Kerala’s Daughters

Rooted in the South Indian Catholic community, the Daughters of St. Thomas go North.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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India’s Daughters of St. Thomas face an uphill challenge: While working with the poorest of the poor, their activities are scrutinized by officials who frown upon any activities they consider “missionary.”

Established in 1969, the sisters are based in southwest India’s verdant state of Kerala.

Though Kerala is only 20 percent Christian, the church’s presence, traced to the Apostle Thomas, is as ubiquitous as the coconut. For the sisters, the rest of the country is the challenge, which is why they are scattered throughout northern India, where they work in education and health care.

“I started the community to bring the Gospel to other parts of the country,” says Father Jacob Thazhathel, 91, who lives at the sisters novitiate near Palai.

“In northern India we have 18 convents, plus another 17 houses in Kerala. Sisters number some 266. We run 2 dispensaries, a hospital, social work center and printing press, 4 schools, 9 nurseries, several orphanages and a couple of tailoring centers.”

Sister Claris Thazhathuveettil, Assistant Superior General, recalls some of the early challenges she faced. “In 1982, two other sisters, a priest and I went to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh [the country’s largest state, in central India] to start a new mission in a village called Maksi,” she says. “There were no Christians living there. We had a small house with two rooms and shared a toilet. We visited nearby villages, all of which had water problems.

“There was only one well and that was reserved for high-caste Hindus,” Sister Claris says. “The dalits [untouchables] were not allowed to use it, though such discrimination is against the law in India. So we dug another well and started to supply the whole village. The water table was low and other people hadn’t been able to strike water, but we were lucky. We believed we were blessed by God and Jesus.”

People were impressed. “Hindus started to come to our house and sing Christian bhajans [devotional songs], which are chanted like mantras,” she continues. “They went, ‘Lord, give me light … Lord, give me peace … Lord, give me wisdom … Fill me with your joy.’ And everyone repeated it, slower and slower until it became like a meditation. It was mainly people of the low castes who came, but sometimes even the Brahmins joined in.”

From water, the sisters turned to education.

“We started a balwadi, a small school under a tree,” Sister Claris says. “One hundred students, mainly girls, came the first year. The following year, many boys came, too, and then we put up a building. I stayed there six years, and now there is a big school with 10 classrooms, 500 children and 7 sisters.”

The congregation also built a church and more than 1,000 people celebrated its consecration. “We are not allowed to baptize, as the government forbids it, though in the early days we brought into the church some old Protestant families whose conversion dates to British times,” Sister Claris says.

But with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which became the single-largest party after the May 1996 national elections, India’s Christians increasingly became imperiled.

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