My Life Story

I, Chinnamma was born on February 20, 1944 to Mathai and Mariam Urumpil in a small parish called Thodanal, Kottayam District, Kerala State. We were eleven children in our family – seven boys and four girls. My parents lost two sons before I was born. In chronological order they are: Mathai; late Annamma; late Chacko; Sebastian; late Joseph; late Chacko, CMI; late Devasia; Thomas; Chinnamma, (Joel, SCN); Mary (late Sunanda, SCN) and Philo. In 1991, Sister Sunanda died unexpectedly of cerebral malaria while serving in Sale, Mahuadanr. We belonged to an ordinary peasant family. My mother was only five years old when her parents passed away. She had also a three-year old sister and their grandmother managed to bring them up. Sadly my father was put out of his home by his elder brother. For a couple of years he worked as a daily wage labourer near my mother’s place. Later he married my mother and settled in her home since she had no brothers. My father was simple and devoted to the family especially to my mother who being an orphan needed the extra affection and care which my father provided. My brothers and father worked very hard to provide for us with basic minimum facilities.

Like most children, I had a carefree childhood and enjoyed playing outdoors with my five brothers. My brothers tried to discipline me but I wanted to be equal with them. I played freely with the children in the neighbourhood regardless of their caste or religion. As I grew older I took care of the goats and helped on the farm. My mother and sisters-in-law did all the household work and I did not have to help them out in any way. My mother was sociable and a friend to the poor and she was popular among the neighbours. To me she was like a friend or an older sister. Once I forgot to take my tiffin (midday meal) to school and she brought it to me walking three kilometres. A beggar used to come to our home once a month and my parents treated him like a member of our own family.

Sister Joel’s parents, Mathai and Mariam, in 1980

One of the outstanding memories of my childhood is my First Holy Communion day. The teacher asked me to get flowers from the neighbour’s garden to make the wreaths. Also, since I was good in singing, I was given the privilege of leading the hymn just after receiving Communion. Another happy memory of mine is that of spending time with my father and the workers in the field planting ginger and doing other kinds of work. Eating with them in the open field was a picnic for me. I also enjoyed playing in the stream, plucking wild flowers and reading some books on St. Francis of Assisi. Since I was not very strong physically, I also wanted to prove to others that I could do anything like everybody else.

I had my primary education in our parish school. I went to N.S.S. (Nair Service Society) Middle School, Poovarani run by Nairs, a Hindu group. Though I was a Catholic the teachers liked and encouraged me. I was good in my mother tongue, Malayalam and sports. I had many friends in the school.

For Class VIII I went to a school run by the Adoration Sisters at Kanjiramattom. My father, however, wanted to stop me from further studies after my passing Class VIII. I was not very happy about it because my father allowed my older brother to continue his studies even though he had failed in Class VIII. I was very angry with my father and refused to eat for a whole day. But that did not work. Two weeks later, the Sisters sent a teacher to our home to find out why I was absent. Though they tried to persuade my father it was my brother Chacko’s strong argument that changed his mind. I was the first girl to pass matriculation examination in 1961. The same brother arranged for me to go to Mokama for nurses’ training that year. I was the first girl to leave our village for studies and I was overjoyed. I also wanted to get out of my home soon because I was afraid that they would marry me off at any time, as was the custom.

I found it difficult to adjust to the way of life in Bihar especially the food habits. We had to learn two new languages (English and Hindi) simultaneously. The misery of the people around Mokama moved me to tears. As I ate my normal food in the hostel after my training, the thought of people who were starving often came to my mind. From then on I had a desire to work with the poor after my training.

My call to religious life may have its beginning with the singing and square dance practices that Mary Jude Howard, SCN, conducted for the nurses, the candidates and novices. I was happy about this opportunity to mingle with the youngsters in SCN formation. Seeing me in action, our nursing director, Sister Veronica Maria (Ora Mae) Brownfield told Sister Marita Ann (Teresa Rose) Nabholz, the candidate director, that I might have a religious vocation. One day Sister Teresa Rose asked me if I was interested in joining the SCNs. It was as though I was waiting for an invitation and I said, “Yes.” One of my brothers was very angry when he heard about it.

I joined the candidacy in September 1962 while I continued my nursing studies. My companions were Maria Palathingal, Lucia Thuluvanickel (now deceased) and Karuna Thottumarickal, also nursing students. As candidates we used to go to the villages with the public health department. Every time I was with the very poor people I felt uncomfortable as I had the privilege of having everything I needed. My urge to work with them continued.

Teresa Xavier Ponnazhath, a trained teacher and Rosemarie Lakra, already a trained staff nurse, joined our group. Since we were older, our group had a shorter period of postulancy than others. We were a close knit group and have been together for the last fifty-six years. It was a sad day for us when Sister Lucia was called to eternal life on November 10, 2017.

Sister Teresa Rose was our director through the candidacy, postulancy and novitiate. Other teachers were Sisters Patricia Mary Kelley, Rita Puthenkalam, Margaret Rodericks and Mary Celeste (Gail) Collins. Sister Josephine Naduvilekunnel who later discontinued taught us Hindi. Sister Mary Jude took us for singing and spoken English. We were twenty-four postulants and novices, at one time. Sister Teresa Rose encouraged us to write short stories. I believe one of my stories written in Malayalam influenced one of our Sisters to join the SCNs. Our formative years were the happiest when we were moulded by experienced SCNs who were like potters at their wheels.

During our novitiate days we had strict discipline of keeping silence, responding to our duties by the ringing of a bell, common recreation, etc. On visiting Sundays we were allowed to mingle with the nurses and senior Sisters for an hour or so. During recreation we made rosaries, sorted out used stamps and there was plenty of singing. We would wait for the day when we were allowed to write letters to our family. The six of us were also given the duty of helping the new candidates and postulants to get adjusted to religious life. We were also given time to read books, practice dramas, dance, debate, etc. I liked the books on the lives of saints such as Br. Martin de Porres, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Joseph, the Worker and whatever books were available on St. Francis of Assisi.

I made my First Vows on July 19, 1968. I was ready to give myself completely to God, to go to the ends of the earth and serve the poor. After six months of juniorate training in Ranchi I was sent for Public Health Nursing at Lady Reading School of Nursing, Delhi. My companion was Bridget Vadakeattam, SCN. This study again re-enforced my attraction to work among the under privileged and oppressed.

My first assignment was to be one of the pioneers in our Bakhtiarpur mission with Sisters Mary Frances Sauer and Lucia Thuluvanickel in 1971. Although I had completed my Public Health Nursing, I had no practical experience but I was ready, enthusiastic to do anything. I was put in charge of the tuberculosis (TB) control/eradication program along with the Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) at Maner. Those were hectic days with a lot of work to do. Dealing with the flood victims was an annual feature of our ministry but it was a very satisfying work.

Sister Mary Frances was the administrator of our health centre in Bakhtiarpur. She was my mentor and a loving older Sister who loved the poor. At times we found her impatient but she always made sure to ask pardon from anyone who may have been offended by her. Her spirit of humility was an inspiration to all of us. On Saturdays Rev. Father William Goudreau, SJ, was a welcome guest for prayer and supper. We shared freely about our ministry together. We worked together as people in one mission with the sole purpose of helping the poor. They guided me to lead an exemplary missionary life. Once we found a sick beggar woman with her son on the railway platform. Sister Mary Frances and I carried her to our clinic and ministered to her for four days. The lady was very upset in the beginning but as the time came closer to her death she became very calm and she died in our arms. During the emergency, I became interested in the work of the social activists. I was allowed to travel to Chaibasa alone to attend their (underground) meetings. There were both lay and religious people in the group.

At the end of the five-year TB program. I myself became a victim of the sickness and was advised to take rest in Mokama. After that I worked in the Public Health Centre there for two years. I initiated the “Village Health Workers Program” in and around Mokama. In expanding the clinic, more facilities were provided at a low cost for the poor. I got help from Sister Xavier Valiakunnackal, SCN, (deceased) in conducting family counselling and singing for the village women.

The Nepal pioneers and their companions L-R: Sisters Sunanda Urumpil, Ann Bernadette Ormond, Anne Marie Thayilchirayil, Jean Kulangara, Margaret Rodericks, and Joel Urumpil

My pioneering in the Nepal mission in April 1979 was another important chapter in my life and a faith experience. I learnt to adjust to living in a foreign country with a new group of people, their language, culture, extreme weather conditions, etc. I understood what daring and risk taking meant when I walked for three days at a stretch and spent the nights at wayside shelters. I did not feel burdened because it was my choice to visit a few Christians who lived on the mountains. After visiting many villages away from Kathmandu, we, Anne Marie Thayilchirayil, Jean Kulangara and I decided to work in a village in Godavari near St. Xavier’s School.

Sister Joel with children in Godavari, Nepal in 1979

One day, Rev. Father Alan Starr visited us and he shared with us the plight of the Christians scattered throughout the valley. They were Catholics from Darjeeling in India who had migrated to Nepal looking for jobs. Since Nepal was a Hindu kingdom at that time they were afraid that they would lose their jobs if the government came to know about their religion. They hesitated to attend any Church services conducted by the Jesuit priests on Saturdays which is a holiday in Nepal. And yet, a few came quietly for Mass to a small, narrow hall at St. Xavier’s which was used as a church. Father Alan mentioned that there was no one to visit them, pray with them or to take care of their spiritual needs. While listening to him I felt a deep urge in me to look for those scattered Catholics. The next day I talked with the Maryknoll Fathers who were ready to employ me as a nurse. They had no problem about my choice to work in the parish. To begin my work, I would daily commute to Kathmandu by bus. Seeing my plight of daily travel to the city, the I.B.M.V. Sisters gave me a room in their convent in Jawalakhel where I could spend the weekends with the Catholic families.

Searching for the scattered Catholics in the Valley was a real challenge. I went with a woman companion to help me to find their houses. At the end of two years, we were able to organise our Catholics into a faith community and we began to have Mass at different centres. The Maryknoll Fathers had helped me to introduce the concept of basic Christian community among our people. I taught regular catechism classes for the students of St. Xavier’s School and a few parish children. I can proudly say that the pastoral ministry in Kathmandu was begun by the SCNs with the support of Father Alan. After four years of ministry in Kathmandu Valley, Father Casper Miller, SJ, who was appointed as the episcopal vicar of Nepal asked us if we were ready to leave the Valley to look after the spiritual needs of the Tribal Catholics in East Nepal. They had migrated from India to work in the vast tea gardens there.

In February 1983, with SCNs Francine Moozhil, (deceased) and Rosemarie Lakra, I moved to Damak village situated six miles away from the bus stand in the town. I did socio-medical work among the people of tea gardens and in our village for four years. Sister Francine stayed home with me and helped me with knitting classes for the women and medical work. There were also Santhal Tribals in East Nepal and since Sister Francine knew their language she chose to work among them. Sister Rosemarie opted to visit the tea gardens on foot, for the most part, to take care of the people’s spiritual needs.

While working with the Santhals, Sisters Anne Marie and Francine invited Gracy Thombrakudy, SCN, from India to give a retreat to the people. Sister Gracy asked Father Thomas Vettickal to accompany her. During the retreat a group of Nepali policemen arrested the two of them along with the catechist and Sister Francine, accusing them of proselytization. They were hand-cuffed and made to walk all the way to Biratnagar in the hot sun for two hours. Their imprisonment was a real blow to all of us and going to meet them in the prison was a harrowing experience.

While in Nepal, I had a fifteen day renewal program at Godavari Ashram, in Kathmandu guided by Rev. Father Pius Thekemurry and Dr. Vinayan (a Hindu activist) in 1985. The retreat was based on socio-political analysis with reference to the gospel of Luke.

In 1986 I joined the Bihar Dalit Vikas Samiti (B.D.V.S.) in Barh with Sheela Palamoottil, SCN. Here I learned to work with a lay person who was my boss. After about two years of work there I felt the need to be more systematic in my approach to social work and so I went to the Indian Social Institute (ISI) in Bangalore for a three-month course on socio-political analysis. This course changed my life and gave me a new vision and perspective as a religious/follower of Jesus. I wanted to bring about a radical change in the existing system of exploiting the poor and the marginalized in our society. At ISI I was also able to explore the true nature of God as an inner source of power in my life and all of creation.

In 1988, with the blessing from my provincial, Shalini D’Souza, SCN, I joined Sister Marie Tobin, MMS, and a group of lay people led by Sri (Mr.) Vinay Senger at Hunterganj block, Chatra. A Dalit family shared their limited space in their village house in Khutikewal with Sister Marie Tobin and me. Since Hunterganj was an entirely non-Christian village I decided to change my name to Jyoti Behen, (sister of light) as Marie Tobin and others had done. We became one with the people even though they were prejudiced against Christians in the beginning.

My experience of working in the liberation movement in Bihar in the seventies and eighties with Philip Manthara, Rob Currie, Stan Lourdswamy, all Jesuits, had helped me in my choice in moving to Hunterganj. In those days the SCNs were already involved in working with the deprived in the villages thus it was not difficult for me to get permission to live and work with a lay group. Sister Marie Tobin was a blessing for me as she supported me whole-heartedly until she left for a leadership position in her community.

My father who was in his eighties passed away in August 1990. He was bedridden for nine months. Before he died he told my brother, “Take good care of your mother”. At his funeral, our parish priest narrated how my father accepted everything as good without a word of complaint. Even if the food was too pungent or bland, he would always remark, “O, how tasty it is!” I remember him telling us, “Be what you are, and do not try to imitate your rich friends. Everyone knows you belong to Urumpil family.” He was very much appreciated in our area. After his death a rolling trophy was instituted in his honour to promote sports. My mother also passed away on September 20, 1993 in her 80s. She was also bedridden like my father and could not speak or eat by herself in the days leading up to her death. My sisters-in-law were heroic in serving our mother! I could not attend either of my parents’ funerals because I was living in the interior villages in Chatra.

The twenty-nine years I spent in Hunterganj were hectic, risky, challenging and yet fulfilling. Feelings of isolation from the community were part of it all and I learned to depend upon the generosity of the people in every way. The Bhuia community, the lowest rung of the social ladder in particular, were enabled to find their rightful place in the society. For the first time, the women were organized and girls’ education was promoted. Before this time the women were not treated with dignity. Quarrels in the family were common and they were not allowed to attend any kind of meetings. I joined in their struggle against the landlords. The landlords around the area had captured the unused government land and the landless people now became aware that they could recapture it. It was possible for them to do so because all of us supported them from behind the scenes. In spite of the murder of four of our leaders, the people stood together and fought against the landlords. They captured around 2500 acres of land from the landlords and then the men went underground to escape from the landlords, Maoists and the police. The women and old people were left behind to work on the land. I needed a local woman to work with me but no one was willing to take up such a job at that time.

After we became a well-organised group, we named our voluntary organization as ‘Chetna Bharti (awakening women) and got it registered in 1993. We felt the registration was essential for our survival because the government had termed us as terrorists and for the Maoists we were agents of the police.

Sister Joel at Chetna Bharti in 2008

As the land was distributed among the people, a piece of land was used by us and we put up a mud house and named it as Khutikewal Ashram. Life at the ashram was not all that easy for me as I was the only woman in the team and the people were still patriarchal in their thinking. At times I felt side-lined as a woman. I knew that I had to leave my feeling aside and set up my priorities if I wanted to live and work with the people. Being reflective by nature I depended on the Bible and the life of Jesus to give me strength and light. This spiritual experience enabled me in my analysis of the suffering people. I saw all religions merging into one reality in our struggle to change the oppressive world order. Also I found more meaning in living out my religious life in the context of the people with whom I was working.

In the history of SCN ministry the initiative that I took in Hunterganj was a first of its kind. Initially I was reluctant to share about my work with the Sisters in the community at large. I felt that they would not fully understand my radical involvement with the people. At times I had felt that I was all alone and even thought of leaving the community. I talked to Sister Teresa Rose about it before I approached the provincial. Sister Teresa helped me to change my decision. Gradually the leadership in the community accepted my choice of ministry and began to send novices and some junior Sisters for short periods of exposure programs. Other SCNs Joyce Kalapurayil who later discontinued and Gracy Thombrakudy had joined me for short periods.

Another section of the society which drew my attention was the girls who were left behind in homes to fend for themselves while the parents worked. The society and their families considered their existence as a burden and parents were glad to get rid of them as early as possible, dead or alive. Seeing their pathetic condition I began to collect these children and adolescent girls and bring them to Chatra, often against the wishes of their parents. Thus our organization became the first in Chatra district to give priority to the education of Bhuia girls.

An unexpected gift I got from God recently was in the person of Sister Anna Joseph, a member of the Society of St. Joseph of Cluny who joined us in June 2016. She knew no Hindi as she had worked for twenty-two years in North Karnataka and Tamil Nadu with various groups. This was her first exposure to life in North India. She wanted to have a new experience of living with a mixed group of both secular and religious. Having Anna with us is a blessing for our group.

After living and working in Chatra district for close to three decades, I see a world of positive change in the women, girl children, adolescents and the Bhuia community, in general. Systemic change has occurred in small ways, thanks to the women who played a major role in their development. They have formed, Mahila Mukti Sangharsh Samiti an organization for women’s emancipation.

Living in the villages with the people I have learned the meaning of my commitment; experienced its joys and sorrows and how women can be empowered. When I joined the men at the cremation ground to pay my last respects to our slain leader, I had defied the local custom of women not being allowed to be present at a funeral pyre. I also experienced what it means to be detained in a dingy police lock up almost the whole night. At another time, I was surrounded by over thirty Maoists with their ammunitions in a remote forest village. In all of the above I have answered the call of Jesus to the best of my ability.

My attendance at various seminars on national and international levels has helped me immensely to empower myself to continue the good work that is being accomplished among the impoverished and neglected people.

My hope for the future is that those of us who are working on the margins be fully supported by our fellow religious in institutional ministry and the Church, as a whole. Since they have the means and contacts to influence the society in general it is good for all of us to work hand-in-hand to save our people from oppression and exploitation.

Incidents that have led me closer to God

As a young Sister missioned in Bakhtiarpur, Sister Mary Frances sent a new candidate with me to the Block Development Office (BDO) to find out if he needed any help with the flood relief work. He said, “Yes,” and, as a team of doctors from Patna Medical College Hospital was ready to get into the boat, he invited us to join them. I told him that I would have to inform my superior about it. He assured me that he would do so. My next problem was that we had no food or clothing for an over-night stay. The official told us not to worry about it because the people were there to provide us with whatever we needed. We went with them and were able to return to Bakhtiarpur only after five days. We were somewhat frightened when we came to know that the BDO had not informed Sister Mary Frances about us. To our surprise, she welcomed us back happily.

In the midst of our struggle to acquire land for the poor in Hunterganj two policemen came to our Ashram to arrest the activist leader. We had already helped him to escape from the scene. After about half an hour, fifteen to twenty policemen led by their officer in charge came to the village. I knew that they would come and I was wondering how I would answer their questions. The officer told me that I was hiding a culprit. In response I told him that I was only protecting an innocent man. I know it’s your duty to catch the culprit and mine is to save the innocent. Humbly, I told him that I was only doing my dharma (duty) and if he found me guilty he could arrest me. The officer looked at me for a while, turned to the rest of the police and ordered them to retreat. I remembered the words in the Bible, “I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people.” (Is. 51.16).

Sister Joel with Sister Ann Palatty

The insights I have gained

Jesus has gifted all of us with life and He wants us to become perfect as the heavenly God is perfect. This process of becoming God-like is accomplished by little steps each day. I carry with me all persons, events and natural forces in this becoming process. My role is not to make anybody better or to tell other people what they should be doing. I need to keep my goal renewed constantly like the breath I take. I need not plan for my death just as I had nothing to do with my birth. My life is part of the on-going process of creation and renewal of life on this planet.

The sudden deaths of both my brother, Chacko, CMI and sister, Sunanda, SCN, were very difficult for me to accept. In the case of Sunanda it took me two years to overcome my sorrow. My CMI religious Brother who had kept good health all along, died suddenly in 2015, at the age of 80. He was the one who saw to my education, helped me to come to North India and who always accompanied me whenever I went home. To this day I feel his absence.

The biggest challenge I see at present in the community/church

  • Tension between the institutional works versus the social activists’ world view
  • Growing corruption in our country and the world, at large
  • Our inadequate planning in meeting the needs of the exploited/marginalized
  • Greediness and consumerism of the people especially the well-to-do
  • How to form the young especially the religious to become more aware of the people at the periphery

Experiences of prayer that have helped me over the years

Routine family prayer, daily Mass and other rituals during my growing up years were a great source of grace for me. While living in community I enjoyed group prayer. I have experienced God deep within me, in nature and its beauty and in the struggles and suffering of people. As an older religious I have begun to enjoy contemplative prayer, experiencing God as presence in the depth of my being. Some of the most powerful moments of prayer/God experience for me were at times of loneliness, suffering and living among the exploited people.

Most significant events in the community

I was trusted and given the privilege of working in a non-structured ministry among secular people. I was listened to by the community whenever I raised issues at meetings and often decisions were made accordingly.

What makes me feel proud to be an SCN

The community has provided me with needed opportunities to change myself into a wholesome person reaching out to the needy at all times. SCNs have enabled me to follow my dream to live like Jesus among the oppressed and dispossessed.

Sister Joel in Mokama, September 2015

My dreams & hopes for the Congregation.

One of my dreams is that we have an intentional community living including SCNs, members of other Congregations, lay people and others who have similar vision like ours and contribute to the building up of the God’s reign in our world. My hope for the future is that we live a more disciplined and balanced life which will lead us to contemplation in action.

My religious life enables me to live my life fully as a woman with freedom, dignity and caring love which perhaps I would not have had out in the world. I have been a mother, sister, companion and mentor to countless persons. The freedom I experienced from the community to live with the oppressed/marginalized has made me happy.

In conclusion I would like to share my understanding of what my personal call is. When I am happy and enthusiastic about my ministry I know that I am following God’s call. What seems impossible at times becomes possible with God’s grace. In the process of living this call I forget all the sufferings I have endured and whatever I had to give up in life in order to become what God wants me to be. I can truly say that with God’s grace, the support of the SCN community and the goodwill of the people that I am ministering with, I am being liberated from the many shackles of life. I wait for the day when my joy shall be complete.

Joel Urumpil, SCN (Jyoti Behen)
Written on 23. 3. 2018
Edited on April 17, 2018

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