My life journey began in a large family of seven children, in a village called Olathala, in the district of Alleppey in Kerala. My father was a simple, humble, loving, God-fearing man and was known for his stand for truth and justice. Whenever there was a quarrel, fight, conflict in the village, people took my father’s word as final. He was loved and appreciated by the people for his unconditional and forgiving love. His faith was as strong as a rock. He even had a book of quotations with some passages from the Bible that he showed and explained to us when we quarreled among ourselves. He was so very generous to the extent that he would forgo his own needs. My mother was from Cherthala town and it was hard for her to adjust to the life in the village. She was a very hospitable, kind, loving and a very hard working woman. My parents had deep faith. Of the seven children, the first five were boys: Xavier, Joseph, Jacob, Varghese and Isaac. My parents vowed to St. Theresa of Lisieux, patron of our family, that they would pay for the expenses for her feast day celebrations in our parish church if they would get a girl child. Surely their prayers were answered and I, Thankamma, was born on October 3, 1938, the feast day of St. Theresa. After two years, God blessed them again with twin girls, Celine and Mary. Celine died when she was four years old and Mary was renamed, Mary Celine.
Every morning, my grandmother prayed loudly for the children to join her in prayer. During holidays whenever there was no rain we prayed in the open air at night. After the prayer, lying on the mat we enjoyed watching the stars, clouds and the moon spread so beautifully with different shapes and designs. We believed that all the angels in heaven had spread their mats to go to sleep in the sky above. Those were the happy moments of our being together as a family. As small children, we made garlands and bracelets with lily flowers from our paddy fields to decorate ourselves to play the game of ‘king and queen’. The king and queen were received with great pomp. We enjoyed playing indoor and outdoor games, bathing in the pond as well as in the backwaters. My mother was so particular that we said all the prayers in the evening after the bath. She also made sure that we went to church for daily Mass. All of us enjoyed being together and celebrated life together.
My mother valued education for she herself was an educated woman and she made sure that all her children received a good education. I stayed in my mother’s house for my studies up to Class IV. By then, a Hindu private school was opened close to our place where I studied up to Class X. It was a lot of fun to walk to and from school about six kilometers with my friends and cousins. For the last year of my matriculation, I was sent as a boarder to St. Aloysius High School at Athirampuzha, run by the Adoration Sisters and I passed my final exam in 1956.
My Vocation Story
As a young girl, I had the desire to join a convent and to give my life to the Lord. But at home, everyone wanted me to get married and settle in life. So I kept my desire to myself. All I wanted to do was to complete my college studies so that I could become a religious. After my final year in school I stayed home for a year and God helped me to avoid all the marriage proposals that came for me. Since my brother, Isaac, was studying in Thrissur, I also went for my Intermediate in Arts at St. Mary’s College in Thrissur. Again, I had to struggle to get permission from my parents to complete my B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) in Economics. During my exam time, my family even prayed that I would fail in my exams so that they could get me married soon.
With God’s grace I not only passed my B.A. in 1960, but through my brother, Isaac, who was working in Bangalore I joined a college for my Bachelor in Education (B.Ed.) there. I stayed in a hostel run by the Marthomites, a Christian group from Kerala. I passed my B.Ed. with a first division and I thanked God for making my dream of completing my studies a reality.
I got a teaching job at a Convent School at Pavartti near Thrissur. When I was back home during the Onam (harvest feast of Kerala) holidays a few marriage proposals came which I declined. My parents were very much disturbed by my decision. When it was time for me to return to my job, my father detained me and I was terribly upset. My brother, Joseph pleaded with my father to send me back to the school but he refused. After a few days my father relented and sent me back to the school. In the meantime, my parents became sick and had to be admitted in the Medical College Hospital at Trivandrum. While recuperating in the hospital, my mother wanted to speak to a priest and make her confession. They found Rev. Bernadine, OCD, who was also recuperating in the same hospital. She shared all her pains and sorrows with the priest and requested him to advise me not to join a convent and he agreed to do so. Later when I was informed about my sick parents I went to see them in the hospital. There I met Father Bernadine and when he found out that I had a vocation to religious life he suggested that I join the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Mokama. He gave me the address of Nazareth Convent, Mokama and told me to write to Sisters Lawrencetta Veeneman and Teresa Rose Nabholz. Eventually, my parents got well and returned home and I kept contacting the Sisters in Mokama through letters.
I taught three more years at different schools. When I was the principal of a middle school at Kidangoor near Angamaly Most Reverend Bishop Joseph Parekattil, bishop of Ernakulam Diocese, visited Kidangoor, his home parish. When he came to know that I was interested in becoming a religious, he asked me to join a Syrian congregation in Kerala. Since I was adamant in joining a missionary congregation in North India, he asked me to meet him personally before I would leave for North India.
Three days after my sister, Marykunj’s wedding in 1962 my brother Joseph who was working in Alleppey had a paralytic attack. He was taking care of everything at home and it was a shock for everyone. He had promised me that I could join a convent, only if he could walk again. I prayed earnestly for his healing. To everyone’s relief my brother began to feel better after a year.
Being the president of the staff Sodality I was chosen to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay in December 1964 and I went there with some of my cousins. In the same year, Sister Teresa Rose was in Kerala to recruit girls but I was not allowed to meet her. Then, Sister Teresa Rose wrote me saying that I should meet the two SCNs who would be attending the Congress in Bombay. To my good luck I was able to locate Sisters Mary Joseph Pamplaniel and Rita Puthenkalam from among the big crowd present there. Once again it was a confirmation from God for me to join the SCN Sisters. I also went to Goa for the exposition of the body of St. Francis Xavier at the Basilica of Bom Jesu. There, I made a vow that I would take the name, Xavier and Theresa if I would get permission from my parents to join the convent.
In the following year, Reverend Father Samuel Ryan, SJ gave the teachers in Ernakulam Diocese a one-month course on St. John’s Gospel. I was deeply touched by the Gospel of John and began to understand the Good News of Jesus. I shared with him my desire to become a religious and my family’s opposition. He asked the group to pray for me very specially. It was Father Ryan who helped me to make my final decision to join the SCNs.
Though I was in communication with the Sisters in Mokama my family said that they would not give me the customary dowry to join the convent. By the grace of God, that issue was also settled as I received a letter from Sister Lawrencetta informing me that I could join them without any dowry. My family never imagined that this would happen. At last my parents gave me the permission to leave home and I was grateful to God for the countless blessings that have been mine ever since.
I left home on July 11, 1965 and my parents and brothers gave me more than enough money. My father and three brothers accompanied me to Ernakulam railway station. At the station there were three young candidates to go to Mokama and none of them knew that I too was a candidate. Everyone was in tears as we boarded the train. Since my brother, Isaac and his wife, Jessie, did not have enough time to say goodbye they decided to travel with me up to Thrissur, a station not too far from Ernakulam. Sister Lawrencetta had sent Mary John, a candidate and Mary Paul, a senior nurse to Calcutta to meet us. It was another blessing that they located us somehow in Calcutta. We reached Mokama on the morning of July 16 and it was a great joy to meet Sisters Lawrencetta and Teresa Rose.
We were around sixteen candidates in the group and our candidate director was Sister Mary Celeste (Gail) Collins. In the beginning, it was hard for me to sit behind a desk and be a student once again. I soon realized that I had much to learn about religious life.
Six of us entered the pre-novitiate on December 27, 1965 and we became novices on July 19, 1966. Our novice director was Sister Teresa Rose and we enjoyed our time with her. One of the things that I enjoyed during the novitiate days was our moon-light-walk to the shrine praying, singing and having a lot of fun.
I made my First Vows on July 19, 1968. After six months of juniorate program in Ranchi, my first assignment was to Creane Memorial Hindi medium school, Gaya, a parish school, administered by the SCNs. Sister Theresa Martin Thundyil(who later discontinued) was the principal of the school. She asked me to supervise kindergarten children during their sleep period and sports activities. I was not happy with that kind of work. The community superior, Sister James Leo Goldsborough, came to know that my gifts as a teacher were under-utilized and she wanted me to be moved to Nazareth Academy. Sister Theresa Martin then asked me to teach English in a few classes. The following year, Sister Theresa Martin was transferred and the new principal, Sister Mary Chackalackal was late in coming since her exams were delayed in Ranchi. I took care of the new admissions, prepared the time-table for the whole year and managed the school myself for three months. Sister Mary and I enjoyed working together but a year later Sister Mary was sent for her B.Ed. and I was appointed principal of the school.
I enjoyed visiting the families of the students after school hours. Every year, a new Sister joined the school. We taught special classes for the poor and the weak students and we encouraged the well-to-do parents of the school to contribute towards the fees, books and uniforms of poor students. It was a joy for me to get the children involved in extra-curricular activities. Some of the Bengali parents helped the teachers in preparing the students to put up a dance drama based on the famous poet and noble laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.
One of my painful experiences here was in recovering a kidnapped child of Class I. The boy was kidnapped by his own uncle during school hours with my permission since the kidnapper had brought a letter from the family to take the child with him. The child was the only son of a family with three daughters. We prayed a lot and the police cooperated fully with us to search for the child. After a month, the boy was found in an abandoned house in Jehanabad. It seems that the child was kidnapped because of some enmity between the two brothers.
We had a good local community. Sister James Leo used to organize planned recreations which were lot of fun. She loved the young Sisters. I also developed deep relationships with some of the Sisters. I was inspired by the thoughtfulness of Sister Eugenia Muething and I learnt a lot from her.
I went to Nazareth Vidya Niketan, Chatra, as principal in 1975. I enjoyed teaching the children and working with the staff. The students, mostly Tribals, were extremely good in extra-curricular activities and in sports. I used to ask the students to come early to have supervised study and motivate them to do well in their studies. I encouraged the teachers to trust the abilities of children and develop their talents. The children and the teachers excelled in whatever project we took up. For the first time, we prepared our students to study in bigger schools in Hazaribagh while staying in various hostels. Initially, I visited those students in their schools and the school teachers and the principals were satisfied with our students.
Sister Dorothy MacDougall, SCN, the Education Director from Nazareth, came to visit Chatra, along with Sister Ann George Mukalel in 1977. We organized a music concert for them. It was open for the parents and the public with tickets and was a great success.
An incident that saddened all of us in the school was when one of the boys was electrocuted in the school well. He jumped in to pick up the fallen bath towel of one of his friends.
Life in the community was fun as all of us were young and energetic. We shared a lot about ourselves and our mission. We visited the Catholic families on Sundays.
Ever since I made my First Vows I had been in school administration and had no opportunity for any courses for personal growth. I was given a break in 1979 and I was sent to Gomoh without any particular assignment. Initially, it was hard for me to spend my time without a tight time table or routine to follow. I was in my middle age and I experienced a lot of loneliness. I felt as if I was walking through a lonely tunnel. Slowly, I got involved in the school to help train the teachers and to take part in other school activities. We also visited the people in the nearby villages, the leprosy colony and the leprosy patients at Govindpur hospital. I was part of the team of SCNs Bridget Vadakeattam and Marcelline Indwar in organizing a few sessions with the leprosy patients to help them regain their lost dignity. We mingled with them freely and they felt that they were no more social outcasts. We also conducted a few classes on ‘human values’ for the English Medium students of Digwadi High School. I joined the pastoral team in Gomoh and arranged retreats for the people from time to time. I also spent my time counseling the troubled youth or anyone in need of help. In community, often we had picnics, singing and get-togethers with the priests and others. We had a loving, sharing and peaceful community.
From January 1982 to July 1986, I was appointed as the administrator of Navjyoti Niketan, Patna, the Regional Catechetical Centre of North India. Sisters Pauline Paraplackal and Sabina Mattappallil from Gomoh traveled with me to Patna. When we got off the train in Patna, we forgot to collect my suitcase. Father Joe Knecht, SJ, the director of Navjyoti, had come to take us. Until we reached Navjyoti, we were not aware that my suitcase was missing. Immediately we rushed back to the railway station. To my surprise, the suitcase was kept with the station master. I may have been the first lucky person to get a suitcase back which was lost on the train.
Besides my administrative duties I also had to take care of the accounts. Once a year, we organized a gathering for the senior members of all religious congregations at Navjyoti. For the first time, we also introduced Christmas celebrations for our workers with games, gifts and a good meal. They loved it. Though initially, I resisted my appointment to work with the priests and others I came to enjoy the work. Father Joe became my spiritual guide and he led me closer to God. In time we also became very good friends.
I had a six-month break during which I took a theology course from Vidya Jyoti, Delhi in July 1986. Ann Moyalan, SCN was my faithful companion.
I left for Dharan on February 18, 1987 with Joel Urumpil, SCN. In the beginning, I stayed with a family to learn Nepali language for a month under the guidance of Swayam Prakash. I worked with the women’s groups, overseeing the knitting, sewing and adult education at Navjyoti Centre in Narayan Chowk. Deepti Ponnambel, SCN was my companion. When Sister Deepti went to Bombay for her B. Ed interview, I sprained my foot and people from our neighborhood provided me with food and looked after me for a week.
While in Dharan, Sister Sarita Manavalan asked me to look for a suitable place with enough land for a new school in Dharan. That’s how I found the present Navjyoti school property. Father Anthony Sharma, SJ, the then Vicar General of Nepal, helped me with the purchase and the registration of the land in the Nepal Nazareth Society.
As the old house in Dharan did not have enough space for the mentally challenged children’s school and for the women’s unit, I was asked to look for a new place. Not far from Narayan Chowk, a small property with a house in Tinkune was purchased with the help of Father Sharma and Caritas, Nepal. Sister Preeti Chalil who worked in the English medium school lived with me in the new house. The women’s work was shifted to Tinkune in 1992. I helped many tuberculosis patients to get medicines and took many other patients to the British camp hospital for treatment. Sisters Ann George Mukalel, Agnes Tudu and Mary Manimala remained in the Narayan Chowk house. In October of the same year, Preeti stopped going to the school and together we worked with the women.
On February 13, 1993, I had gone to Kathmandu for the silver jubilee celebration of Roselyn Karakattu, SCN, and Preeti stayed back in Tinkune as she was not well. Sister Preeti was murdered on the same night. On hearing the news of Preeti’s death, I rushed back to Dharan with the Kathmandu Sisters and other SCNs who had come from India for the jubilee celebration. Preeti’s body was kept at the British Camp hospital mortuary. Sister Sarita, Mary Joseph Pamplaniel and Anne Marie Thayilchirayil had travelled with Father Mathew Uzhuthal, parish priest of Mokama to Dharan by jeep. Later, some of us traveled to India with Preeti’s body for burial in Mokama. I had to go back to Dharan to be part of the team for police enquiry. To this day, no one has been charged or arrested for Preeti’s murder.
Sister Roselyn brought a group of trainees from Kathmandu and stayed in Tinkune house for a few weeks. After some time I returned to Patna for a retreat. I thought of asking for a transfer from Tinkune at this time and some of my close friends advised me to stay in Tinkune to face the reality of struggles in one’s life. Sister Mary Juliana Tuti came to be my companion at Tinkune and we continued to work with the women till the end of 1994.
At the request of Father Leo Cachet, SJ, the superior of the Jesuits in Kathmandu, Nepal, I moved to Godavari Ashram as the receptionist on February 18, 1995. I enjoyed having a lot of free time to spend with the people to pray and do some counseling when necessary. I also visited families in the nearby villages where our SCN pioneers in Nepal had worked for the women’s development earlier.
In December 1996 I went to St. Vincent Matriculation School in Trichy and taught there till July 1998. From Trichy I was sent to Kakkavayal, Kerala for pastoral work for three years.
In 2001, I returned to Mokama to take care of the dietary department for a year. For the next two years I helped Sister Mary Chackalackal in the archives-cum-library in Mokama.
From Mokama, I was privileged to go to Kathmandu in preparation for the silver jubilee of our presence in Kathmandu. I stayed on there for five months teaching the differently-abled children and doing the preparation for the jubilee. After the jubilee celebrations I went to Chandapura, Bangalore along with Sophia Kalapurakal, SCN to supervise the construction work at the new house in July 2004. Later, I taught the candidates in the formation house till July 2008.
From July 2008 to 2010, I was in Dharuhera, Gurgaon to supervise the construction work of the new residence for the girls with Pauline Paraplackal, SCN. Family visits were also part of our ministry there.
In 2010, I was back in Bangalore to teach the candidates in the formation. During this time I also was asked to be in Almora for three months in 2011 which I enjoyed very much. I returned to Bangalore to teach in the formation.
I was assigned to Mokama in February 2012 and I have been here since then. I taught in the newly started Nazareth Academy, Mokama for a year and also taught English to the candidates until 2016. I also visited Catholic families in the villages and taught a few poor children during my free time.
From May 2016, I have been in prayer ministry as a resident at Shalom, the retirement home at Nazareth Convent, Mokama. I am reaching out to the people through my prayer.
My Experience of God:
I was drawn to nature as a child and spent a lot of time watching the fish, the birds, the paddy fields, lilies of the field, the stars, the sky, the rain, lightning, the coconut trees in the wind, etc. Since my twin sisters took most of my mothers’ time, nature became my second mother and taught me many things. Gradually, I enjoyed silence. Even now, I can close my eyes and listen to all the sounds of nature.
From my younger days, I was drawn to prayer. I had read the life story of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and I imitated her by doing small sacrifices and penances to save souls for Jesus. In my college days I spent time in the chapel praying, “Soul of Christ, sanctify me” and other prayers to strengthen me in my call to become a religious. I was very faithful to spending time in prayer but I never wanted anyone to see me praying. My prayer consisted of meditating on the mysteries of the rosary without reciting the Hail Mary. Often I stayed at Gethsemane with Jesus for hours and also with Mary at Calvary. Every day, I made the ‘Way of the Cross’ which I continued even after joining the convent in Mokama.
I enjoyed the prayer of silence especially when I was in the novitiate. A word or a sentence from the Bible was enough for me to stay in prayer for a long time.
In 1973, when I was in Gaya, I experienced a sense that I couldn’t pray as I used to which was very difficult for me to understand or accept. I felt that I was at the wrong place and went through a vocation crisis for three years. During this time, I made two retreats with Father Zeits, SJ, as well as with the Jesuit Tertian Master in Hazaribagh. In sharing my difficulties in prayer with them they told me that Jesus was inviting me to enter into the prayer of faith. I just couldn’t let go off my personal style of prayer where I had found comfort, consolation, love and joy. At last in 1977, I made a retreat with Father Joe Knecht, SJ, and he helped me to say ‘Yes’ to the Lord. It was a painful and long spiritual struggle. Though I went for spiritual direction regularly, it was Father Joe Knecht who helped me to be connected with God once again. He was my spiritual director until he passed away in 1999.
In 1979, as I was in Gomoh, I went through a very, very painful and agonizing experience and as I look at it, I could say, God allowed me to walk through the darkest tunnel which I have never experienced before or after. Father Joe Lacey, SJ, director De Britto Centre walked with me on this journey. It was a cleansing and purifying experience which strengthened me to walk with others.
In 1983, I made a retreat with Father Joseph Neuner, SJ and he asked me whether I had received the name by which Jesus calls me. Actually I didn’t believe it and so he showed me the passage from the book of Revelation chapter 2. He asked me to pray and surely on the 6th day of my retreat Jesus revealed to me my sweet name. That was a beautiful experience of His great love for me.
In 1985, I was sitting in a park with a friend and I threw some peanuts to the squirrels around and one of them came and sat in my lap and ate the peanuts from my hand. The same thing happened again as I was sitting under a tree with a Sister companion at Taj Mahal in Agra. My experiences with the squirrel, taught me how to trust in God and the people with whom I am called to work.
While I was a making a charismatic retreat at Kuluthuvayal in Kerala I experienced that I was in the ‘Womb of God’. This experience continued for a year. Gradually God, my Mother, revealed to me that all of creation is in the Womb of God and death is nothing but being born to God when we see Him face to face.
While learning Nepali language in Vijayapur the beauty of a hibiscus flower captivated my heart in my meditation. Surprisingly, the poojari (Hindu priest) who lived close by plucked that same flower for his offering. I was saddened. As I sat there, I heard the flower say what we love, can never be taken away from us, for it has become part of us. On my 50th birthday as I opened a letter from Joe Knecht five rose petals fell into my lap. It touched me deeply and I became aware that like those rose petals I have to be detached from my past – my youth, my ambition, my achievement and all – what was important was that I belong to God alone and nothing else mattered.
My experience of God at Godavari Ashram
I have always remained open to the Absolute within me. When I am fully open to the Atman (God) within me, I have no need to surrender, no need to ask for anything. I experience deep within me a still point and I remain there in my prayer. There are no words of praise or thanksgiving but deep silence. All I experience is the Absolute within me and I am filled with His presence. The time goes fast and now I realize how Rishis (Hindu Monks) remain in prayer for days at a time. I also realized that I didn’t have to go for Mass or Communion service. When I am fully in touch with the Athman, I do not need food or company of others to be happy. I become one with the ATHMAN in deep communion.
In April 1996, I was getting ready to leave Godavari after Easter. I had spent my time saying goodbye to everyone and the whole creation. Before I left I had a great desire to see snow fall on the mountains. As we were at Mass, there was a big hail storm. After Mass, I rushed out and saw the whole ground was filled with hail stones. Pat from Singapore and I picked them up and made them into balls and played with them. How thrilled I was to have had that experience though the hail stones were not snow, in the real sense.
In death we are born to God
Preeti Chalil, SCN and I lived together in Tinkune in Dharan, Nepal. She was struggling with her teaching post at Navjyoti School in Narayan Chowk. I encouraged her to continue in the school for some time. We had enjoyed each other’s company while we supported each other in community. When I heard that Preeti was murdered, everything in me collapsed. In the midst of sorrow and pain, I just said “yes” to the Lord with my lips and not with my heart. It took me days to reconcile with the fact that she was no more. Night after night, I sat in the chapel, in front of the crucifix and asked God why it had to happen but there was only silence. At last, I heard Him say to me, “I am sufficient for you”. I came to understand that to love people is good but as they depart from us the pain becomes unbearable for a while.
Another sad experience in my life was when I came to know that Father Joe Knecht was suffering from cancer. It saddened me so much that I was unable to pray. I was still in Dharan. I wrestled with God with all my strength, confronted Him with anger, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, resentment. I just couldn’t stop my tears. Everybody consoled me and strengthened me. But I couldn’t say “yes” to the Lord. Someone told me to face the reality of life. Days passed and one day Joe called me on the phone. I experienced much peace after he told me that he was ready to accept God’s will completely and surrender himself to God. Joe’s unconditional surrender to God enabled me to accept this reality.
Through these two experiences, God stripped me of my selfishness and possessiveness. The more I was purified the more I came closer to God. I was drawn into more silence and contemplation. I learnt that much wisdom can come from suffering instead of succumbing to the darkness caused by it.
To sum up my thoughts on religious life I can surely say that I am able to bring new life and energy in people with whom I come in contact with. Whatever our ministries may be: Education, healing, counseling, comforting through listening, compassionate love, etc. we bring joy and hope to people living in a broken world. Our life unites us with the whole of humanity, the cosmos and God, our creator. Through my loving service, Christ is born again in people and the reign of God becomes a reality here and now.
Teresa Xavier Ponnazhath, SCN
April 13, 2018