I, Mariakutty V.M. (Vattakunnel Mani) was born on January 1, 1930 in Nagapuzha parish, Thodupuzha Taluk, in Ernakulum diocese in Kerala. I am the third child of six children of my father, Mani Vattakunnel and mother, Kocheli Mani. My eldest brother, Mathai, died when he was four years old. The other siblings are my elder sister, Aleykutty, two younger brothers John (Pappu); Paul (Kunjachen) and a younger sister, Rose. Rose died when she was four years of age.
My parents were farmers and were devout Catholics. We had daily evening family prayer with the rosary and occasionally mid-night rosaries for special favors. My mother attended Mass on Wednesdays whenever possible as she was devoted to St. Joseph. My elder sister helped my mother with house chores. My mother divided certain tasks between my sister and me. I enjoyed taking care of my younger brothers which was my main work. We children used to have great fun playing together after school hours. As children, we had our share of fights also.
I went to school with my sister. Up to Class IV, I studied in parish school at Thazhuvamkunu. From Class V until Third Form (Class VIII), I was in Payankulam Convent Girls’ School. To complete my schooling, (Classes VIII to X) I studied at a government high school in Thodupuzha.
I remember one of my scary incidents as a young girl. When I was about twelve years old, my younger brother and I were watering the field from a well which was not very deep. While holding on to the bamboo pole and a water container at the end of it, I began to go down into the well. Both of us got frightened. I held on to the pole and asked my brother to pull me up. Since he could not do it, he called our mother who came with some neighbours to pull me out. I kept on praying to Our Lady to keep me safe. Ever since that incident, I have had great devotion to Mother Mary. After my mother’s death I prayed to our Blessed Mother that I learn to cook and take care of the family. Even now I pray very specially to Mother Mary in all my needs.
In 1951 when I was in Class X, my mother died of cancer. My sister, Aleykutty was already married and had three children of her own. After my mother’s death, my grandmother stayed with us more frequently. My grandmother was a woman of deep faith and wisdom who raised her two sons all by herself. After I made my First Vows, my father married again which was difficult for me to accept. They had two children, Mathukutty and Rosely from that marriage.
I failed in my Class X examination in the first attempt as I was not good at studies. After passing Class X exam in 1952, I stayed home for three years to look after my other siblings.
After hearing about the lives of missionaries from some of my friends and relatives who had joined various mission congregations I too, wanted to be a missionary. My father wanted me to be married. And he said that if I wanted to be a Sister, join the Carmelite Congregation whom he considered as praying Sisters. He also wanted me to be in Kerala so that he could visit me often. My family also frightened me saying that I might have to stay under a tree and eat dry chapatis (thin wheat bread cooked on fire) which they thought was ordinary. They also told me that I would find it difficult in adjusting to an entirely new situation. I assured them that I would eat what the people would eat and stay where my Sisters would stay.
In Satya Deepam, a Malayalam Catholic weekly, I saw an advertisement by Reverend Joseph Maliparambil who took interested girls to join the missions. I wrote a letter to Father Maliparambil expressing my desire to be a missionary. As soon as I received his reply, my father and I met him in Bharananganam. Within two weeks I got ready with the list of things he had asked us to bring and to be at Ernakulam. There were about twenty of us for the missions in North India.
On July 4, 1955, we boarded a train to Bihar with Father Maliparambil. It was my maiden trip by train. We had no idea to which convents we were going to join. On the way, Father Maliparambil assigned us to go to various congregations such as Holy Cross Sisters, Mary Immaculate Sisters in Krishnanagar, Sisters of Maria Bambina in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Notre Dames in Patna and Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Mokama.
On reaching Calcutta some girls were sent to the Sisters in Krishnanagar and Sisters of Maria Bambina. After meeting the Bambina Sisters, some girls were not happy to be with them. Father Maliparambil then reassigned us. Originally, I was to go to the Holy Cross Sisters. In the second list, I was for Mokama since Mokama Sisters had a hospital. We were five girls for Mokama.
In Mokama I was surprised to see a good hospital building and we were put up with the nurses in the hostel. The atmosphere was strange. Annakutty (Anne Elizabeth) Elampalqthottyil, Mariakutty Sebastian, (Rose Sebastian) and I were sent to pharmacy right away and Kochuthresiamma, (Teresa Velloothara) and Ithamma (Bridget Kappalumakal) for nursing. Sister Crescentia Wise was in-charge of the pharmacy. There were four other pharmacy students, two religious Sisters and two girls, from Kerala. Since there were two Mariakuttys, the Sisters told me that I would be called Marykutty.
Sister Catherine Regina Rogers, SCN (later Sister Kathleen), the five of us, and the two nursing students, Annakutty and Matilda went to Patna for screening (X-ray). After getting off the train in Patna, we were to go to the Bishop’s House. Two by two, we got into cycle rickshaws. Matilda knew Hindi and English and she was with Sister Regina who did not know much Hindi. Though Matilda told the other rickshaw pullers to follow her rickshaw, we lost our way. Since the rickshaw pullers did not know where they were going they asked us to direct them. We ourselves did not know where we were going. Thinking that we could be nurses they drove us to Holy Family Hospital in Patna City. We asked for a Malayalam speaking Sister who could help us in this situation. The Sister who met us directed the rickshaws to take us to the Bishop’s house in Patna. Still frightened we reached our destination where Sister Regina and Matilda were waiting for us.
As candidates, we were full-time students, busy with our studies. Once in a while Sister Crescentia met us and explained to us about community life. We attended daily Mass. We had a hard time adjusting to life in the hostel and the kind of food which we were not used to eating.
I was happy to receive my long religious habit with a veil. On the previous night of entrance to the novitiate, we had to cut our hair short. We entered the novitiate on February 2, 1957. Although the Mass was in Latin it was a memorable day for me.
We stayed on the first floor of the old hospital building adjacent to the nurses’ classroom. As a novice, I helped in the pharmacy and at the weekly leprosy clinic and taught women catechism on Sundays. We also took care of children of the women during Sunday Mass. We wrote our State Board Pharmacy exam while in the novitiate. The Scripture classes given by Father Louis DeGenova, parish priest were very interesting. Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman, our novice director, gave classes for us on the Constitutions, Book of Customs, etc. She was like a very loving and caring mother to us.
As postulants and novices, we were allowed to write letters home only in English. My father used to take my letter to someone in the neighborhood to translate it for him. It was a very difficult task for my father. When Mother Bertrand Crimmins visited India in 1958, we shared our difficulties with her and she gave us permission to write the letters in our mother tongue. This gave me a great joy.
I made my First Vows on December 8, 1959 at the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Divine Grace’ in Mokama. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. After First Vows, we moved in with the senior Sisters engaged in the hospital. Leaving Sister Lawrencetta was hard for us and with tearful eyes we bade farewell to her. Sister Lawrencetta consoled us saying that she would visit us as she was not very far.
After the First Vows, I continued to work in the hospital pharmacy. In 1960, I was sent to Jamshedpur for a year of X-ray course along with Sister Teresa Velloothara. When Sister Crescentia left for the States in 1961, I was asked to return to take charge of the pharmacy as well as to look after the weekly leprosy clinic which continued till I left the hospital in 1980. I worked simultaneously in both the departments. After completing my training in X-ray, it was a thrilling experience for me to take the first X-ray by myself.
In 1963, our Congregation started a two-year program for the temporary professed Sisters and all of us who had been out for several years were asked to join this program while continuing to work in the hospital. I found the juniorate program very confining and I even contemplated returning home. In fact, I went to inform Sister Lawrencetta about it. When I reached her door, I realized that ‘I did not come to do my will but God had called me to be a missionary.’ I returned to continue my life as an SCN peacefully. I made my Final Vows on December 21, 1965.
Although we had been told that we might not ever go back home, I had the opportunity to visit my family for the first time after nine and a half years of being in Mokama. I had gone with Sister Patricia Mary Kelley for vocation promotion in 1965. We had a meal in my house and returned to a nearby convent to spend the night. In those days, we were not supposed to spend the night in our homes.
There are many touching incidents that I experienced during my ministry to the sick. While working in the hospital, I heard the cry of a man from the playground behind the hospital. He was a poor man with open sores on his legs. I asked one of the OPD (outpatient department) staff to bring him to the OPD. A trainee nurse and I cleaned him up and bandaged him. I gave him food and medicines after consulting Sister Mary Jude Howard, the administrator. We cared for him for more than a month until he got well.
In 1977 Sister Margaret Rodericks, provincial, gave me an opportunity to visit our Mother House at Nazareth, KY for three months. Initially, I resisted it. Since Sister Margaret insisted on my going, I respected her decision and I went with SCN Mary Juliana Tuti and Teresa Xavier Ponnazhath. I enjoyed my visit and loved our Sisters so much that it was hard for me to leave them. While there, I also visited the homes of Sisters Ann Roberta Powers and Mary Jude. I also met Lucy and Virginia, sisters of Sister Lawrencetta.
Being in the hospital, I have touched many lives. Once there were three teenage boys who created much nuisance at the hospital premises. I used to talk to them and advise them to be good but they did not pay any heed to me. One day I brought them to the hospital parlour and offered them a cup of tea. To my surprise, from that day onwards, they became extremely good. In fact, when I left the hospital they felt bad and came to see me with a pen as their token of appreciation.
I used to ask for help from the medical representatives to take care of the poor in Mokama. I still help people in need whenever I can.
Working in the hospital pharmacy, X-ray and laboratory for twenty-five long years from 1955 to 1980, I used to enjoy a card game after supper in the community. After the game, we, Sisters Xavier Valiakunnackal, Anne Elizabeth and Evelyn D’Souza used to pray with Sister Mary Jude during the night. We used to pray the rosary and had spiritual reading.
For my second mission, I went to Kerwateri Ashram in Sokho in1980. I stayed with Sister Teresitta Theruvankunnel as a companion for a year. When I came to Mokama in 1981 for a visit, the hospital administrator asked me to stay in the X-ray department until they found an X-ray technician. I worked in the X-ray for six months.
In 1982, I moved to Bakhtiarpur as administrator for one and a half years. My father expired on June 4, 1983. I could not go home for his funeral since I had visited him the previous year when he had a stroke and could not talk.
I went back to Mokama to work as the cashier at the billing office for some time in 1984. From then on I continued to work in the pharmacy, purchasing medicines and keeping the records, etc. I am happy that I served Nazareth hospital in different capacities for thirty-seven years.
After a renewal course in Scripture at NBCLC (National Bible, Catechetical, and Liturgical Centre), Bangalore I moved to Ranchi in November 1996. I learnt some craft (machine embroidery) from St. Anne’s training centre and helped in the house. I enjoyed taking Communion to senior citizens who were confined to their homes.
I returned to Bakhtiarpur in October 1998, and worked as the pharmacist at the Community Health Centre. The pharmacy registration was in my name until December 31, 2016. I continued to help in the pharmacy until April 2017.
Being in this small community in Bakhtiarpur, I came close to many of our young Sisters, sharing their life stories both personal and of mission. I consider some of them as my guardian angels, who accompany me to the Church or wherever I need to go.
I also came close to one of the poor women who used to come to the pharmacy. I gave her free medicines whenever she was sick. She had her personal dignity that she wanted to pay for her medicines. She emptied her little money bag with coins collected from begging. I always returned that money to buy her food.
Even now, one of the poor upper caste men from Mokama visits me once in three months to have a good meal and get some pocket money. I also pay for part of the educational costs of a Catholic girl from our parish.
Sister Lawrencetta was like a mother to me and I could share anything with her. And Sister Mary Jude was a guide and a trusted friend of mine. I could share with her my feelings and I used to consult her when in need. She was a great help in all my personal and ministry needs at the hospital.
From my early years, I wanted to be a good and faithful religious. I wanted to be a woman of prayer. I have the greatest satisfaction of knowing that I have done my best to love and serve God in my ministry. I am filled with love and gratitude to God and my community for the way I have been nurtured and cared for. I have many close friends in the community.
I am happy to be a religious knowing that God is faithful and always accompanies me. God has called me to be a beloved daughter in service to the poor and the needy. I want to be always faithful to my God until my last breath.
I often pray Psalms 91 and 136. Special scenes from the bible which inspire me are ‘Jesus walking on the water’, (Mt. 14: 25) ‘Jesus in the boat during the storm’ (Mt. 8: 26) and ‘Mary Magdalene at the tomb’ (Jn. 20: 1-18). I love the following Hindi hymns: Tere charanoam me, mei aayi hum…, (I have come to your feet…) and Aaja mere Prabhu, mere dil mem … (Lord, I come to my heart…).
I want to dedicate the evening of my life to praise and thank my faithful God for the love and care that I continuously receive. Daily I pray for each and every Sister, members of SCN family, co-workers, benefactors and their families. Every fiber of my being and every activity of my life resound with praise for my God!
Elizabeth Emmanuel Vattakunnel
September 4, 2017
Consent was given to publish the story on August 26, 2017