast of St. Thomas, the Apostle, was the happy day of our first vows. The Gaya Sisters’ presence on the occasion made it more memorable. From January to June Sister Ann George Mukalel and I were assigned to Nazareth Academy before we went to Patna Women’s College for our Pre-University studies.
The privilege of studying at Nazareth College, Kentucky for our Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Education was a unique experience. The natural beauty and serenity of the Nazareth campus was most captivating. We learned about our rich SCN history depicted in the magnificent buildings and monuments erected there over the years. Often we walked to the sprawling cemetery grounds with its innumerable tombstones, a testimony to the dedicated lives of all those interred there. We also had the opportunity to be with the senior Sisters in the infirmary as we took turns to relieve the Sister-nurses on night duty. Sister Ann George and I moved to Spalding College, Louisville to do our Master’s degree in Education in September 1965. Both of us returned to the Mother House to make our Final Vows in St. Vincent Church on December 21, 1965. No one was specially invited but my friend Gwen McMahon, SCN drove from Bardstown for the early morning Mass. One privilege we got that day was to take our breakfast at the Mother General’s table.
After our final exams in December 1966, I volunteered to accompany Sister Benedict (Margaret) Hohman, chemistry professor at Spalding College to St. Vincent Academy, Union County, Western Kentucky. Since it was one of our oldest schools (established in 1820) I was eager to see it. On our way back, we got into a near-fatal accident as our car began to skid down on an icy road. God, as always, was with us. The police arrived in a few minutes and did the necessary investigations. A Protestant family driving right behind us took us to the nearest hospital in Owensboro. Sister Kathleen Mary Bohan and another SCN were sent by Mother Lucille to look after us there. A week later I was admitted in our own hospital, St. Joseph Infirmary. I shall never forget the love and care I received from my loving friends, SCNs Gwen and Janice Downs during my five weeks’ hospitalization and recuperation afterwards. Sister Thomasine Daley’s daily (including Sundays!) get-well cards kept me in good cheer. Honestly, I hardly felt the pain or the discomforts before and after my surgery because of the immense concern shown to me by the doctors, nurses, and our own Sisters at the hospital and in the Congregation at large.
My two weeks’ home visit after ten years away from my family gave me immense joy. At the same time I was in tears as my mother told me about all the financial difficulties they went through after my father’s death.
My first assignment after I returned to India was to Nazareth Academy, Gaya. I enjoyed teaching the high school girls thoroughly but alas that lasted only seven months! I had to replace Sister Lawrencetta as local superior and administrator of Nazareth Convent as she became our first regional superior in Mokama in 1968. I was green and inexperienced but in no time I learned the tricks of the trade from my ever-caring mentor, Sister Lawrencetta. I wonder how I also managed to climb the stairs to the three floors and to the pent house above with an injured back to teach English to the candidates, postulants and novices for three periods a day.
In June 1970, I became the first Indian SCN principal when Sister James Leo Goldsborough retired from the post. It was a blessing that after a six months’ break Sister James Leo returned to Gaya to be the administrator and treasurer of the Academy. It gave Sister Mary Chackalackal, vice Principal and me ample time to work on the improvement of our curriculum, to give in-service training especially to the newly appointed teachers, etc.
The request of many of our parents of boys of Class VII to make our high school co-educational became a reality in 1975. We had eight Muslim girls in Class VIII at the time. We were afraid that the parents of those children might raise objections but they assured us that they had no qualms about the new initiative under our guidance. Thus we became the first co-educational Catholic high school in Bihar. Since then almost all the Catholic schools have followed the new trend of gender equality in providing educational opportunities for all students.
In 1979, along with Sisters Jean Kulangara and Joel Urumpil I was chosen to serve in Nepal, the first foreign mission of the India Province. During our language study and cultural immersion in the new country, we discerned about our future ministry. We opted to work among the illiterate women and children of rural Nepal which we felt was the need of the hour. We chose Mandarha village near Godavari where the Jesuits had a boarding school for boys. Sister Jean and I opted for literacy classes and skills-training programs in tailoring and machine knitting for the women in two different centers. Sister Joel felt called to get involved in parish ministry in Kathmandu among the Catholic flock, mostly emigrants from Darjeeling and Kalimpong in India. It was amazing to see young women coming for my classes after a hard day’s work in the fields or after collecting fire wood from the nearby forests. Since we lived in their midst, we were well-accepted by the villagers. We were even privileged to eat with them on special days at their hearth which was reserved for family members only.
In 1983, Reverend Father Casper Miller, S.J. the Episcopal Vicar of Nepal asked us if we were ready to move to East Nepal to work mainly among the migrant tribal Catholics from India who worked in the tea gardens owned by the Royal Family. Sister Joel did medical and social work among them. Sister Ann Murphy from the USA who had joined us in Kathmandu a few months earlier and I chose to go to Illam, a hilly area in East Nepal, to serve the illiterate women of the area. We conducted classes in different villages during the day and in the evening. For the evening classes we ate our supper early and we proceeded to the village which was a good forty-five minutes’ walk up and down the hills. We were allowed to use a classroom in the government school there. The women brought their own hurricane lanterns. A family with eight children gave us accommodation for the nights before we returned in the morning to the small apartment in the town where we lived. Sister Ann who was a dietitian by profession used her knowledge in writing a supplementary book for the women from which they learned many health tips. Sister Ann adjusted beautifully to the life style in the village and was ready to do anything that was needed.
After a year and a half, I was asked to be the Faith Formation director for Nepal for almost two years. It was during this time that SCNs Francine Moozhil, Grace Thombrakudyil and Reverend Father Thomas Vettikkatt from Bhagalpur Diocese were arrested while they were giving a retreat to the Indian tribal Catholics in Sirsia village in East Nepal.
For my silver jubilee I went to Gomoh to join the first three groups of SCNs to attend some courses for a month under the direction of Reverend Joe Lacey, SJ, the parish priest of Gomoh at that time. I had my local community celebration in Damak where our small band of SCNs gathered for Mass. I felt it was a very special occasion for us to gather together in the village. Some non-Christians from around the area came to see what was happening on the open verandah of the Damak house where the Mass was celebrated by Reverend Father Larry Brooks, SJ.
From 1986 to 1992 I was appointed as director of the temporary professed SCNs, in the India province. It was a joy for me to work with the forty-three juniors many of whom I had taught while they were in the novitiate. During this time I lived at Bethel, Gomoh for the first three years and moved to Ranchi for the rest of the time. I travelled extensively throughout India and Nepal, wherever the young Sisters were studying or missioned.
On November 11, 1990 I lost my mother with cancer at the age of seventy-six. Every possible treatment was given to her and she survived through three surgeries for five years. I was not present for her funeral as the message did not reach me in time because of the postal strike in Kerala at that time.
My next appointment was to Mokama to be the administrator of Nazareth Convent, a second time. Besides my administrative duties I taught English to the pre-novices and novices. In 1993, I had a serious skin infection due to a sudden breakdown of my immune system and was hospitalized and the recovery took a long time. Being part of the Congregational planning committee I travelled to the USA in 1993 and 1994.
I returned to Nazareth Academy to be principal once again from June 1994 to mid-1997. In 1992 the school had changed its curriculum from Bihar Board to Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and so it was a learning process for me to get into the new system. A year before I came, Nazareth Academy was upgraded to Plus Two (Class XII) with both Science and Arts streams.
My next assignment was to be principal of Navjyoti School for the mentally challenged children in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was truly inspired by the dedicated teachers who worked tirelessly with our sixty-eight very lovable children. I also admired the parents who appreciated even the slightest improvement seen in their children. Every child was affectionate by nature and our volunteers and benefactors who came from Britain and the USA fell in love with them. Our children took part in National and International Special Olympics and have won prizes. Some of our students, now grown women and men are working in their homes or in supermarkets and earn their livelihood. I also had the privilege of taking Navjyoti teachers for an excursion to Bombay. Amrita Manjaly, SCN who was the principal at Rosary High School gave us accommodation in the school campus and had made arrangements for our food and sightseeing. All were excited about their Bombay experience and thanked Sister Amrita profusely.
In 2002 I was back in Mokama working in formation as an English teacher. After five years of rewarding work with our young ones in the initial formation, Sister Teresa Kotturan the then provincial requested that I to return to Gaya and be the director of NOSA (Nazareth Old Students’ Association). I was happy to be back in my old stomping grounds again. Being a mentor to our old students gives me much joy. I feel proud of our ex-Nazarites who organize various out-reach programs for the needy besides enjoying one another’s company. NOSA units were also started in Delhi and Mumbai where many of our former students take active part in their charity drives for the poor. For a few years I was also in-charge of the non-formal education at Nazareth Academy. Coaching classes were conducted for the poor children from the neighborhood some of whom went to a nearby government school. A six-month skills training program was also begun at this time for the socially and economically disadvantaged women of the area. Ninety-nine per cent of these women were Muslims who were seldom allowed out of their homes without a male escort. However, they trusted the Nazareth school campus for their safety and security. Twenty-five to thirty young women continue to register for the course every six months. At the end of the training they are able to stand on their own feet and support their families financially.
In preparation for our golden jubilee in 2010, Ann George and I went to Bangalore to attend the seminar on ‘Fully Alive after 50’ conducted by the well-known Reverend Joe Mannath, SDB. We had the province level celebration in Mokama along with the silver jubilarians on October 24 2010. Seven of my family members joined me for my local celebration in Gaya in November. It was their first visit to Bihar and they were amazed to see the many ministries we are involved in especially our services to the poor in the villages.
Losing my second younger sister, Claramma on May 25, 2011 was a painful experience for me. She was a diabetic patient and all her children who are in England had come to see her a week earlier. She suddenly took ill and a neighbor took her to the hospital and on the way she expired. After hearing about her death I flew to her home in Ettumanoor, Kerala and was present for the funeral. All of her children also returned for the same.
Generously giving myself totally to the cause of the mission of Jesus all through my life has given me immense joy and satisfaction. On the whole I have experienced fulfillment in community life wherever I was. I am proud to be an SCN because from a very young age the community has trusted me and given me important responsibilities which I have carried out successfully. Our Congregation encourages us to use our freedom with responsibility which I consider as a great asset.
Lessons life has taught me:
- To praise God in thanksgiving for all the wonders God has done in and through me
- To enjoy the beauty of creation from the minutest to the greatest and continue to sing the hymn of the universe in my heart
- To learn to listen to the sound of silence in the midst of myriad noises around me
- To carry out all my responsibilities without counting the cost
- To value my potential for doing good and act accordingly
- To understand and appreciate people who are different from me
- To work towards universal brother/sisterhood in spite of all the hindrances that may come in my way
- To see that my rebelliousness at times does not go out of bounds
- To believe that in God’s time all shall be well with all and for all
- To continue to trust in God’s plans for me until the day I close my earthly eyes and see our God face-to-face.
I have reached my retirement age and the trouble with me is that I do not know how to retire. I will keep on working as God gives me sufficient health. I do have enough time these days to spend in quiet contemplative prayer which is my preferred method in prayer. I earnestly hope that we senior members do our best to pass on our SCN legacy to the younger generation who come after us. Our lives rooted in prayer and committed in mission will be an example to those who seek our way of life.
Religious life has been a joy for me wherever I have served especially reaching out to the needy women and children. I am eternally grateful to God who has blessed me with fullness of life which I have shared freely with others.
Anne Marie Thayilchirayil, SCN
Completed on Dec. 22, 2018
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