Born on October 29, 1946, in Poonjar I was baptized as Aleykutty on November 11, 1946. My nickname is Achamma. My father, Thomas Vayalipara, was the eldest of five children. His father died at a young age due to illness. Thus he became the head of his family and had to see to the education and marriage of all the children. My youngest uncle, Sebastian Vayalipara, became a priest in the Congregation of the Salesians of Don Bosco, (SDB) in the year 1963. My mother, Aleykutty, belonged to the Vettickal family in Peruvanthanam. She, too, was the eldest of seven children. When I was four years old my father bought a small property and gave the ancestral house and property to my uncle. My parents sent me to “Kalari” (old model of kindergarten) when I was four years old. My teacher was a man who taught us with great patience and love. He wrote all the letters of the Malayalam alphabet and the numbers on dry palm leaves. Whenever I got a new leaf with more lessons I was very proud and happy. When I graduated from Kalari my parents gave a party for my classmates and the teacher was given a gift (guru dakshina). Guru dakshina is a gift as a mark of respect for the teacher (guru). It can be either in kind or in cash.
My father had financial difficulties as he had to get his two sisters married and educate his two brothers. He moved to Vallakadave in High Range for acquiring more land and better prospects. After a couple of years, my mother, too, went to be with him along with my younger sister, Girijamma and brother, Thankachan (Thomas). They left me with my uncle and aunt. My paternal aunt, Annamma, who was a high school student at the time, was very kind, loving, thoughtful and a devoted person. Her life has been a great influence on my life. I studied in the parish school till Class V. Then I joined a school run by the Clarist nuns. The school was far but I enjoyed walking with my companions. I used to tie up grass plants on the way to let my friends know that I had already gone to school. They, in turn, did the same for me. This period of my life was the beginning of learning English, developing leadership skills in the classroom as a monitor and taking interest in extra-curricular activities. I was good at games and my companions always wanted me on their team. Later on, I was able to compete with the boys (cousins and uncles). I looked forward to being with my parents in Vallakadave during the summer vacation. When I passed Class VI in 1958, though I had enjoyed my school and the teachers, I refused to go back to school since I missed my parents so much. I lost one or two years till there was Class VII in Kattappana where my parents and younger siblings lived. Thus, I became a student of St George’s High School, which belonged to the Kattappana Church. I was elected school secretary in high school. I won many prizes in sports and became the school champion!
As a young student I became interested in reading books and magazines. This is how I came to know about the work of missionaries in North India and how they help the people to live a better life. I became very active in the parish along with my friends. The parish priest guided us in all our activities. Participating in the evening prayer was a very important part of our family tradition. My grandmother fasted three days a week. She rose very early in the morning to pray. Besides the days of obligation, she went for Mass whenever possible. One of my maternal grand uncles would keep his folded shirt under his arm; hold an old type palm umbrella to go to church daily. He would put the shirt on before reaching the church and take it off after the Mass. He was a holy man and his devotion somehow inspired me.
My father had a shop in Kattappana town and he would find stranded youth looking for work. They came from faraway places and had no one to help them. He would give them shelter at our house. He was very compassionate. I still remember a song he frequently sang in Malayalam, “Those who do good deeds in this world will find happiness in the next.” Whenever my mother travelled she carried some change to give to the beggars whom she would meet on the way. She was a very happy person, caring for everyone. She was very generous and she never refused food for any needy person. She went out of her way to help her sisters, brothers, my uncles and aunts when needed. My maternal grandmother was a very bright person who could remember everything she ever heard or read. I tried to imitate her but never succeeded. Another person who influenced me was my priest uncle, Father Sebastian, SDB, who was in Assam at the time. He was a holy person who accompanied me till his death on March 27, 2010. These events and people influenced me to become a missionary.
I lived in a remote area and was not able to contact any Congregations outside of Kerala and the convents in Kerala did not attract me much. After passing my matriculation in May 1965, I expressed my desire to join a convent. My father took me to the Mission Home in Palai. Father Vellaringatt was in-charge of vocation promotion. When we talked to him about my desire to join a missionary Congregation he said, “If you were a boy I would have taken you right away, but do not worry, I shall write to some Congregations in North India and you will be welcomed.” Sure enough, a letter arrived from Mokama within two weeks informing me about the arrival of SCNs Thomasine Kottoor and Mary Celeste (Gail) Collins for vocation promotion in Kerala in the first week of September 1965. They asked me to meet them at the Mission Home in Palai. On September 11, 1965, Achamma Thadathil and I made the long and adventurous trip to Mokama with the two Sisters Thomasine and Mary Celeste. We were put in the second class compartment and the Sisters travelled in the third class. Along the way, the train became rather empty and we were pestered by a man and we were frightened. Both of us held our umbrellas in hand to beat him if he touched us. When we arrived at the next station the Sisters came to check on us. When we narrated our story one of them stayed back with us in the same compartment till Mokama. When we arrived in Mokama on September 16, 1965, we were welcomed by the Sisters and candidates. I felt that through the Mission Home, Palai, God has called me to the right place.
We were told to speak English from the beginning. Though I was determined to learn to speak English, for two weeks I hardly spoke much to anyone and kept listening to everyone. Gradually I became confident enough to speak English. Sister Mary Celeste was our candidate director. She was very strict but a good teacher and guide. Our older Sisters Lawrencetta Veeneman, Patricia Mary Kelley, Mary Jude Howard, Teresa Rose Nabholz and others working at the hospital were an inspiration to me in various ways. They adjusted to our culture and worked very hard in mission and also in forming us and making us good missionaries.
I entered the postulancy on July 18, 1966 and entered novitiate July 2, 1967. My companions were Achamma (Agnes) Thadathil, Pauline (Chinnamma) Paraplackal, Stella (Mary) Kaiprampatt, Bridget (Reethamma) Vadakeattam and Vandana (Thresiakutty) Vellaringatt. As novices we took care of the village children while their mothers attended Sunday Mass. The villagers brought all their little possessions such as chickens, kids, etc. to the church out of fear of theft. The children were very dirty and shabbily dressed. They had no proper clothing, smelt of urine and animals. I wondered when they might have had a bath. Their huts were very small. Many of the people and their animals lived in the same hut. Their living condition was very pathetic. These situations made an imprint on my mind which would later on impel me to work among the marginalized.
As a novice I was sent to Nazareth Academy, Gaya for mission experience. I have always wanted to be a teacher. This is where my ability to teach began to take shape. My role models were my two high school teachers of Mathematics and Malayalam in Kerala. I made my First Vows on July 2, 1969. Immediately after the First Vows I took admission at St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi for pre-university studies in Science.
I left for USA for studies in June 1970 with Cassilda Castell, SCN. My English was not up to the mark. I found it difficult to follow and understand those who spoke fast. The Sisters were extremely kind and I found them very hard working in spite of their age. I was at Nazareth College for one year. When the college shifted to Louisville, I went to live at St. Agnes Convent in Louisville. While I was there, my father expired on July 19, 1973 and I came to know about it through a letter from my uncle after two weeks since communication was very difficult in those days. I was terribly grief-stricken. The Sisters were very understanding and kind. I am grateful to all the Sisters who supported me during that time of grief. I can never forget Luke Boiarski, SCN who cared for me very specially throughout my stay there. During the holidays, Sisters would go home or to other places. Sister Luke made sure that I too enjoyed these holidays – taking me to her home or arranging an outing.
After my father’s death, the leaders of the Congregation allowed me to go home to be with my mother. When I reached home, I found my mother inconsolable and helpless caring for the two younger ones. So I kept on staying home undecided about my return to the convent. There was no way of communicating to the Sisters except through letters and I failed to inform about my home condition. After a couple of months, my mother allowed me to go back to Mokama. In the meantime, Sister Teresa Rose Nabholz had asked Celine Arackathottam, SCN, to find out about me. My home was in a remote area without proper roads. Sister Celine somehow reached my home two days after I left for Mokama.
For two years, I lived with Sister Joan Ellen Cregg and Mary Ninette Manning. They made a lasting impression on my mind. Their thoughtfulness, kindness, hard work, prayer life and dedication have inspired me to be a mission oriented SCN. After my studies at Spalding College, I was posted at Gaya in September 1975 as a Mathematics and Science teacher. I made my final vows on June 13, 1976. I taught there for eight years. Those were my golden years as a teacher. I enjoyed the community life, loved teaching the energetic youth as well as participating in their games after school hours. SCNs Anne Marie Thayilchirayil and Ann George Mukalel were my principals. They were examples of hard work, sincerity, simplicity, dedication and commitment. Sister Ann George is my mentor and I have learnt so much from her. James Leo Goldsborough, SCN, was a bundle of activity and determination. With her limited knowledge of Hindi she would manage and get all the work done in the school. “Jaldi, Jaldi” (quick, quick) was her catchphrase. Eugenia Muething, SCN, was a person of compassion, kindness and love. She dealt with the poor and the rich, equally. I still remember them both.
After eight years of teaching, I felt I needed a change from the routine work of teaching at Nazareth Academy. I was sent to Australia for a six-month spirituality course in July 1983. On my return, I was appointed pre-novice director in Mokama from October 1983. When the candidacy program was shifted to Ranchi in June 1984, I was asked to be the director of candidates there. That year we had twenty-nine candidates. I was alone with no other Sister to help me with the teaching. Alice Chirackanal, SCN, administrator, helped me in many ways. I got a local person to teach the candidates English and Hindi. The priests of St. Albert’s College were very helpful.
I was transferred from Ranchi in January 1987. I helped with the vocation promotion of the province. In the 1980’s there was a thrust for radical mission. I felt this was my call. After working with the candidates for three years, I was sent to Hunterganj for a four-month immersion experience in the villages. From September 1987 to August 1988, I attended the ‘Social Analysis’ course at the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore. My desire to work among the under-privileged, moved me to volunteer for Ararghat mission in Madhepura (now known as Shapur), where Rose Plathottathil, SCN, was the pioneer. So in August 1988, I took the adventurous trip to Madhepura. We, Sisters Rose, Bridget Vadakeattam and I lived in the cow shed of the Murmu family. The one-room hut made of mud and bamboos was polished with fresh cow-dung for us. There was one chowki (wooden bed) for us to use. The house was extended to have a very small veranda, an angan (courtyard) and a tiny kitchen. A tube well was dug under a kadam tree close to the house and the road. A grass fence was built around it for privacy. This was our bathing and washing area. One day, when I was bathing, I could see two eyes watching me through a hole made in the grass fence. I took a mug of water and threw it at the person. I used to sleep on the veranda (open roofed-porch) on a cot made of bamboos and strings. One day when I opened my bedding there was a mother rat and three baby rats comfortably resting on my bed. I became angry, picked up the little ones and threw them out into the corn field. I could hear them crying as I walked away. Afterwards I felt very sorry for my cruelty.
People were very poor and sometimes they managed with one meal a day. As I visited the families the youth and the children became my friends. I applied for the Training of Rural Youth for Self Employment (TRYSEM) project and Indira Awas, (government housing project). Since we were not known to the district officials they were not willing to give us any project. I did not give up my pursuit. I became a regular visitor to the government office. Many times they ignored me. But finally, they granted me the projects for Tailoring and Indira Awas. I signed myself as the tailoring teacher in the application and became the teacher for the young girls who came to learn tailoring. The youth helped me in building the Indira Awas. Several tube-wells also were granted for the village. I trained many groups of girls in tailoring. I was known as Sunita Didi (elder sister) or tailor master. Arjun Murmu, Devlal Marandi and some other youth became my guardians. They would advise me regarding the places of safety. Sometimes one of them would accompany me to the government office. The modes of travel to the offices or other places were tractors, bullock-carts or occasionally buses. Whenever I returned from the office, it would be late and I would be hungry and tired. Mr. Mohan Murmu’s daughter, Talamoi, who would spot me and tell me, “Didi come, I have food for you.” I used to enjoy the cold rice and dal (pulses cooked in water) she served. I can never forget her kindness, love, and thoughtfulness. That family and a few others became my family.
Our hut was always damp because of the low mud flooring and the mud wall. May be, due to the dampness, I became paralyzed from hip down on the right side in 1992. My body was swollen up and joints were aching. The pain was excruciating and I did not allow anyone to touch me. No medical facility or doctor was available in Ararghat. For a week, I hopped on one leg with the help of a stick. The villagers made a concoction with red pepper and medicinal roots. I applied it on the swollen parts of the body and sat in the sun, as instructed. The burning from the medicine was too much that I did not apply it a second time; instead I took some Homeo treatment from the nearby town, Saharsa. I faced the same situation as the villagers when they got sick. From then on, I was not able to walk around visiting the families. I would get awfully tired within half an hour of walk. Thus after five years of life in the village, I decided to leave the place for treatment in July 1992 for a six-month Ayurveda treatment at Mata Hospital, Palai. I loved the people and my work. In the village, I learnt to be compassionate, understood the struggles of the people and learnt to live a simple life. The day I was leaving the village, most of the villagers gathered in front of our hut. They made garlands out of leaves placing rupee notes in between. It was one of the hardest farewells I ever had. Some of them were crying and I too could not control my tears. Thus I left the village in March 1993. My life with the villagers taught me to trust in God, at all times.
After the treatment and rest I was sent to Nazareth Primary School, Vasai, as Principal and Administrator in March 1993. The school was only one year old. Sarita Manavalan, SCN, provincial, told me, “You can work half day, rest and recuperate during the other half”. I found no time to rest with all the work that had to be done for the new school. I had to get the opening permission for the school which required many trips to the education office. I applied for recognition of the school up to Class IV. The papers had to be passed through five different offices at various locations and I had to make many trips even up to Nasik, a 165 kilometer distance. Finally, recognition was granted up to Class IV during my first year in the school.
When my mother’s health became serious I was working on the recognition of the Vasai School. I had to visit various government offices and I could not go home to be with my mother. I took a few days leave but before I reached home she passed away on July 7, 1995. Three days after the funeral I returned to Vasai.
I was still suffering from rheumatism and continued to take Ayurveda medicines. Gradually, my health improved. I became aware of the healing presence of God in my life. Life in Vasai was not a bed of roses with many ups and downs of life in community and ministry. During those difficult times I even thought of discontinuing religious life but with the grace of God and support and encouragement from my close SCN friends gave me courage to stay on.
In September 1996, I was sent to Dharan, Nepal, as principal of Navjyoti School which was up to Class V, at the time. It was a difficult school to manage. My predecessor had left the school after ten months of her appointment and there was no one to introduce me to the workings of the school. I started out with trembling spirit. Slowly, I became familiar with the functioning of the schools in Dharan. Many heads of other schools helped me in my work. I used to give extra help to NPABSON (Nepal Education Board) in setting up question papers, corrections, evaluations, etc. Our school had to get recognition from the government. I applied for recognition of Classes V to X. Since we were from India, I had to overcome many hurdles. Gradually, many officers of the district education office as well as the regional education office became friendly. They advised me at every step and I was able to get the recognition for the school. Our school was one of the well-known schools of the locality. Many people wanted to admit their children in our school. I loved the students, parents and enjoyed working with them. The first batch of students wrote Class X examination in 2001 and brought good results.
In 2001, I was transferred to Ranchi. I was in-charge of the college-going candidates. Since there wasn’t much work, I was bored and requested for a change. In 2002, I was asked to visit Gumla mission to look for the possibility of establishing a Technical Training Institute. I found the place too far from the town and I felt that it would be difficult to find students. Yet, Teresa Kotturan, SCN, then provincial, asked me to start a technical college. Soon, another floor was added to the Health Center to begin an institute. The institute was named “Deepanjali” and was inaugurated on December 3, 2003. Regular classes started from December 17, 2003. I put my whole heart and mind into the work. Within a year, Deepanjali was affiliated to the Indian Centre for Research and Development of Community Education (ICRDCE), Chennai and became Deepanjali Community College. God inspired me to recruit youth from the deprived sections of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat and even Nepal. At the end of the one year studies, the students became confident and knowledgeable. All got employment in various places and institutions. Some of our students were attending college as they continued their studies at our institute. Thus they became a support to their families and society. Upward mobility is the aim of the community colleges. Many of our students were able to pursue their higher studies by saving their salaries.
In June 2013, I had a fall at the Provincial House, Patna. I went to Kurji Holy Family Hospital, Patna and found out that my left fibula was broken. After getting it plastered, I went to Gumla to rest for two months. When the plaster was opened it was found that my bone was not set properly. It was a shock for me and I thought that I would not be able to walk again. The doctor ordered me to rest for another month. I was saddened and wondered about my future mission as an invalid. My staff and Sisters supported me one hundred percent. When I reached Ranchi, Philomena Kottoor, SCN, the then vice-provincial, told me to get a second opinion. She herself took me to doctor Amit Mukherjee for an x-ray in Ranchi. It was clearly shown that my ankle bones were out of the socket. He said, “It will be very difficult to set these bones after such a long delay”. Yet he operated on me, placing a plate at the right side of the ankle and a rod for the broken bone. God helped me to take all these things patiently. Slowly I started to walk though I had pain in the ankle.
In July 2014, I had to undergo another operation for a tumor on my neck. The tumor, schwannoma, was inside the vegas nerve touching an artery. The operation could be done only at the ‘All India Medical Institute’, New Delhi or Christian Medical College, Vellore. Sister Philomena Kottoor found out that it could also be done at Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bangalore and I opted for Bangalore. Before the operation, doctor Vikram Kakketpure told me because of the complications either I could be paralyzed or I might lose my voice. Though the surgery was successful, I lost my voice, for some time. My voice was like a whisper and people could not understand me.
In May 2015, on a fine Wednesday morning, I was attending Mass at Gumla Church. Then a miracle took place. When the offertory hymn was going on something urged me to join the group in singing. From that moment, I got my voice back and it improved steadily! I thank the Lord for all the difficulties which have come my way and for increasing my faith in the mercy and compassion of God. I thank God for giving me life and energy to continue my mission. I am very grateful to the province leadership team and all my Sisters who cared for me lovingly and supported me in my sickness. I thank God for my doctors who took good care of me through diagnosis and timely advice.
Since I was in Nepal earlier, the leadership asked me to discern to be in mission at Munal Path, Dharan. I arrived at Munal Path on November 6, 2015. I was still weak and was recovering from my operations. My appointment was to form an alumni association at Navjyoti Higher Secondary School. On March 7, 2016, we had the first alumni association gathering with ninety-nine old students. It was a good beginning. Later on, my responsibilities increased. The Nepal Nazareth Society appointed me as the administrator and counselor of the school.
I believe that what is worthwhile in life comes from the heart. Give without counting the cost. Attend to those in need, poor or rich. I wish to receive pardon from all whom I have hurt knowingly or unknowingly. I want to live free, without holding on to any baggage of criticism, negativism, egoism and greed.
It is my firm belief that ‘in all seasons’ SCNs will continue to support the cause of the marginalized, promote justice, peace and harmony in the world.
As religious we live in the hearts of the people among whom we live and minister. Jesus has empowered me with an empathetic heart to understand the other. Listening with love and compassion is the way of life for me. My life is a symbol of prayer and contemplation which is manifested in my gentle dealings with others in community and ministry. I am grateful to God for the innumerable ways the Divine has been revealed to me through nature, people and the universe to give myself completely in love and service to the humanity in need.
Sunita Vayalipara, SCN
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