During World War II, Chacko Thomas and Elizabeth Velloothara lived at Mullackal Junction, close to the seashore in Alleppey. I, Kochuthresiamma Thomas, was born on January 2, 1937, and was baptized as Teresa at Holy Cross Forane Church in Pazhayangady parish. They called me Manikutty at home. I am the fourth among eight children, Anna, Chacko, Mary, Manikutty, George, Liziamma (died in infancy), Jose and Alphonsa. We lived in a joint family. My father studied up to Class VIII. He had a hotel business with boarding facility and a furniture shop. My mother who had studied up to Class VII took care of the home and helped in the family business. She was a good musician and had completed training in harmonium. As children, we used to wash clothes once a week and I loved ironing them. We also enjoyed the family evening prayer. My father was very affectionate. He took us to the beach and occasionally showered us with candy, nuts, etc.
From Class I to XI, I studied at St. Anthony Girls’ High School run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Third Order at Pazhayangady parish. I was an average student and won many prizes in singing and drawing. During a three-day retreat in Class XI, I heard a voice within me to go to the missions. Though I laughed at it and ignored it, the voice continued to pursue me. I said to Jesus, “If I pass my matriculation,” it would be a sign that it is a true call to be a missionary.
When I got the good news of passing Class XI in May 1955, I was holidaying at my uncle’s house in Munnar. Again, I heard the voice saying, “Go to the missions”. I returned home and was afraid to tell my parents about it. I asked my elder sister, Anna, to break the news to the family. My parents were shocked for they wanted me to go for teacher training. I talked about this ‘inner voice’ to my confessor who was a family friend. He convinced my parents to let me go to the missions. He got the list of things required for me to take to the convent and my father got those things ready. My mother was concerned about me for I was a poor eater and ate only a few things which I liked.
My father, sister, Anna, and I met Reverend Joseph Maliparambil at St. Teresa College, Ernakulam. Every year he used to arrange for young girls to go to the missions. That year, there were twenty-seven girls to meet him.
After saying goodbye, I told my father and sister that I would be back if I did not like the place or the work. “The door is always open for you, my child,” was my father’s reply. On July 4, 1955, I boarded the train along with seventeen other girls. For most of us that was our first train journey. In Kerala, people travelled by bus or boat at the time. Most of the girls came from villages. They wore rosaries and scapulars around their necks and were dressed very plainly. On July 5, 1955 we reached Madras, a very busy, crowded city. The priest took us to Marina Beach in Madras. Most of the girls had not seen a sea before. I was thrilled to get my feet wet once again in the sea. I invited my companions to join me but all were frightened. Soon Mariakutty Sebastian came forward for she had been to Alleppey before during one of her school excursions. Thereafter we became friends.
In the evening, we boarded another train to Calcutta (now Kolkata). As we traveled north, the priest divided the girls to enter different Congregations. The Holy Spirit must have been inspiring him to do what he was doing! He chose five girls for the Holy Cross Sisters in Hazaribagh, five for the Notre Dames in Patna, three for the St. Anne’s Sisters, two for the Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Krishnanagar and three for Mokama. As we were travelling, the priest changed his mind, added two more for Mokama and gave only three to the Holy Cross Sisters. Those lucky two are Marykutty Emmanuel (Elizabeth Emmanuel Vattakunnel) and Annamma E. A. (Anne Elizabeth Elampalathottiyil), two out of our five Indian pioneers. I was happy Mariakutty Sebastian and I were assigned to Mokama.
We reached Calcutta on July 9, where many Sisters were waiting to receive the girls. The St. Anne’s Sisters rejected the girls assigned to them for some reason or other. As they were crying, the priest consoled them and assigned them also to the Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Krishnanagar, West Bengal. They were happy to have more candidates. The next day we resumed our journey to Mokama. The Mokama Sisters had sent Miss Waller, an American pharmacist who was working at the hospital, to meet us. As the train reached Mokama, some coolies (porters) carried our boxes to the convent. I was happy that our long journey had ended. Miss Waller took us to the second floor to meet Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman. Father Maliparambil also met her. As Sister Lawrencetta talked to him she glanced at us smilingly. After a while, the priest told us in Malayalam that the Sisters were happy to have us though they had no permission yet to begin the novitiate as they were in the missions only for seven and a half years. The Sisters were sure that they would get the permission soon and in the meantime they would send us to study nursing or allied professions at the hospital itself. We were also given the option to join any other Congregation, had we been in a hurry to do so. We were free to make our own choice. The five of us discussed about it and we were for joining the Mokama Sisters though we knew nothing about them. We let the priest know about our decision, and he, in turn communicated it to the Sisters.
Sisters Florence Joseph Saur (later Mary Frances), Crescentia Wise and Mary Jude Howard welcomed us. We were very happy to meet them though we did not understand what they spoke. Ithamma (Bridget Kappalumakal, SCN) and I were asked to attend the classes with the preliminary nursing students and the others to study pharmacy. We stayed with the nursing students who spoke English and Hindi. In the beginning we could only respond with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to anyone who tried to converse with us.
Within a day or two, we started our classes. There were four girls and a boy for nursing. Both the students of pharmacy and nursing attended a few classes together. According to the rules of the School of Nursing, we needed a medical check-up before admission to the Nursing School. Sister Catherine Regina Rogers took us to Patna with Metilda, a nursing student who knew English and Hindi. They got into a rickshaw and we followed them in separate rickshaws. Not knowing where Sister Catherine Regina went the rickshaw pullers took us to Patna City looking for them. We were so scared that we began to cry and I spotted a building with a cross and told the rickshaw puller to stop. It was the Holy Family Hospital campus. We told the Sisters that we lost our way looking for Sister Catherine Regina. The Sisters directed the rickshaws to the bishop’s house at Bankipur in Patna where Sister Catherine was anxiously waiting for us. As we reached the bishop’s house, one of the American Jesuit priests, Reverend Robert Donahue, SJ said, “So, you are the lost ones”.
In 1956, Sister Catherine Regina took the five nursing students to Patna to give their first year board exam. In Patna, she called for a bullock-cart to go to the exam centre at Patna Medical College since we were lost the previous time when we used separate rickshaws. I enjoyed the ride and swayed to the rhythm and the movement of the bullock-cart.
The hospital in Mokama had no electricity or running water and had minimum living space. Using kerosene lanterns the Sisters cared for the patients with love and compassion and they were our role models.
During the two weeks holiday in the first year, Ithamma (Bridget K.) and I went to Delhi to meet her sister, Rosamma Kappalumakal, a candidate of the Franciscan Sisters of Poor Clares. We visited important historical places in Delhi and were fortunate to see a television for the first time.
As candidates, we were placed in a dormitory separate from the nurses. Our Sister in-charge, Crescentia Wise, SCN, taught us the history of the SCN Congregation. She stressed the importance of silence, prayer, rosary, daily Mass, etc. in our lives. We continued with our professional studies and hospital duties besides the classes required for the candidates.
In September 1956 when the Sisters in India got permission to begin the novitiate, Sister Lawrencetta was appointed novice mistress. She asked the four of us if we would like to enter the postulancy or complete our studies. Ithamma had to get a written permission from her father to join the postulancy as her father had told the priest who brought her that she was to return home after her nursing studies. On February 2, 1957, Sister Lawrencetta’s birthday, the novitiate was officially blessed and opened by Most Reverend Augustine F. Wildermuth, SJ, bishop of Patna diocese and the five of us became postulants under the direction of Sister Lawrencetta.
In December 1957, Reverend Bernard Hass, SJ, from Patna gave us a retreat before entering the novitiate. On the night before our entrance on December 8, 1957, Sister Lawrencetta asked us to cut short our long hair. She also gave us the habit and all that goes with it and she whispered each one’s new name into our ears. I was named Thomas Aloysius, one of the three names given by Mother Bertrand Crimmins. As canonical novices, we spent time in religious studies, reading the lives of the saints, having scripture classes from Father DeGenova, SJ, Mokama parish priest, studying SCN constitutions, Book of Customs, Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul, etc. As a first year novice, I was in the hospital for thirty-three days with chicken pox. In the novitiate, we used to play volleyball daily and do some manual work to clear the place for the new convent building. When Mother Bertrand visited us during our second year novitiate, she gave us permission to write home once a month in Malayalam, our mother tongue.
In preparation for our First Vows, we made an eight-day retreat. We made our First Vows on December 8, 1959 at the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Divine Grace’. It was a great day of rejoicing for the Sisters for they got five new Indian SCNs. We could invite our family for the Vows. My brother, George, who was a philosophy student at St. Paul’s Seminary in Allahabad, came for my vows. The bishop of Patna was the main celebrant at the Eucharist. Our Sisters from Gaya also came for the Vows. After the vows, we moved to the hospital community.
In 1960, Bridget and I wrote our final examination in nursing. The same year, we went to our holiday home in Darjeeling with two senior Sisters. Though I was young, I was appointed supervisor in one of the sections in the hospital.
Sister Elizabeth Emmanuel and I went to Mercy Hospital in Jamshedpur to take a one-year X-ray course in the summer of 1960. We found the studies quite difficult but managed to complete it. On our return in 1961, I was asked to set up the X-ray department at the hospital. We also began to take night calls at the hospital to relieve the senior Sisters. In 1963, I studied midwifery for a year. In 1964, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to rest for a month.
I made my Final Vows on December 21, 1964. I found the vow of obedience the most difficult to practice. For some personal reasons I even thought of leaving the Congregation. When I informed my father about it he wrote to me saying that I would be most welcome, if I had to return home. He also told me that problems would always come and go in life and that I should calmly consider my decision before jumping into conclusions. My father’s sound advice kept me back though I had packed my trunk.
I did my pre-university studies at Ram Ratan Singh College, Mokama from 1968 to 1969. In 1969, I went for my post basic degree in Nursing at Christian Medical College, Vellore. I returned to the hospital in 1972 to take up more responsibilities for another seven years as the supervisor of several wards and later Director of Nursing Service.
I was appointed administrator of Community Health Centre in Bakhtiarpur, a ten bed rural hospital in 1979. Sister Florence Joseph (Mary Frances) Sauer, SCN, had gone to the US for holidays and she decided not to return to India immediately. Therefore I was asked to take up the administration which I did reluctantly.
In Bakhtiarpur, there was neither a resident nor a visiting doctor and no sterilization facilities. I was able to get some help from the administrator of Holy Cross Hospital in Tripolia. From the personal contacts of Sister Mary Jude, Doctor Kulbir Singh and his wife, Doctor Narendra Kaur from Patna worked as visiting doctors in Bakhtiarpur.
In 1981 I took a year of sabbatical. I had five months course in counselling and spirituality, three and a half months of village experience. I spent the rest of the time in Zen retreat, learning yoga and Indian spirituality which I enjoyed very much.
After the renewal, I opted for social work in Sokho, a Santhal Tribal area from 1982 to 1984 to experience how the people live in villages. There I was stung by a scorpion from which I could have died. With great difficulty, I got the broken dam repaired at Kerwateri village which was the only source for irrigation. We also conducted night classes in the villages with kerosene lanterns. I spent more time in prayer and depended on God for protection and safety. During this time, I lived with a Santhal family in a village. Santhals are one of the prominent Tribals in Bihar and Jharkhand. Their language, Santhali, written in Roman script was developed by the foreign missionaries. As simple nature lovers, they live close to the forest and the non-Christians worship spirits. With the influence of foreign missionaries, many embraced Christianity.
In 1984, our group spent time preparing for our silver jubilee in Gomoh and Nepal. Nazareth Hospital took the initiative to celebrate the jubilee in grand style. The presence of SCNs Katherine Hanrehan and Agnes Crone, representatives of Superior General Dorothy MacDougall, doubled our joy.
I went to Jamtara mission as health Sister to work among the Santhal Tribals in January 1985. I attended to the health needs of the Catholics who came for Sunday Mass at our place and occasionally visited the villages. The people loved me as one of their own since I was able to speak their language, Santhali.
I was called back to Nazareth Hospital to set up the X-ray department in mid-1985. I also taught some subjects to the students and staff nurses in internship besides being the supervisor of various departments for ten years.
In 1995, after my official retirement at the age of 58, I joined the spiritual care department at the hospital. It was one of my cherished dreams to spend time with the suffering people though, at times, I found it difficult to listen to the cry of the poor. We also ministered to the drug-addicts, criminals, atheists, alcoholics, the mentally-deranged and the down-trodden who came to the department. I spoke of the compassion and mercy of our God to bring healing into their lives. I also had the privilege to pray with the people of different faiths and religions. I remained in the hospital till 2001.
After serving forty-one years in various departments at Mokama Nazareth Hospital, Bakhtiarpur and in the villages for some years, my health began to diminish and I decided to resign from active ministry in 2001. I had arthritis, glaucoma, shrinking of brain cells and my own inertia to work led me to take time to rest. I was sent to Almora temporarily for a few months. After that I have been in Mokama in the retirement home.
The province gave the first golden jubilee group a three-month renewal in Bangalore in 2009. We attended various programs to discover ourselves and to appreciate God’s gifts and faithfulness in our lives. It was also a sacred time for us as a group to bond together as friends and to mend our broken ways with each other. On our personal request, the province celebrated our golden jubilee on December 8, 2009 in Mokama in grand style. Most Reverend William D’Souza, SJ, the archbishop of Patna and the bishop of Buxar, Most Reverend Sebastian Kallupura and several other priests concelebrated the Eucharist. The Mokama parishioners were also invited for the Mass. Many religious from the dioceses where we had ministered and some of our close friends and a few family members were present for the celebration. Different local communities gave a wonderful cultural program in the evening.
I love being in the quiet atmosphere of Mokama campus, enjoying God’s beautiful nature around. I enjoy meeting the Sisters, visitors and the workers. I look forward to a life of serenity and peace and waiting for the eternal peace with the Lord of my life.
A Song of My Life
My whole being is overflowing with gratitude
And love for God, who has chosen me and called me by name,
Before the foundation of the world
And knit me together in my mother’s womb
And journeyed with me all through the perils
And attraction of this world and led me to the SCN Congregation
By snatching me from all those who pursued me
And owning me as “God’s own chosen one.”
I thank my God for the gift of openness, wisdom and discernment
Especially in the testing times of faith,
Which guided me in day-to-day actions,
Resulting in deep peace and fruitfulness in religious life.
With a grateful heart, I thank the Almighty
For the Spirit’s unconditional, unfailing love,
The gift of awareness and a reconciling spirit
Which gives me deep inner joy, in spite of my sinfulness and failures.
My soul bursts forth in thanksgiving
For God’s faithfulness and promises
For God’s constant presence and companionship
With Jesus and the Spirit of God,
For the protection and intercessions
of Mother Mary, the Angels and Saints.
I continue to thank the Creator Spirit
For all that God has done
in and through me during the past years.
Teresa Velloothara, SCN
Written during the Golden jubilee renewal time in 2009
Edited on December 28, 2017
Consent given orally to publish the story on August 14, 2017