Sister Mary Chandy, sixty-seven years old, walked out of the Congregation of the Daughters of Presentation of Mary in the Temple in Chevayur, Kozhikode, 14 years ago. She wrote her autobiography, Nanma Niranjavale Swasthi (Peace to the One Filled with Grace), in April 2012. Excerpts from the book are below. – Editor
Barely two years after it was slammed by An Autobiography of a Nun that catalogued the lurid details of bullying, sexual abuse and homosexuality, the Catholic Church in Kerala is again attacked by a former nun.
Sixty-eight-year-old Sister Mary, who left her Catholic congregation in Kerala 13 years ago in disgust after 40 years of nunhood, is ready with her exposé. In a biographical sketch titled Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi, she heaps more ignominy on the Church.
Sister Mary talks in vivid detail about the extreme pain she had to endure during her tenure with the congregation: physical and psychological oppression, the sexual permissiveness and abuse prevalent among some of the nuns and priests, and the harassment she faced for sticking to her values and commitment to service.
She also talks about the miserable sense of abandonment, rather than sacrifice or service, that some of the nuns feel.
For the Catholic Church in Kerala which is already under attack with a wide range of allegations ranging from oppression of its nuns, abuse, suicides and inappropriate sexual behaviour, the book will certainly be further bad publicity.
Two biographical accounts; one by Jesme Raphael who gave up the nun’s robes after 26 years of service (2009) and another by a male priest, K.P. Shibu Kalaparambil who left after 24 years in white (2010); had in the recent past, dented the reputation and order of the Catholic Church. Both of them had explosive revelations including sexual exploitation of women and men.
In her memoirs Sister Mary, born in the Palai area of eastern Kerala, describes how she wanted to be a nun at the age of 13 and ran away from home to a Catholic congregation. Although she “found her path of service at the altar of the god”, what awaited her was four decades of hardship, betrayal and absolute disappointment.
Unable to take it anymore, she abandoned her robes in 1999 but continued her service to humanity by establishing a modest orphanage at Wayanad in north Kerala. According to Jose Pazhukaran, the writer who helped Mary put together the memoir, she literally begs door-to-door to raise the resources for her orphanage. “She is now doing what she couldn’t accomplish as a nun – to serve humanity and be a mother to abandoned children,” says Pazhukaran.
“There was a lot of unbearable pain and humiliation. Some ran away, some committed suicide. I endured all the pain because of the priest’s words at my first communion as a nun – you should be ready to follow the path of Jesus Christ. These words are still throbbing in my heart and that is why I am a mother of orphans,” says Sister Mary.
Translations of two chapters of the book are given below :
Some of the nuns used to read books with filthy pictures. I used to wonder how they laid their hands on them. Once I noticed that one of the nuns mostly stayed in her room with the doors bolted.
She was very good-looking and otherwise active, but I didn’t clearly understand the “clandestine things” she was up to.
One day, I found out that she was reading a filthy magazine. A magazine that had pictures of naked men and women. I was very upset. Once you pledge yourself to be a nun, such temptations can compel you to give in. Privately, I admonished her and warned her that she should not repeat it, lest I should tell the matron of the provinciate. I also promised her that I wouldn’t tell anybody. I used to wonder who got them those magazines.
I also resented the male priests coming to the convent without any reason. I really didn’t like how some nuns spent so much time with them and flirted with them. I thought that it could lead them to wrongdoings that could bring disrepute to the congregation. I complained to the mother, but she kept evading it.
Most of the time, what you saw if you accidentally walked into a room of the nuns was shameful. I haven’t seen even a handful of them who were chaste. I just told myself that what comes from flesh has to be flesh.
There was this church hospital at one of the convents when I spent my time there. The hospital was adjacent to the church. I came to know that a doctor at the hospital and a nun had an affair. Once when a patient was brought to the hospital in a critical condition, the doctor was found missing. We, the nuns, frantically searched for him; but he was nowhere to be seen.
Knowing their closeness to each other, I somehow felt that he would be closeted with the nun somewhere. Finally, my search led to a room from which I heard hushed voices. I brought them out of the room and angrily told them that such behaviour wouldn’t work.
I didn’t know what they were doing in the room, but I am sure it wasn’t something good. I told him that a doctor is worthless if he cannot attend to a patient in an emergency.
Many others also advised the nun that she could get out of the robe and marry so that the congregation’s name is not sullied. The mother, an Italian named Luccia, was informed too. I told her in Italian that those two had been carrying on for a while and they should be thrown out.
The issue simmered for some time and both the doctor and the nun went back to their old ways. Subsequently, the doctor even threatened to kill me. But, almost everyone seemed to side with them and I felt isolated. I just had to ignore what was happening.
They got married later and the nun left the congregation.
I was really disgusted with the way the convent worked and was really reluctant to continue there. It even affected my taking the communion and my confessions. I felt disgusted the way some uncommitted priests conducted the church rituals. They were plain perfunctory.
There was a practice of assigning daily duty for everyone in the convent. To avoid work that they didn’t like, such as farming, some nuns stayed in their rooms. They mostly seemed to feel that they had lost something in life.
40 years of my life as a nun went through such contradictions.
Right from my childhood, I handled the difficulties I faced without letting my family and others know. Therefore, this sense of aloofness was growing in me. In fact, I realise only now that on such situations Mother Mary was giving me the mental strength.
Those who didn’t oblige the priests were always in trouble. They get pained in some way or the other. Some think that the oath of discipline that you take while accepting the nun’s robe is to be subservient to such men.
Such an incident happened to me as well. As somebody who had thought of Jesus Christ as the only savior since the age of six, this experience pained me immensely.
This incident, in which a priest tried to molest me and I hit him with a wooden stool in self-defence, became a big issue at the congregation. Although I was the one outraged, in their eyes, I was the culprit. The unwritten rule was: whatever the priests did, nobody could question them.
I was only twenty then.
The incident happened at the Chevayaoor convent. There was this practice of serving breakfast to the priests after the morning communion. Sometimes, it was sent to the church. The nuns needed to take turns to cook for them and serve them.
I used to get nervous whenever my turn came because I wasn’t good with cooking and would certainly be criticised for that. Nobody used to help me or advise me. Instead, they seemed to get some vicarious pleasure by pointing out the mistakes. I used to find it very painful.
Okay, let’s get into the incident. Once, I was assigned to cook and serve a priest who finished the communion (I don’t want to name him though). I went to the dining hall with egg curry and ‘appam’. He came in, washed his hands and bolted the door before taking his seat.
He asked me to serve; but sensing some mischief, I stayed away. When he persisted, I started shivering with fear. At that moment, I deeply hated the rule that one should obey whatever the priests orders.
The priest got up, came to me and grabbed my hands.
Don’t you know all this, Sister Mary?, he asked.
When I cried, he tried to pull me close to his chest. I relieved myself and ran, but he chased me around the table. I really got wild as I used to do when I was a child on such situations. I got hold of a wooden stool in front of me and hit him hard.
It fell on his head and he started bleeding profusely. I got both sad and scared although I did it in self-defence – he was a priest. I screamed in fear and rushed out of the room and told everyone what happened. But most of them appeared indifferent and started scolding me.
“What did you do, are you out to shame the congregation?”
When they went into the room , the priest was on his chair, speechless and drenched in blood. He was taken to the Kozhikode medical college hospital where it was reported that he fell in the bathroom.
I was the target of tremendous ire after that incident. When everybody walked away from me as if I was a proclaimed offender I prayed hard. But when I realised that it was the way things worked, I really got scared that I was trapped in serious danger. Since then, I was marked; a thorn in the flesh for the congregation.
Opposing wrongdoing was my character and that was the reason for all the conflicts that I faced in life as a nun. I wasn’t ready to blindly accept the priests and the church without looking at their deeds.
Sensing the situation I was in, Father Peter called for me one day. I told him every thing. I cried a lot in front of him. He consoled me and advised me to handle the Church and people with restraint.
But, the other nuns by then had branded me as a rogue. Nobody pointed out what was the ground for my disobedience. Since then, I was a nuisance for them. Sister Betty was the only consolation.
Since I was termed disobedient right from my stay at the novitiate, my nunhood had to wait for six months. The priests believe that they had the complete control of the nuns. They believe that they are the ultimate owners of the Church, its properties and the believers.
When people get sexually exploited, their belief gets affected; that is what is happening now. Some people commit suicide when they are unable to cope with this reality.
The priest who was hit by me is a good friend now and calls me often to enquire about my well-being. He also tells me that my response has reformed him. – Firstpost, 5 April 2012
» Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi, Malayalam, 106 pages, Rs. 85, Kairali Books, Kannur, Kerala
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