I sing praises to God, my family and SCN Congregation for who I am today.
I came from a Syrian Catholic family who were proud of their Christian faith inherited from Saint Thomas, the Apostle. We lived in a village and have an agricultural background. I, Reetha, was born on July 31, 1942 in Kanjiramattam Parish, Kottayam district in Pala Diocese in Kerala. I was the fourth child of my parents. I was baptized on the eighth of August and given the name Bridget when I was taken for Baptism by my uncle and aunt. They were told by my father to name me Reetha since I was born through the intercession of Saint Rita. When my uncle and aunt reached the parish church, they decided to name me Bridget since there was no one in our family named Rita. There was only a distant relative by that name. When they returned home and told my father, he was disappointed about the name. He made up for his disappointment by giving me the name Reetha when I was enrolled in school. He also added S.J. as an initial to my name because he admired the Jesuits and wanted to join them in his early life.
My family name is Vettikattil. Our grandfather had three brothers and when the land was divided we were given the north side and were referred to as Vadakeattam in the local language and that became our family name.
As far as I can recall my parents were devout Catholics. My father was well educated whereas my mother had very little education. Due to various circumstances, she was married to my father at the age of eleven and my father was fourteen then. My grandfather was very sick and wanted to have the only son married before he died and hence, the marriage took place. My mother knew the value of education from seeing her own brothers and sisters. She was the only one who did not go beyond class three. I had three brothers older than me. One of them, Berchmans, died some years ago. There is also my oldest brother Joseph, third brother Mathew, and younger sister Theresiamma. We were brought up by our parents. We also had two cousins living with us for a few years since their parents had passed away. So until I was ten years old we were considered seven children in the house. We were enrolled in the church run school and all completed graduation.
My father brought plenty of books from the library, mainly saints’ stories, for us to read. My mother taught us to share with the poor and care for the unfortunate ones. We were a poor middle class family and at times we had to struggle through. My mother’s family pitched in to help us.
The school was coed and was close to our house. We had three Clarist Sisters teaching in the school who paid special attention to the girls. The rest were all lay teachers. There was a small chapel attached to the school where we made frequent visits. It still remains as a special memory. In the school I could not escape being noticed because I was the only one named Reetha among a thousand or more children.
My mother’s younger sister joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Waltair, Andra Pradesh in 1939 and made first vows in 1941. We were told that she would never come home. She sent us letters describing her missionary life and we relished the letters immensely. Her letters inspired us to gather things for the mission and be mindful of people who have many hardships. Things changed and she came for a visit in 1951 and I made a tour with her visiting family and friends. This tour made a lasting impression on my young mind as in every place, she explained about her life and mission. From my mother I learned values like sharing and caring. She also fostered in us devotion to the Eucharist, by encouraging us to go to church on holidays and Sundays. At home daily we gathered together for evening prayer. My father was doing business and was away most days. When I was in high school I used to gather all the neighborhood women in the afternoon and read the Sunday paper for them. Most of them were uneducated and we were the only family who had the newspaper. It was a great joy for me to do so. Due to this connection, I was also known as a sort of peace maker in the village.
Call to religious life.
My family was doing well. Suddenly we had our share of illness. My brother Berchmans had typhoid fever. At that time there was no medicine for typhoid but there was a hospital run by British Missionaries. One of the doctors came to our house and instructed my mother how to care for him. We did not see him for three months. After school we went from house to house in the village collecting milk to make whey water for him. He recovered and went on to complete his graduation. Again suddenly he was down with pneumonia. He was in the hospital for more than three weeks. His fever would go very high and doctors said to my parents that he might not survive. It was a very difficult time for my mother. I saw her struggle caring for my brother. This illness also passed and he got a very good job at the defense academy in Bangalore. While there he had a mental break down. Being with my brother during this illness changed my mind. I was ready to go to college and become a teacher. I decided to become a nurse to learn about mental illness and to work for the removal of the taboo attached with it. So I enrolled in Nazareth School of Nursing, Mokama . On the application form I wrote perhaps I would consider becoming a religious Sister after completing my studies. Sister Veronica Maria who was the Director of the Nursing School made a note of it. Sister Teresa Rose followed it up and I joined the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth during the first year of my nursing studies. My family had difficulty in understanding it. I also was not sure whether I had made the right decision for me. I completed my studies, entered the novitiate, and took first vows in 1969. This was seven years after I came to Mokama to study Nursing. During these seven years I had enough time to test my vocation.
Early life as an SCN
The day after my first vows I was sent to study Community Health Nursing of which I had no idea or inclination at that time. After I returned from the studies, I was put in the Community Health Department which had just been opened. It was very hard to see the poverty and misery of Dalit communities around Mokama. The large number of girl children who were malnourished haunted me. The Sisters in the health ministry were always kind and loving. Sister Dr. Ancilla gave extra time caring for the poor sick children and their families. Most of the time our clinics were under the trees where the poor felt free to approach us since it was just like a village set up.
Living and working for the poor has deepened my faith and dependence on God. I am proud to be a part of the Congregation who vowed to care for the poor and marginalized. In the assemblies, meetings and conferences I always argued and spoke for the poor and I feel that I was a part of a movement that helped to shape our vision.
In early 1977 I worked in Nepal Tribhuvan College of Nursing teaching Community Health and was posted in a village with twenty students for three months. Many precious memories of this experience is kept sacred in my heart.
In July 1977 I moved to Gomoh, a mission closed now. Working with leprosy patients and their children was a profound experience. At first shocking but eventually gripping because of their human stories which were real brokenness of body and alienation from family and society. These were beyond my understanding. How they were able to cope with all that happened to them was always inspiring and humbling. Sister Marcelline Indwar was a great support and source of strength for me in my struggle. Here, I learned primary lessons of laying a coal stove and cooking. I also learned to care for the dogs and cats and experienced their loyalty and love. Our dog and cat were friends and ate from the same plate. Then one day when the cat was sleeping on the porch, our neighbor’s dogs came and attacked her. From then on the cat could not stand the dog and we could not make her understand it was the neighbor’s dog who attacked her. When the dog was on the chain, the cat would walk in front of him in a way to challenge him. One day the dog became sick and was closed in the bathroom and the cat kept outside vigil. When the dog died she was shattered, mourning his death and not eating for two days. I learned something beautiful here. The cat and dog had been reconciled!
Working with the children of the leprosy patients was an enriching experience. One of the boys who was very good at studies was selected to go the De Nobili School which was an English medium School in Dhanbad, in Bihar. He needed shoes and a few other things. I went out to the market and bought him a pair of shoes and a small tin box. He has kept in touch with me. He is now a high ranking officer in the Coast Guard and lives with his family in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. The very first time I visited him was in Kochi in Kerala. He took me to the room and gave me a surprise of my life pointing to the tin box I bought for him some twenty years ago. He calls me “Mom” with such affection and calls forth my motherly qualities. He has written a book about his life where he has mentioned me and Sister Marcelline. The Gomoh mission taught me to stretch beyond my imagination and open our convent to anyone in need.
There were some volunteers who came from the United States who worked in Gomoh and I did help them to adjust to India. Two of them still keep in touch and that speaks for what happened to them.
I moved out of leprosy mission to Bakthiarpur Community Health Center. My main job was to accompany women in labour pain until they give birth. I found this very stressful. However, I held on to it until I was moved out. There was no electricity connection. Many a winter night newborn children would turn blue and cold. I had kept them warm by keeping them close to my body, one on my chest and two on my sides! Looking back I am amazed and surprised at how we have carried out our mission even without necessary facilities.
Another mission I remember is Shapur. Sisters Sunita Vayalipara, Ann George Mukalel and Rose Plathottathil were my companions. I learned to speak Santhali, the tribal language, although not perfectly. Soon I realized that I was a failure there and I must move on. After one year I left Shapur and the whole village sent me off with money, rice flakes, flowers and I could not stop crying because of their expression of love and affection.
After leaving Shapur, I joined the College of Nursing in Chandigarh, Punjab and completed my bachelor degree in Nursing. Often young students would mistake me for their teacher and request my help which I would give if I could. After I completed my studies I was called to take up the Nursing School in Mokama which was going through some serious problems. No exams were conducted for three years. All were anxious about their future. I was not sure about my ability to take care of the situation. Sister Marina Thazhathuveettil was there as a friend and she encouraged me to say yes. There I was saying “Yes” to something I was totally ignorant of. After I took charge I realized the gravity of the situation. There were many people giving me advise and direction. The only one who helped me was the Eucharistic Lord who gave me the direction and insight at every turn. Somehow the Nursing Council conducted all the pending exams and I was able to hand over the certificate to students who were waiting. I enjoyed my teaching and helping students to become mature women of character. Meanwhile we worked for affiliation in Mid India Board of Nursing Council. When I left the school, we were affiliated to the Mid India board and examinations were regular and all were happy.
After Nursing School in Mokama, I attended a Scripture course at Muringoor Divine Retreat Center. After the course, I felt a need to take time off to reflect, and contemplate. I asked for a sabbatical for I felt my call was to follow Jesus, not looking out for friends, name and fame. It was a grace-filled year for me. I did have a difficult time in letting go of many attachments. I have grown much through that experience.
After this time I studied counselling at Salesian Psychological Center at Delhi and from there I moved to Kakkavayal , Kerala and started a counseling center there. I am grateful for the mission in Kakkavayal. As a counsellor, I was able to soothe the pain and bring hope to many persons and families.
I worked with the Ursuline Sisters of Tildong in Ranchi for nine years assisting in their chapters. I also had an opportunity to work with the School Sisters of Saint Francis Assisi for seven years. Both of these congregations made much progress in their ministries with the poor and marginalized.
General Assemblies 1994 and 2010 were very impressive for me. We made a leap in faith for the betterment of community and mission.
Live one day at a time, developing our womanhood and motherhood qualities in its full. It will help us to live our vowed life to the fullest. Be happy and grateful for what God has given you and be generous in sharing those gifts and talents. Speak only good things about people and situations and support and encourage the good works of others. Take the first step in reconciling if you have offended anyone or if you have been offended by someone. Grow in contemplation by spending time with God. Have a disciplined life to build and nurture Community. Begin the day with gratitude and do good for the people around you. In the evening of our life what matters is our relationship with God and our companions. I abandon myself into the hands of my loving God who created and called me to SCN life to bring out the best in me for the service of people. I am indebted to my Congregation for all the opportunities it gave me to be MY BEST. I do believe that the SCN Congregation will be led by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of our pioneer Mother Catherine.
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