I, Aleyamma K. P. (Karakunnel Paul), was born on November 13, 1952 at Kattampack in Marangoly parish in Palai Diocese, Kottayam District, Kerala. I am the first girl child of my parents, Paul and Mariam Karakunnel. We are six siblings namely, Mathew, Aleyamma (Jane, SCN), Mary, Joseph, Paul and Peter. My father was a very hard working, just and honest farmer. He was a man of few words but very much respected by the people around. I used to help my mother in the household work and she told me many stories from the Bible and from the lives of saints, which must have planted the seed of religious vocation in my life. In the evening after the rosary, I read a chapter from the New Testament daily. The reading of periodicals about missionaries in North India inspired me to become a missionary in Bihar. From my parents, I have imbibed the values of deep faith, trust in God, simplicity, honesty, hard work and love for the poor.
When I was studying in class VIII, Sisters Mercy Thundathil and Nirmala Mulackal came to our school for vocation promotion. When they came we were playing throw ball. I was good at games and the Sisters mentioned that they too, play ball in Mokama. It was the first time I heard the name, Mokama and I felt it was the right place for me to go.
In 1969, I had come to know about the death of an SCN candidate, Aleyamma who died in Mokama. She was from the Palai Diocese – my diocese. I said to myself, “I shall go there to replace her since I, too, had the same name.” I did not say anything about it at home thinking that they might prevent me from going to Bihar.
In 1970, I passed my matriculation in first division and decided to join the SCNs. My parish priest would not give me permission to go to Mokama; instead he wanted me to join a local Congregation in Palai. The Sisters there promised me that they would send me to the mission later on but I was not happy to join them. After much struggle and prayer, I left for Mokama along with twenty-one other girls from Kerala in June 1970. Many parents and relatives had come to see us off. As the time came for the train to start, all began to weep. I was the only one who did not cry. I experienced joy and happiness within me because my long cherished desire to become a missionary was going to be fulfilled. I owe my vocation to my mother who was very prayerful and had a deep love for God and respect for religious life.
Though I was happy to be in Mokama, I felt very home-sick for the first three months. Looking at our family photo, I used to cry very often. I found it difficult to speak in English and often wondered whether I would ever learn the language. I prayed to Jesus and made up my mind not to speak in Malayalam, my mother tongue. I began to listen carefully to others who spoke in English. Within three months, I picked up enough English to communicate with others. Since I was an introvert I did not like to talk much and thus socialization in general was difficult for me.
I found it hard to see people suffering from acute poverty and lack of cleanliness everywhere in Bihar. The extreme climatic conditions of Bihar and the pestering mosquitoes bothered me. The food, too, was not to my liking and I wondered whether I should continue being a candidate. Then the following quotation from St. Paul inspired me, “I became all things to all people…” (1Cor. 9:22). These words gave me strength and motivation to learn to let go and adjust and to feel at home in Mokama. Slowly, I began to like and love the people, the language and the culture of the place.
In the novitiate, I got lots of love, appreciation and affirmation from my director, Patricia Mary Kelley, SCN. She helped me to experience God’s love. I was very sad when I got the news that my second brother, Joseph, who was studying in class VII died all of a sudden on July 14, 1972. I spent much time in prayer and reading. My novitiate companions were SCNs Alice Chirackanal, Archana Valiaparambil and Reena Theruvan-kunnel. We had a very few classes and plenty of singing classes by Sister Patricia Mary. Every Saturday we visited the nearby villages and I always went to Gosaingoan. I enjoyed visiting them and became very close to the people and that was the beginning of my desire to be in pastoral ministry. I used to pray with the people and teach Catechism to the children and women on Sundays. As a second year novice I went to Chatra for a three-month community and mission experience. Ann Roberta Powers, SCN was the superior of the community. I used to accompany Rosemarie Lakra, SCN to the villages and sometimes stayed there to prepare people for the sacrament of Confirmation. The late Bishop Most Reverend George Saupin, SJ came to the villages for Confirmation. It was a very good pastoral experience for me.
After making my First Vows on June 2, 1974, I was assigned to our Chatra mission. I was very enthusiastic to be in mission to serve the poor. I had a stopover at our convent in Bakhtiarpur. One night I suddenly felt uneasy. Joel Urumpil, SCN, who took my blood test, suspected that I might have glandular tuberculosis. I was utterly shocked that I had to return to Mokama immediately for treatment. After getting the medicines and injections from the hospital, I went to the convent chapel and wept. The thought that Teresa of Lisieux who had died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four became a Saint, consoled me. After the medication for a month I was fit to go to Chatra to teach in the school. After a few weeks, I was sick again and had to return to Mokama. The doctor changed the medicine and I was able to return to Chatra soon. After one and half years of treatment, slowly I recovered from the sickness. Even today, I suffer from lack of proper balance and cannot drive a vehicle. With all the health problems, I continued to trust in God and was able to give myself fully in mission. I had the privilege of living with Ann Roberta Powers, SCN, the youngest of the pioneers in India, for two years in Chatra. I was inspired by her life of faith, prayer, commitment and love for the poor. As I engaged myself in teaching, I had a special interest in teaching Catechism classes, preparing children for the sacraments and conducting some of the Church services. After beginning my studies in Bachelor of Theology at Dharmaram College, Bangalore in 1977, I came to know that it was Sister Ann Roberta who had recommended me for the theological studies. In the beginning I had a hard time adjusting since I was the only Sister in the class and no one would talk to me and I felt ignored and isolated. Philosophy classes too were very difficult during the first term. By the second term I began to understand what was being taught. By the time the classes began in theology, I felt better. The brothers used to call me the ‘serious and studious’ one. We did not have much interaction in the classes. It was only an exam-oriented study without touching any life experiences of the professors or the students. When I began to teach it was an opportunity for me to integrate what I had learned and to connect it to life experiences.
A faith experience that I often share is connected with my father coming from Kerala for my final vows on June 17, 1979. My father was traveling alone by train and he got out a few stations before Howrah Station. Without knowing the language or the place he was really anxious. An auto driver and later a policeman directed him to the platform from where he could board a train to Mokama. That whole day he spent on that platform without food or water in the extreme heat. He was almost out of his mind due to anxiety. At 8.30 pm, just before getting into the train, the Sister who was supposed to accompany him to Mokama happened to see him and got hold of him and kept him with her. It was a moment of grace that saved my father’s life. That day I was in recollection at Mokama and prayed much for their safe arrival. Though he was present for my final vows with my sister who was doing nursing in Mokama, he could not enjoy the celebration because he was very tired and worn out from his travel experience. Thank God, his life was saved!
After the vows, I travelled with my father to Dharmaram College, Bangalore where I was studying theology at the time. Again, at Howrah Station, just before getting into the train I was robbed of our tickets and money. It was a very painful experience for me and I felt rejected by God. I wondered why God was treating me like that soon after surrendering my whole life to God. I told the co-passengers about losing our tickets and money. They were good and generous people. They told us not to worry and they would do what they could to help. When the ticket collector came to check the tickets, the people spoke for us. Luckily, our names were on the chart so the ticket collector left us alone. The next morning, at Vishak in Andhra Pradesh, another ticket collector who was very strict came to check the tickets. He told us either to buy a fresh ticket or to get out of the train. I did not know what to do. The presence of my father with me added to my agony. Some of the men who were sympathetic decided to take up a collection in the train to purchase fresh tickets for both of us. After getting the tickets and some money in my hand to reach our destination I was at peace. The people volunteered to give us our meals, too. It was truly a faith experience for me. Though I felt let down by God in the beginning, people’s goodness helped me to see that God is present in all that happens to us.
From Bangalore, after a day, my Father went back home. The rainy season had already started and my father worked in the field without much rest and soon he became very sick. He was hospitalized for the first time in his life. It took six months for him to get back to his normal self. I too, took time to recover from all that happened. In December when I went home for the holidays, my father told me everything that had happened on his way to Mokama. In spite of all these unfortunate events, my father said that he was very happy that he went to Mokama, and saw the place where my sister and I lived. He was happy to see all the Sisters, too.
I returned to Mokama in 1981 and began to teach in the novitiate. I also did pastoral work by visiting the Catholic families in fifteen nearby villages, prepared children for the sacraments, and adults for marriage preparation and baptism. During this time I taught at Jyoti Bhavan, the Diocesan Catechetical Centre in Mokama, to prepare men and women to be catechists in the parishes.
In 1986, I was the second Indian SCN, after Sister Ann Moyalan, to be asked to go to Belize, Central America, where I served in pastoral ministry among the Kechi-Maya Indians. In Belize, I had the privilege of working and living with John Loretto Mueller, SCN, for two years. I was touched by her missionary zeal, generosity, hospitality and love for the people. I did some pioneering work in San Antonio parish with the catechists and youth. Up to that point, the catechists were sent to Guatemala for training. In Belize I started our own program for catechists. Since there were only very few priests in Toledo district the catechists were trained in Scripture, Homiletics, conducting Communion service, Sacramental preparation and basic health services. Though poor, they had deep faith in God and were very faithful to their duties as catechists. They rendered free service to the church. I enjoyed teaching them and was inspired by their simple faith and commitment.
For the first time, a youth group was organized in San Antonio parish. It was a custom there to have meetings and activities separately for boys and girls. Slowly I brought them together through games, picnics, discussions, Christmas gatherings, exchange of gifts, etc. Though it was not easy, I enjoyed being and working with them. After I left Belize one of the youth group wrote to me saying, “When Sister Jane left San Antonio, the youth cried in their hearts”. I have many happy memories of them.
I was fortunate to study for a Masters in Theology at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, from 1988 to 1990. It was a blessing that I got a student scholarship. My time there expanded my vision and perspective on life and mission. As part of the biblical spirituality program, I had a three months study tour to the biblical land in Israel, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. I was thrilled to walk in the footsteps of Moses in Sinai desert and to climb the sacred Sinai Mountain. I also walked the many pathways that Jesus had gone through in Palestine. St. Paul’s apostolic zeal and activities came alive to me in Athens, Ephesus, Corinth and other islands. Now reading and teaching the Scripture means a lot more to me. I am deeply grateful to God and to my Congregation for all these blessings that I have received.
I was appointed as novice director from 1991 to 1997 in Mokama. Jesus was my model of a teacher who taught and formed the twelve apostles from simple backgrounds. Our novices also came from various cultural backgrounds in India. I treated them impartially with love and respect and tried my best to bring them close to God, the community and the people whom we serve. It took time for the novices to understand the many concepts in theology and religious life and how to put them into practice. But as a whole I enjoyed being with them guiding, praying, playing and having different activities with them. I continue to teach in the formation program, from time to time.
In August 1997, I went to Birsanagar, a substation of the Cathedral parish in Golmuri, Jamshedpur to initiate pastoral ministry there. I took a survey of the seventy-five families who came to our Centre for Mass on Sundays. I taught Catechism in the school and visited the people regularly and did sacramental preparation for children as well as adults. I organized the Catholic women’s group and conducted seminars for the youth. In working with them I came very close to the people.
In July 2001, I returned to Mokama to teach in the novitiate again and to work in the parish. For almost half of the year I had to be out to teach in different formation houses or seminaries. Beginning in 2005, ‘Feminist Theology’ was made a compulsory subject to be taught in all the seminaries in India and I have had the privilege of teaching the subject in a number of seminaries in North India. First, I started teaching the students of Morning Star seminary at Barrackpore, in West Bengal. For ten years I taught the spiritual vision of “St. John and Bhagavad Gita” at Nav-Sadhana, Varanasi and Jeevan Jyoti in Hyderabad. I was also a regular visiting professor at the seminaries of St. Albert, Ranchi, and St. Joseph, Allahabad. The methodology I used is the life experiences of women, role plays, group discussion, current events from the newspapers, and movies on women in bondage and the empowered. My pastoral experience has made my teaching more life-oriented and practical. At times I found it difficult to teach the seminarians who felt that men were better than women. I have experienced a change taking place in their attitude towards women as they have begun to treat them with equality and respect. The seminarians were not even aware of gender inequality and the problems faced by women in the Church and society. I feel they are being prepared now to be more inclusive and to work for the empowerment of women and girl children in their parishes. It has been a joyful experience for me to contribute my mite for the well-being of the Church in North India.
I taught classes regularly for the catechists in training at Jyoti Bhavan, Mokama. It was also my responsibility to look after the Catholic women’s group, preparing them and children for the sacraments. I came to know everyone in the parish by name and felt loved by them. I felt privileged teaching Scripture, sharing my faith and the good news of God’s love with the people. Because I am a woman, in general I, myself, have felt discriminated against at times due to the patriarchal attitude of our clergy. I could have done much more than what I have accomplished if our church could also be mindful of gender equality in the church and society. What brought me closer to God, the people in mission and the community is my theological studies, very specially Scripture and Indian spirituality. As I began to teach these subjects and conduct Yoga meditations, my own personal and spiritual life was being slowly transformed from within. All in all, my ministry in the parish has given me much joy and satisfaction.
I grieved with my family at the time of my mother’s death on December 11, 2004 and my father’s death on December 15, 2009. My mother had a stroke and was bed-ridden for one and a half years. I could only visit her a few times but I was grateful that my youngest brother and sister-in-law cared for her lovingly till the end. I was very close to my mother and miss her presence very much. It is from her that I have imbibed simplicity, faith in God, prayerfulness, interest in the word of God and love for the poor. She was the one who encouraged me to study well and to become a missionary.
In 2016, I was appointed as the Patna Archdiocesan coordinator of the Catholic women’s group. Since 1984 I have been with the Catholic women’s group and they are happy about my presence with them. They get a lot of affirmation from me as I support them in their joys and struggles. I have visited twenty-six parishes in the Archdiocese and have started two Catholic women’s groups in Raja Bazar and Patliputra parishes. While teaching them I am rather shocked to know how little our Catholics know the Bible. My focus is to create an interest in them for the word of God and to experience God’s compassionate love. I encourage them to remember inspiring and challenging bible quotations to make them their own in their life experiences. They experience joy and gratitude by the end of my five-day classes. Some of them come back and tell me that they read the Bible and encourage their children to do the same. And many of them come back for the refresher courses, year after year. People also use the Bible for their daily family prayer.
I also teach classes for men and women on gender policy of the CBCI (Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India). The Tribal women who function as an integrated group feel that it is not applicable to them. It is the oppressed Dalit women who understand gender disparity and how they can work together towards equality in their families and society. In these societies boys are preferred and the birth of a girl child is not considered as a blessing. Domestic violence, though prevalent, is kept under cover for the sake of family honor. This chauvinistic attitude is also seen among Catholic men who treat their women for the most part as second class citizens.
I live in an inclusive community of men and women at Navjyoti, the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Patna. I attend the morning prayer and Mass and take meals with them. They are happy with my feminine presence in community as I have brought about a positive attitude among us.
In 2017 I was appointed the director of SCNA program in Patna Province. I teach classes for the SCNA candidates on our charism and mission. I teach them scripture to deepen their faith and spirituality. Four SCNAs have taken their commitment in Mokama and there are eleven candidates in Patna and seven in Gaya, in the formation.
I am happy and proud to be a member of the SCN Congregation because I have received much love, affirmation and opportunities for growth through formation, education, seminars, retreats and friendships in the community and outside. God has blessed me to share my gifts and knowledge with various groups of men and women who contribute much to the well-being of the church.
My message for the young members of the community is to be rooted in the love of God, the community and the people through prayer and loving service. The values of our modern, consumeristic society will always look enticing but we must discern daily about the choices we make. As authentic Indian women religious we are called to love God intimately in loving service to our people.
Religious life has helped me to experience the unconditional love of God as a beloved daughter and to share the same with others to make them feel that they are beloved children of God. As the Scripture says, “As you have received freely so give freely, (Mt. 10:8)”. I have received abundance of God’s blessings. My studies and experiences in mission in India and outside have helped me to be a blessing to all those I serve. My life as a religious has brought much joy and contentment. I am happy to be a sign of God’s love, joy and hope for the world.
Jane Karakunnel, SCN