I was born in Kannady, Alleppy District, Kerala on June 21, 1942 to late John Kuriakose and Mariamma Kuriakose Puthenkalam as the sixth of eight children – four brothers and four sisters – a well-balanced crew at that! I was baptized Rita owing to my father’s special devotion to St. Rita which he developed after reading the saint’s biography. My parents came from middle class staunch Syrian Catholic families, respected and looked up to in their neighborhoods. My father’s only brother was a Jesuit and one of my maternal uncles was also a Jesuit. My mother was the only daughter to her parents. So, the eight of us, a happy energetic bunch grew up as the darlings of both my paternal and maternal grandparents.
My father was a matriculation graduate and my mother was educated up to Class V. Having a large family my parents had their financial constraints. However, we children grew up blissfully ignorant of their financial worries. My father was a businessman, a contractor for building roads and a bank employee consecutively. Joseph, my eldest brother, joined the Congregation of the Salesians of Don Bosco after his matriculation. John, next in line, completed his bachelor’s degree at St. Joseph’s College, Trichy, Tamil Nadu and became a railway officer eventually. My two elder sisters after him did not complete their matriculation due to laziness and illness respectively. They embraced married life. Frances, after them, completed his engineering course and secured a job as a railway officer. My younger brother, Sebastian, was paralyzed from the waist down due to a polio attack when he was age four. It saddened all of us to see him struck down so. With continued prayer and timely treatment he was able to walk within six months though with a limp. By the grace of our loving God he was able to complete his MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine-Bachelor of Surgery) studies and later on set up a small hospital of his own. My youngest sister, Aneyamma was married after completing her Bachelor of Arts. My father died at the age of seventy-one and mother at the age of eighty-four.
Though part of an eight-some crew my early memories are centered around the younger four siblings as the others were already out of home turf in my growing years. We, the younger ones, had plenty of fun growing up – playing, teasing, fighting and caring for one another. We had our own nicknames for each one – I was frequently called, “six-finger girl”. Little did I know the reason for it until I learned from my mother that I was indeed born with six fingers on each hand. My grandmother tied a bit of hair to the unwanted appendages and got rid of those in my early days. Our home being in the backwater area we had canals all through our property. Playing in the water especially in the summer was a real pastime for us. Evening family prayer was a special time for us when the whole family gathered around the family altar that had eight large framed pictures besides the picture of the Sacred Heart. They were the pictures of each of our patron saint. On most of the Sundays after lunch my father would tell us stories from their biographies. Our family bookshelf had biographies of these saints besides other books and copies of religious magazines. So, I developed a reading habit early in life.
My primary school teachers were Franciscan Clarist Sisters close to our home. I have fond memories of how we – my friends and I – endeared ourselves to these Sisters. High school was run by Carmelite Sisters. Being short I always sat on the first bench – an added incentive to behave well to get the attention of the teachers. I remember vividly how at home we used to be woken up in the wee hours of the morning to study and on holidays to go for daily Mass. These morning trips to the church with my friends were wonderful occasions to have lots of fun like breaking into the neighbours’ fruit gardens along the way. During the holidays we, friends, used to make visits to the Franciscan Clarists with whom we were quite friendly. These visits were also to satisfy our curiosity about Convent life. All except two of these friends of mine embraced religious life.
The day I got my result of SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) examination was a day of special rejoicing for my mother and father as my two elder sisters did not complete their matriculation. As for me it was like arriving at my life’s purpose – of becoming eligible to start the process to become a missionary. The family’s devotional practices, the example of my parents and that of my Jesuit uncles and my eldest brother who was a loyal and devoted Salesian by then studying theology in Rome, my contact with the Clarist and Carmelite Sisters in the school – all added to the spirit of the day that encouraged and upheld missionary and religious life. These factors certainly contributed to my early (as early as Class VIII) desire and decision to become a missionary. My parents considered it a special grace that one of their daughters desired to become a missionary. Where exactly to join was a real dilemma for me. I kept my secret desire from everyone except my brother. He, being a Salesian, advised me to join the Salesian Sisters. Having no choice of my own I went along with my brother’s suggestion and accordingly my father accompanied me to Madras, to the Provincialate of the Salesian Sisters. They welcomed my very happily and I was their aspirant for about four months. My experiences of these months are very blurred in my mind except that of going through a constant nagging uneasy feeling coupled with an inability to digest food due to nausea. The Superior informed my father that I was not keeping well and my father came and took me home. The Superior also gave me a letter of introduction to any other Congregation that I may want to join in the future stating that in her judgment I did have a vocation, though not to the Salesian Congregation. I stayed home with my parents for a few months. My parents at this time wondered if my vocation was to married life and asked me seriously if I would like to get married. I firmly refused such a suggestion; yet I still did not know to which Congregation God was calling me. I kept praying to Jesus and to Our Lady to show me the way.
Then one fine day it was my brother, John, who was working as a railway officer in Chitteranjan, just a few hours of train journey from Mokama, who happened to see in the newspaper an advertisement by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth from Mokama inviting girls who wish to become missionaries to meet them at the places mentioned. Knowing my insistence on becoming a missionary, he showed the advertisement to mother and told her that he knew Mokama Railway Junction. That did the trick! Mother felt comfortable about my going to see the Sisters for an interview since John could bring me back home in case I did not fit in or did not want to stay in the convent. John accompanied me to see the Sisters and acted as my spokesperson since I did not know enough English to converse with them. At first sight itself I liked the Sisters and everything about them, their habit – especially the collar! It was also decided that John would travel with us. Saying good-bye to my grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters was really very hard. As the train was about to leave my father kept asking our Sisters, Sister Mary Martha (Dr. Wiss) and Sister Crescentia Wise, to please take care of his little girl. The Sisters came and repeated his words to all the other Sisters in Mokama and they used to teasingly remind me of it for many years.
I remember the warm joyful welcome we received from the Sisters in Mokama – especially Sister Patricia Mary Kelley’s warm welcome embrace. I liked her at first sight! I felt very happy all over and felt that it was good for me to be here. During those years, the candidacy was at Nazareth Academy, Gaya. Hence, after a few days at Mokama, Sister Patricia Mary, the Candidate Directress, accompanied us to Gaya. After another round of welcome there we were shown Bertrand Hall as our new “home”.
I started my candidacy on the 20th of September 1960. Getting used to the newness of everything – place, people, language, customs and food kept us occupied. I enjoyed all the classes. On the 6th of January 1961 to my surprise I was told to join the senior candidates to become a postulant – so after three months of candidacy back to Mokama I travelled with Patricia and the others!
We were thirteen in our group – the biggest number so far to enter the postulancy and the fifth novitiate group. We were also among the privileged ones to inaugurate the present Nazareth Convent building at Mokama. Being the two youngest in our group, Mary Jose (Josephine who later left the Congregation) and I were to share the pew with Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman, our novice mistress. To Lawrencetta’s consternation the two of us would break into muffled giggles for the silliest reasons. Learning to keep silence (sacred silence, ordinary silence) was indeed a real task.
Of the thirteen who entered as postulants only eight of us received the habit and started our novitiate on the 21st of December 1961. My first eight-day retreat was made in preparation for the entrance to the novitiate. The cutting of hair the night before entrance to the novitiate was hard but a firm step towards saying a more complete ‘yes’ to becoming an SCN. I was given the name Josepha – one of the three choices I had given. Two of my brothers and family came to be with me on that day. I got used to doing manual work during my formation years since I hardly did any serious work at home though we siblings each had our bit of chores to do at home. We, the novices and postulants, did all the cleaning of the whole Nazareth Convent building; only later did we get hired help in order to give us sufficient time to free us for classes in English, and other subjects like theology, scripture, etc.
The novitiate years passed smoothly and happily with lots of learning, fun and laughter. My brother John came to see me rather regularly to see how I was fairing and in his words, if I had enough of the convent life!! Though I copied down the notes of the older novices very faithfully, the theology classes by the erudite Jesuit were way above me! I made my first vows as a Sister of Charity of Nazareth on 21st December 1963 into the hands of Mother Lucille Russell, then Mother of the Congregation. My final profession was on December 21st, 1968. There was no tertian-ship or any other special preparation prior to it except the usual annual eight-day retreat. My brother John and family came to be with me on all my ‘special’ days.
Studies and Ministry
After our first profession our group joined our seniors at St. Xavier’s School, Mokama to help out there under the guidance of Sister Patricia Mary Kelley. Though I was a real amateur in the English language, I was given the assignment to teach English and singing to the P.T.S. (Preliminary Training Students) nursing students at Nazareth Hospital, Mokama. In fear and trembling, I obeyed. In retrospect, I see that it was a very good experience to face an adult group. In June 1964, Sister Caritas Pamplaniel (now Mary Joseph), a trained nurse, and I were sent to Mater Dei Institute in Old Goa for two years to study Scripture and theology. It was during those years that I came to understand, enjoy and love the Word of God. I also remember enjoying Church History, Dogmatic Theology and everything that was taught to us. Our professors came from the Jesuit theologate, Pune or persons of that caliber and scholarship. Our Dogmatic Theology professor was at Vatican II. So, we were lucky to get Vatican II thinking of the Church on all topics. To this day, I value and cherish my experience at Mater Dei as a broadening and deepening experience in my understanding of theology, scripture, ecclesiology, etc. To top it all, we were from about twenty-three congregations in India – a really enriching group.
After my graduation from Mater Dei Institute, I was assigned to teach scripture and English in the novitiate. The first group of novices I taught were all professionally qualified persons – five full-fledged nurses and one trained teacher who was working as a headmistress before she joined the novitiate! And I had not yet seen the portals of a college! Nevertheless, I consider it as the queen of all my ministry experiences to this day! The group being matured young women deeply interested in scripture, we had a wonderful time together learning. Several of them have told me some time or the other that I helped them to fall in love with scripture. We built a replica of the Holy Land on the ground on the western side of the novitiate building – complete with cemented demarcation of the River Jordan, Sea of Galilee and all the important places of Palestine at the time of Jesus. It was indeed a show piece where visitors were proudly shown around! But alas! After about ten years someone who could not enter into the sentiments of scripture lovers destroyed it brutally to plant potatoes, at least so I was told when I returned after my studies in pastoral theology in Manila, Philippines!
After two years of teaching in the novitiate I was sent to St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi to do my Bachelor of Arts Honours in English Literature. Another enriching experience – here, too because of my excellent English professors, I fell in love with English literature. I did my professors proud by securing the first rank in the University, which the College was not given for several years.
I was assigned to Mokama once again to continue teaching in the novitiate, this time with the added responsibility of being the administrator and superior of Nazareth Convent community, Mokama. Having several older Sisters in the community made me very nervous and reluctant to say ‘yes’ to the latter. However, the encouragement of Sister Teresa Rose Nabholz and Sister Pat Kelley helped me to accept it and take it up with courage. I also taught scripture classes for the Catechists. My next assignment was to be in charge at Nazareth Convent, Ranchi where there were Junior Sisters and candidates – all studying in Nirmala College, Ranchi. I remember this time with the student junior Sisters and candidates as a very trying time for me. Several of them in my assessment did not have a religious vocation. And my gut feeling proved true as one by one was asked to discontinue or decided on their own to abandon the idea of becoming an SCN.
In 1975 I was asked to do a Bachelor of Theology in De Nobili, Pune or Regina Mundi, Rome. Not foreseeing the importance and need for doing theology, I decided to go along with the second choice given for the discernment – i.e. to go to Manila, East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI) to do Masters in Pastoral Theology – a decision I regret to this day. EAPI had students from most of the East Asian countries – a real multi-cultural group. It was another enriching experience from the point of view of the opportunity of interacting and studying with religious and laity from those cultures. I returned to India to do research on my thesis topic – a requirement to get my Master’s degree in Pastoral theology. My thesis was on “Chamar Marriage Customs, Rituals and their Meaning”. I completed the thesis but did not return to Manila to submit and defend my thesis. After completing my thesis I continued teaching in the Novitiate.
Up to this time with the exception of my student years, my ministry was confined to SCN set up at Nazareth Convent and Novitiate. Hence, I felt the need to be out of the closed-in formation set up and launch out into where the ordinary people are. Accordingly, after getting the required teaching experience in Chatra and Gaya school, I did my bachelor’s degree course in Education. In 1983, I was assigned with Junior Sisters Latika Kottuppillil and Abha Beck to initiate SCN ministry and mission in Barauni. There we had to be very cautious, prudent and discreet to tide over the process of taking over the administration of a school which was administered and managed by the village untrained teachers. It was not easy to say the least.
In 1986, I was appointed as full time Vocation Director which I did for five and a half years. I did my masters in English literature privately during the last year. After teaching about three years in a Jesuit Junior College, I was assigned to Nazareth Academy plus two section. Though I enjoyed it much, after a couple years of teaching there I felt an inner urge once again to launch out – this time to where the educationally deprived children are. I obtained permission from the Province Council to teach part time at Nazareth Academy along with reaching out to the illiterate children in the nearby villages. Finding a place to gather the children in the village set-up was a herculean task. We had to gather children, often in the cow sheds, to teach them the three R’s. I felt privileged to be part of the struggles of the people. During those years I was also the Province Coordinator of Education. I made it a point to motivate and convince all our schools to start some outreach ministry in the villages around our schools.
Initiating and coordinating the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Associate (SCNA) program fell to me for a few years. This was a very difficult responsibility since I doubted if our people, who were struggling to make ends meet to provide for their families would respond to our need to have SCNAs. In my observation, those who could afford the time and means and had the mind for it were already doing more than their share in the social and pastoral fields. In spite of all my misgivings, I did initiate a few SCNA groups in a few places besides formulating and getting a brochure for SCNA printed for those who may be interested in using it in the future.
Ministry with the Jesuits
My first experience of working with the Jesuits was at Mahuadanr in St. Joseph’s Junior College. This was my first experience of living in a the midst of tribal communities. I learned much by being part of the Jesuit group who were fully acculturated to the ways of the tribal communities. My second involvement with the Jesuits was being part of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to work among the Bhutanese refugees settled in the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) camps in Nepal. JRS took up the formal education of the refugee children up to Class X. My responsibility was to be the resource teacher for training English teachers for high school level and to be the Examination Manager for board examinations conducted by the Nepal Education Board. My third experience of working with the Jesuits was at the Regional Pastoral Centre, Patna for Faith Formation of Catechists and for conducting renewal programs for men and women religious and religious formators. Here from the first year itself I developed a keen interest in reading up on feminist movements and feminist spirituality and developed a course on Feminist Spirituality for the groups who came to Navajyoti Niketan. Later on, the course came in handy for groups of women religious in other spirituality centers and novitiates. I have learnt a lot and treasure these experiences of working with and being part of the Jesuit communities of various Provinces.
With my background of reading up on feminist theological thinking and coming into close contact with several feminist theologians and in keeping with our own SCN thinking and conversation on using inclusive language in our prayers, I was inspired and urged from within to compile and edit a prayer book, titled, ‘Contemplate the Heart of God’, for the use of Patna and Bangalore Provinces – not just in inclusive language, but also in inclusive contemporary Indian spirituality for us as Indian SCNs. I am happy that it has become the SCN prayer book in India and Nepal and that it has been shared with SCNs of the Western Province as well.
Contemplate the Heart of God
My experience of conducting courses for the various groups at Navajyoti Niketan and other places has been a good preparation for me to carry on my responsibility of being the On-Going Formation Coordinator from 2006. At present I am in a two-some intercultural and inter-generational community in a new cultural and language set up. I feel we energize one another as we ensure vibrant SCN presence and compassionate ministry to the mentally challenged children in Crawford, Trichy.
Looking Back and Forward…
One of the experiences that I treasure and one that has helped me to deepen my understanding of prayer more than any other was making a Vipassana retreat – a ten-day Buddhist rigorous meditation exercise of sitting still for almost ten hours a day observing one’s breath and body sensations with short breaks in between.
I am grateful to my God whom I have come to understand as Mother and Father, for my family – my parents, uncles, all my brothers and sisters whose love and exemplary lives helped me to respond to my SCN vocation. I am also happy to have had the opportunities to visit Nazareth, giving me the opportunity to be at the Motherhouse and be with our Sisters of the Western Province and to visit all the historical places of our Congregation. I feel happy and privileged to have had the opportunities to be in community with various congregations and cultures from my younger years as an SCN. In spite of some of the mistakes I have made in the past, now at this stage of my life, I feel happy, grateful, contented and serene as I look back upon my life as an SCN for the past fifty-six to fifty-nine years. I cherish my SCN friends – young and old – with whom I enjoy sharing my spirituality, joys and struggles.
I love my Sisters deeply and I hope and pray that we grow deeper and deeper into being rooted in God, and be women who are deeply concerned about our less fortunate sisters and brothers. My earnest desire is that we be women who can see with the heart and that we allow our spirituality to be shaped by those living on the margins.
Rita Puthenkalam, SCN