Guiding Light

Indian sisters heal the poor and the isolated

by Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M. and Jomi Thomas

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Until 2004, when construction on Jyothi Hospital began, the residents of Belthangady — a heavily forested township in the southern Indian state of Karnataka — had to travel about 40 miles over poorly maintained roads for any serious medical care. For minor ailments the local government hospital — really little more than a clinic — sufficed, but for more complicated procedures the unavailability of prompt treatment sometimes proved deadly. Infant and maternal mortality rates, as well as miscarriages, were high.

When Mar Lawrence Mukkuzhy, Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop of Belthangady, invited the Sisters of the Destitute to open a hospital, it was reasonable to believe the local residents would welcome it. The situation proved more complicated, however.

There are only 21,500 Catholics in the eparchy, which comprises three civil districts with a total population of 3.2 million people, the vast majority of whom are Hindu.

The eparchy also includes a large number of adivasi, tribal peoples living in remote, self-contained communities who eke out meager livings as hunter-gatherers.

In addition, Belthangady, despite its small size, has significant religious importance: It is home to Dharmasthala, a temple town that attracts millions of Hindu and Jain worshipers. In that sense, it is a welcome sign of religious tolerance: a holy site shared by two faiths.

But many local residents were not happy to see an increased Christian presence, even if confined to a hospital. This was made apparent in 1999, when Mar Lawrence began to build a small church near Dharmasthala. Local Hindus protested and, for a while, thwarted the construction effort. Lord Shiva, they said, would be offended by the presence of another deity in the area.

Then, one night during a storm, lightning struck the 40-foot-tall statue of Lord Bahubali, Dharmasthala’s centerpiece, damaging the head of the Jain deity. According to custom, the local community approached a respected astrologer to determine the reason behind the incident. “Their god is more powerful than ours,” he said. “You shouldn’t prevent those people from building a temple for their god.”

The church was built eventually, paving the way for other projects in the area.

“This incident really helped us to construct a new hospital here,” Mar Lawrence said. The bishop had invited the Sisters of the Destitute — founded in 1927, the first indigenous community for Syro-Malabar Catholic women — to build the facility on four acres of land he had reserved for the purpose.

“The bishop delivered wholehearted support to us in every process,” said Sister Mercitta, hospital administrator, “from the construction of the building to the purchasing of diagnostic apparatus.”

Jyothi (or light in Hindi) Hospital opened with 25 beds, but it has doubled its capacity over the past two years.

The hospital’s 10 Sisters of the Destitute do the bulk of the work. Not only have the sisters each completed nearly 10 years of religious formation, they also have extensive medical training — health care is one of the primary ministries of the sisters, who number more than 1,000 throughout India.

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Tags: Health Care Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church