I was born on May 26, 1943 in a devout Catholic family: child of my loving parents Ouseph and Annakutty Palathinga. We lived at Kondanga village and were members of St. John Baptist Church, Munnumurry parish, Trichur district and Diocese in Kerala. We were eight children, three boys and five daughters. They are Raphael, two daughters named Mariam, Mary (from now on called Sister Maria) Anthony, George, Sosa and Philomena. Two daughters named Mariam, George and Philomena died in early childhood. My baptismal name was Mary. My parents were fond of me and called me ‘Molu’, which means daughter in Malayalam. I remember my father as a tender-hearted person, very thoughtful in helping people in need. He enjoyed telling jokes, using proverbs in his speech, helping us with our studies and other tasks. He was a very religious-minded and friendly person. My mother was a quiet and God-centered woman. From her, I learnt to reflect before I speak or act. She was courageous and had a special devotion to our Blessed Mother. As a family, we prayed together morning and evening. At the end of the prayer, my father said a spontaneous prayer for protection, blessings for each one of us, for neighbours and for the parish. I learned many of the Christian values such as prayer, honesty, love of the poor, hard work, reading good books, etc. from my family, teachers in school and from catechism classes which I cherish and hold very dear.
I was very special to my elder brother, Raphael, fondly called Rapai. He would take me to games with his peer groups where we would be partners. When I was in Class VII, he bought me a Malayalam-English dictionary. He also brought me library books that helped my reading habits. He encouraged me to study and read good books that would broaden my general knowledge. I was a good student and I enjoyed my days in the school.
When I was in Class VIII in 1957, my nine-year-old brother, George died in an epidemic of brain fever in which several of his classmates also died. He was my favorite brother and it took me many years to say goodbye to him.
Our parish priest inspired me in my religious vocation. Up to class V, I studied at a government school and from class VI, I attended the Presentation Girls High School, Vellikulangara run by the Clarist Sisters.
As students, we used to read about the stories of missionaries in Bihar in a Malayalam magazine, called ‘Kerala Mission’. This attracted me to go to the missions. After I passed S.S.L.C. (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) in 1960, I waited for a year for my good friend, Agnes Madathany (niece of Reverend Philip Poovattil, SJ who was already in Patna) to complete her studies. Agnes suggested that I ask Father Poovattil as to which community we should join. He wrote that the SCN community is the ‘best Congregation’ in the North. When I heard the name of our Congregation, especially being the Charity Sisters, my mother approved of my joining them though she was not happy about my going to a faraway place in Bihar.
I wrote a letter to Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman, SCN, the superior in Mokama. Responding to the letter, Sister Patricia Mary Kelley, the candidate director, told me that I could travel to Mokama with the Notre Dame Sisters who were already in Kerala. In May 1961, Mary Thomas (Sister Lucia Thuluvanickel), another candidate and I travelled with the Sisters and the Notre Dame candidates. I had no fear of leaving home as I wanted to be a Sister very much.
Our candidacy period was long since Mary John (Sister Karuna Thottumarickal), Mary Thomas and I were sent for nursing studies at Nazareth Hospital. Chinnamma Urumpil (Sister Joel), a second year nursing student also joined us as a candidate. As nursing students we stayed in the convent along with the other candidates. Daily we had our meals, prayers and an hour of English classes at the convent. It took us four and a half years to complete our studies. During this period, I was the secretary of the Sodality and Miss Mary Paul, a staff nurse, president. Together we used to work with the senior students, especially among the student candidates of other Congregations. In the second year, Sister Teresa Rose Nabholz became our candidate director. She loved us as a mother and a friend. Sister Teresa Rose gave monthly recollections to us and to all other candidates from different Congregations.
On December 27, 1965, I entered the postulancy along with Karuna, Lucia, Joel, Rosemarie Lakra, a full pledged nurse, and Teresa Xavier Ponnazhath, an experienced teacher. Sister Teresa Rose was our director. On July 19, 1966, when we received our religious habit, I was overjoyed. Having to cut short my beautiful hair the previous evening was a tearful experience for me but for the sake of Jesus I allowed it gladly. My novitiate life was smooth and enjoyable.
Though I wrote home every week, I used to wait for my father’s monthly letter. When I got the news that my sister, Sosa, was sick for a while, I was disturbed. As a second year novice, I thought of going back home and return to the novitiate a few years later. In her wisdom, Sister Teresa Rose asked me to inform my father and ask him what he thought about it. Immediately, he wrote saying, “We have given you to God. If only you have any personal problems, you may return home.” With that assurance from my father and the Providence of God, I was strengthened in my vocation to continue the novitiate. In the novitiate, I was asked to teach the newly professed Sisters and the novices First-Aid and Anatomy. At first I was shy and frightened to face them as a teacher. Sister Teresa Rose assured me that I would do well and I succeeded.
As a novice with special permission I visited my father who was very sick at the time. His death on January 31, 1968, six months prior to my First Vows was a sad day for me. Along with all my companions I made my First Vows on July 19. It was one of the happiest days of my life. When I went home in 1971 for my first home visit as a Professed Sister, I missed my father very much. As I saw his bed, I felt an emptiness within me and I spent some quality time with my grieving mother and it helped both of us.
My first mission as a young Sister was at Nazareth Hospital. I was the clinical supervisor of the nursing students. I also completed my internship in nursing at this time and stayed in the hospital community. Sister Mary Frances Sauer, Nursing Service Director, encouraged me to take up the responsibility as the head nurse. Sister Teresa Rose, provincial, was my spiritual director. Professionally and spiritually I learned much from our older Sisters. At the end of four years, our group was invited to make Final Vows on July 2, 1972 and I was more than thrilled to become a full-fledged SCN missionary.
Soon after my Final Vows, on July 5, 1972, I went with Sisters Jean Kulangara and Sheela Palamoottil to open a new mission in Sokho. Francine Moozhil was assigned to go to Sokho, but because she was writing her exams in Ranchi Jean took her place for three months. Sister Teresa Rose gave us Indian rupees 200/- to buy the necessary household supplies for the new mission. Mercy Thundathil and I bought three plastic mugs and towels each not knowing what else was needed. Sister Teresa Rose accompanied us to Sokho. The parish priest, Reverend Daniel Thomas Rice, SJ, an American missionary sent a tractor to Jamui railway station to take us. The ride from Jamui to Sokho through barren and rocky land took us three long hours. Many people waited to welcome us at the parish. As they washed our feet (a Santhal custom) I felt uneasy as it was my first experience. As we reached our new home, a mud house, we saw a scorpion at the door that first night, which frightened us to death. There was no electricity or running water in the house and it had only an improvised toilet cum bathing room, a few yards away. This rough and tough mission, the new culture and Santali, the language of the people was difficult for me to cope with.
From early morning people came for medicines. The number increased as the days went by. We used to attend to different medical emergencies for snake and scorpion bites, attacks by wild pigs and bear kept me going on my toes the whole day. I did my best and God did the rest.
Father Dan was an excellent missionary and a holy man. He spoke in parables and riddles that I did not understand at times. I learned from him how to love and serve the poor in need and I was happy with his missionary spirit. His trust and deep faith in God boosted my own faith.
Being cut off from Mokama due to frequent floods and postal problems, I went through a lot of loneliness. Our first hand-carried letters from Mokama reached us only after three months. As I spent two and a half years in Sokho God’s Providence strengthened me and my missionary spirit took deeper roots.
In 1974, my mother became quite sick. At the same time I was busy giving vaccinations to save people succumbing to death from small pox. My health was a concern as I contracted severe chicken pox, continuous fever and pneumonia and had to be admitted at Nazareth Hospital. I also needed a surgery for appendicitis. I cried much when no one was looking. After the surgery, I went home to be with my mother for a month. I left home hoping that she would recover but she lived only another month. I did not go home for her funeral. This is one of my sad life experiences that I can never forget.
The outbreak of smallpox and several deaths of people in Sokho saddened my heart. I approached the Block (government unit) for vaccinations and medicines with no success. Hearing about our plight Sister Mary Jude Howard, SCN, administrator of Nazareth Hospital supplied me with small pox vaccine. With one of the novices, I went around the villages to give vaccination. The superstitious beliefs of the people were a big hurdle. They would run away but we went after them. To far away villages Father Pat Rebeiro, SJ took us by jeep. One evening as were returning home, tired and worn out, our vehicle had an accident and it almost turned upside down but miraculously we were saved!
In preparation for a medical camp, I went to Patna with Father Pat to get the needed supplies with only Indian rupees 100.00. I was overjoyed when the Jesuit provincial, Father Joe Knecht, gave me Indian rupees 5000.00. On our way back to Sokho, three miles before Jamui, our jeep had a break-down again and we were stuck in the middle of the road. It rained heavily and we had to spend the night in the jeep with nothing to eat and we also had a patient with us. We were afraid of the passing heavy trucks running over us. Early in the morning, I walked in the rain to Jamui to get some help. If Father Pat had left the jeep, someone would have looted our supplies and the jeep along with the trailer. On the way back I bought a few chappathies (Indian unleavened bread) and potato curry from a teashop. Later a mechanic towed the jeep all the way to Jamui and got the batteries charged. In the evening, we started off again to Sokho through the forest road. The Khaira River was flooded. So we had to unload the supplies, carry it through the river so the jeep could be pulled across. Finally we reached home by mid-night. The next day, Mary Paul and team from Nazareth Hospital, Mokama arrived to conduct the medical camp, which was a success. I was energetic enough to be of some help in their work.
In January 1975, I was asked to team with Sister Mary Timothy, SND, in organizing and conducting an AOP (Apostolic Orientation Program), a five months course for young Sisters from various Congregations of North India. It was a time for developing my own leadership skills. It was a sacred time for me to be in touch with many young Sisters who were struggling to grow as missionaries. I learnt to be an integrated person during this short period and I enjoyed working closely with Sister Mary Timothy.
In June 1975, I was appointed as candidate director in Ranchi. I was very reluctant to say ‘yes’ as I did not have any preparation as to how to guide the candidates. Sister Teresa Rose supported me in this new ministry. I took all their classes and I also was responsible for recruiting candidates from North and South India. As the number of candidates increased, Ranchi house was too small to accommodate all of them. So, the candidacy was shifted to Mokama. I remained in Mokama for a year and left the formation ministry in June 1977.
My next assignment was to go for Post-Basic-Nursing, a degree course at the Christian Medical College Hospital, Vellore, an internationally recognized medical college. I completed the course successfully in December 1979. I did well in my studies and was awarded a gold medal by the Madras University. Since I could not go for my convocation, a cheque for Indian rupees 175.00 was sent to me through the Dean of the College of Nursing.
On my return to Mokama I was appointed as assistant director of the Nazareth School of Nursing at our hospital in January 1980. For a year, I worked with Sister Bridget Kappalumakal, SCN and I became the director in January 1981. I kept busy with teaching the students along with other tutors, managing the office work, attending the Bihar Nurses Registration Council meetings, conducting interviews of students from Kerala and other places. It gave me great satisfaction seeing my students grow professionally and becoming good and dedicated nurses. Sister Mary Jude was a great help for me in getting financial assistance for some of the poor students.
I have great devotion to the Blessed Mother which my mother taught me at a tender age. In 1983, when I was returning to Mokama from a picnic to Gaya with our student nurses through the Rajgir forest late in the night three masked men blinded us with bright head lights. The students were frightened and began to cry. I called upon Mother Mary and begged the men to let us go, and to my relief, they did leave us unharmed.
Sangsay in Darjeeling at the foothills of the Himalayas was one of my cherished missions. We opened that mission in the midst of the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) agitation, on October 10, 1986. Sisters Vinaya Chalil, Cecilia Simick, Philomina Hembrom and I accompanied by Shalini D’Souza, SCN, provincial, and Vinita Kumplankel, SCN, vice provincial, drove all the way to Sangsay. We waited for three hours at St. Augustine’s School in Kalimpong for the roads to be cleared. By the time we reached the top of the hills it was already dark and as someone pointed out our house, around 1500 feet below, it was hardly visible. The people gladly carried our many pieces of luggage down the hills. On the way, the beaming smiles of the people delighted us. Soon after we arrived there was an outbreak of severe dysentery in one of the villages which left me feeling helpless. We did not have sufficient money to buy the needed medicines. Luckily, Bishop Eric Benjamin Tamang gave us some money to meet the expenses. I managed most of the cases with home remedies. No lives were lost. As there was no resident priest, we conducted the prayer and communion services on Sundays. The faith of the people inspired us. We visited as many families as possible scattered all around the hills. Though we were new to the people they welcomed us happily. Health and education were the felt needs of the people. To help us with our work, Veronica Lepcha, a local woman was sent to Hayden Hall, the Jesuit Social Centre in Darjeeling for training health workers.
During one summer, the GNLF called for a forty-day strike. There were frequent in-fights within the party. Many lost their lives during the agitation. It was difficult for us to care for the badly injured victims at our small health centre which kept me alert though frightened. We had no communication with the outside world. No visitors could reach us but the people were extremely good to us though they had very little to eat. I walked with Veronica to St. Augustine’s School for three hours to get some help for our people. The Swiss Missionaries there gave us some bulgar (crushed wheat) and cooking oil. People used to go to the forest looking for roots for food. The people faced their difficulties without a word of complaint which touched me. We had some rice and lentils with us to take us through the strike and the villagers gave us milk. Though Sister Shalini sent us wheat flour, salt, potatoes and dry eatables with Joel Urumpil, SCN, she could not reach our place. In our struggle to survive we were asked to discern and decide whether any one of us or all of us wanted to leave the mission. As a group, we decided to stay on. For the most part, we were safe though most of the government health centres were destroyed in the agitation. One night, we were taken aback with a loud noise. Someone had thrown a hand-made low-intensity bomb at our house and shattered some of the window panes. It frightened us terribly. After some days, Bishop Eric, Sisters Shalini and Vinita visited us. Later, Sister Eugenia Muething, SCN, surprised us by reaching there.
During our family visits in Sangsay we found Ejha, a twenty-three-year old poor and fully paralysed woman with a cat as her only friend. At the age of five, she had fallen from a tree and was bedridden ever since. Her mother had expired when Ejha and her physically and mentally challenged sister were young. Their father was rather old and could not do much work. Daily we gave her the required personal care. One day Ejha surprised me saying that she wanted to walk. I took her to Brother Bob, SJ, who was running a centre for rehabilitation for the destitute in Siliguri. She was carried on a bamboo cot to the top of the hill to board a public vehicle to Kalimpong. From there it was a four-hour bus ride to Siliguri. People helped us on the way. Ejha left her home for the first time in a vehicle and she was uncomfortable on the way due to motion sickness. In Siliguri she was given the needed treatment, nutritious food and physiotherapy. A month later, I found her washing her own clothes. Two months later Brother Bob informed me that I could take her back home.
Ejha walked the 1500 feet down the hill with the help of a bamboo stick. The people were dumbfounded. They praised and sang songs saying that the God of Christians is greater than their gods. Many wanted to become Christians and they were baptised. This is the greatest miracle I have ever seen in my life in Sangsay. After her father’s death, we took Ejha to the home of Mother Teresa’s Sisters for the destitute in Kalimpong. I visited her after a few years and she looked happy. Her contagious smile is still in my memory. The people in the missions, especially the good-natured people of Sangsay have taught me how to be gentle, person-oriented, simple, caring and a forgiving person. The simplicity and the hospitality of the people who had very little, kept my faith alive. I look back at the five years I spent in Sangsay as a most valuable time in my life. The gratitude of the people was beyond my imagination. When I left Sangsay, they brought chickens and eggs in abundance as gifts. Today the mission has grown and our Sisters are doing good work there.
In 1990, I was elected as one of the delegates to attend the General Assembly at Nazareth, KY, USA. Besides attending the Assembly, I considered it was a privilege for me to touch the roots of the SCN foundation. I loved being there to experience the beginning and the growth of our Congregation, founded by Bishop David, Mother Catherine Spalding and our early Sisters. I was happy to meet many of our Sisters, aging gracefully but working tirelessly for the needs of the missions. They showed much interest in our India/Nepal mission.
I returned to Nazareth Hospital in March 1991 as tutor and supervisor in one of the female wards. I enjoyed being with the patients and guiding the students till February 1995.
In March I was asked to begin health ministry for the villagers in Dharan. In Nepal, no one can run a dispensary without a qualified doctor and so I could not distribute allopathic medicines to the people. I depended on the herbal home remedies to treat the patients. I found plenty of herbal plants around and educated the people on how to use them for their health needs and to prevent further complications.
One of our out-reach programs was working with the migrant settlers on river beds and forest edges who had all kinds of health and socio-economic problems. I sent a few women for the six-month residential training in Kathmandu, run by our Sisters. Four of them worked with me to make more contacts with the people of the area. Some of our projects for housing, sanitation, literacy, education of girls and various income generating activities brought definite changes in the lives of the people.
From my co-workers, I learned about the trafficking of girls from Nepal who were sent to big Indian cities by agents. Modesta (name changed), was one of those poor girls who was sold over and over again and finally reached Delhi, married and had a child by a man with HIV/AIDS. Soon the husband and the child died and she was left alone with the disease and she returned home after having been away for fourteen years. Her mother threw her out of the house and our health workers found her begging with sore hands in the village. After arranging food for her we continued to keep in touch with her with counselling and other support. She was taken to a rehabilitation centre for people with AIDS run by the Sisters of Dayasagar in Kathmandu. With proper nourishment and medicines, she lived for three more years. When she became better, she visited her home and her mother accepted her. Filled with joy, she returned to Kathmandu and died peacefully, a year later.
My faith experience in still Dharan keeps me strong. Once I received a phone call from Father Lawrence Maniyar, SJ, the principal of St. Xavier’s School, Kathmandu that some tourists from Kerala had met with a traffic accident on their way to the border from Kathmandu. One of the casualties was a relative of Father Paul Chemparathy, SJ. I was requested to make arrangements for the body to be taken from Janakpur hospital in West Nepal to Siliguri, India. In order to send the body to Kerala by flight we approached the Gayaganga hospital in Siliguri for their help. Though we had the permission from the Indian embassy to take the body to Siliguri, we could not get an ambulance and so we carried it on the top of our jeep. Since it is a taboo for people in Nepal to touch the dead, Gracy Mlakuzhiyil, SCN and I had to lift the heavy body to the top of our jeep. In the night, we drove slowly for eight hours in heavy rain. We were afraid that the roof of the jeep would collapse at any time with the weight of the body. By 7.00 am we reached the border of India which opens only at 8.30 am and they would not allow us to go across. So we called the Indian embassy in Kathmandu to help us. After completing all the formalities, we drove back to Dharan and to our bad luck, we had a flat tire on the way and we reached home only by 9.00 pm. Though tired, we felt privileged to have undertaken such a difficult task. I experienced God’s protection and providence all along. I believe that when we reach out to others, God surprises us beyond our imagination.
Our ministries to the poor and marginalized were supported by small funding agencies. The poverty of the people moved me to do everything possible for them. Creativity and imagination played a great role. I also learned how to treat chronic illnesses successfully using Dr. Sahani’s Hair Therapy (Drug Energy Transmission from a Distance). I served the people of Dharan till October 2003.
As there was a need for a qualified SCN tutor in the nursing school of Kurji Holy Family Hospital (KHFH) in Patna, I was asked to join the staff there in November 2003. I was happy to be in Patna as the Medical Mission Sisters and we have been working in partnership since August 2000. The administrator, Sister Joan Matheikal, MMS, introduced me to the MMS and SCN ‘focus group’ which met regularly to share views and communicated matters to the administration as to how to nurture and foster the new venture of partnership. I was delighted to teach the nursing students on Community Health Nursing and to accompany them for field experience to the slums around Patna. Once a year, I took the students to the Community Health Centre in Maner, for a one-month experience. Though Indian Nursing Council and the Mid-India Board had made community health nursing as a requirement in their syllabus, the nursing students were afraid to reach out to the needy who lived in unsafe situations and the communication facilities in the villages were poor.
Teaching has been one of my passions and I enjoyed teaching subjects like Nursing Education, Geriatric Nursing and Sociology. Whenever possible, I spent extra time with weak students. I remember Veronica Maria (Ora Mae Brownfield), SCN, telling us when we were students that a nurse is always a teacher. As it was time for me to retire, I left the Nursing School in April 2008. I attended a short renewal program in Bangalore and also participated in the General Assembly in the summer there.
After Sister Elsa Ezhaparambil, SCN, was transferred to Khorimahua in 2007 there was no Sister in the dispensary for a year in Gumla. In August 2008, I volunteered to be in Gumla to revitalize the health care there. I invited the previous health workers to work with us again and with their help I made a study of the health needs of the people in far-flung villages. The people were very happy that once again we were there for them. I applied for the SCN Ministry Fund to begin various programs such as herbal home remedies for ordinary illnesses, school health programs in government schools, nutrition education programs and literacy classes for women. As I was working there I began to develop arthritis and both of my knees were affected. As a remedy, I took Ayurveda treatment in Kerala for a month which was helpful. I continued to teach the students in the Health Assistant program of Deepanjali Community College. In a year’s time, my illness became more severe and I had to leave.
In 2010, I was appointed to work in the Archives in Mokama which was a less strenuous job. In the Archives, I was with Mary Chackalackal, SCN, for a year to familiarise myself with the work. I took charge of the Convent library and the archives from August 2011. Sarita Xalxo is my clerical helper in the archives. I help the Sisters, novices and students to do research work in the library and the archives. I communicate with the central archives personnel at Nazareth, KY to get regular updates. I am very happy to be working in this department for the future of our province and Congregation. I also have a small herbal garden with many medicinal plants from which I prepare medicines and tonics for cold, cough and other minor ailments.
Joel Urumpil, Karuna Thottumarickal, Lucia Thuluvanickel, Rosemarie Lakra and Teresa Xavier Ponnazhath and I are the golden jubilarians of July 2018. In preparation for our jubilee we had a very fruitful four-day awareness building workshop given by Father Mathew Chemplany, SJ in July 2017. In gratitude for the many blessings of the past fifty years, we organized a community Mass followed by an agape for all the Sisters in the campus.
Living with our pioneer Sisters from the USA I had the privilege of learning much from them especially from Sisters Mary Jude, Ora Mae, Mary Francis Sauer, Patricia (Pat) Mary, Teresa Rose and others. Their sacrifice, missionary zeal, gentleness and spiritual richness have inspired me and helped me to grow. Teresa Rose was my mentor all along and I have no words to express my gratitude for her walking with me spiritually and sharing in my struggles of personal life and community. She always encouraged me to pull on my strength to continue my life journey with a positive attitude.
I am very proud of our community and happy to be an SCN. I believe that ours is the “best community” as Father Philip Poovattil had told me earlier. My community has given me sufficient freedom to be what I am in whatever ministry I was in. I am happy that after Vatican II we have made an effort to adapt our life style according to our Indian culture.
Weaving the loose threads of my life is a challenge now as I revitalize my commitment to God and community. I also feel that I can be an example to the younger ones by being faithful to my prayer life, my ministry and life in community. Religious life has been a blessing for me. The little of me that I have given freely, God in turn has blessed me abundantly through my community.
Maria Palathingal, SCN
Consent given to publish the story on August 25, 2017