Kerala’s Saving Grace

Nazareth offers more than refuge and shelter

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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At the rear of St. Antony’s House of Refuge in the village of Edakunnu, some 25 miles north of Kerala’s commercial center of Ernakulam, the twin bed in a private room reserved for hospice care is again occupied. The silk draperies dressing the small window are drawn. Caregivers move about deliberately. Visitors enter discreetly. With hushed voices, they say their last goodbyes to 90-year-old Mary P.M. Puthusey, holding the dying woman’s hand and caressing her gently.

As she is anointed with oil for the last time, an aura of sanctified calm fills this space of final respite. A silver cross hangs from the wooden bedpost above her head. Pinned to the opposite post is a laminated icon of the Virgin Mary. From another wall looms a calendar, dominated by an image of Jesus, which reads in big block letters, “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

These words have long been at the core of the dying woman’s being. She and the 43 remaining residents of St. Antony’s chose the religious life long ago in their early adulthood. Mary P.M. arrived in 1949, shortly after the Sisters of Nazareth, a congregation of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, established St. Antony’s for young women who, in the words of Father Augustine Thenayan, director of the Nazareth Institutions, “wanted to lead pious lives and become sisters, but who had no education.” Young no longer, the residents today are gray-haired, frail, often ill and dying one by one.

Hovering by the woman’s bedside is St. Antony’s resident caregiver, Mary P.L. Taking on a nurse’s role, Mary P.L. monitors the patient’s tubing, cleans her bedpan and adjusts her blanket. She rubs the back of Mary P.M.’s grieving younger sister and fellow resident, Rosakkutty. And, she spends countless hours sitting beside the dying woman, talking to her and praying with her for a “happy death.”

“As with all who have gone before her, I try to take away her pain and keep her as happy as can be,” explained Mary P.L. “God has given me this gift. I try to use it.”

Mary P.L. arrived at St. Antony’s in 1972 after enduring a string of setbacks. In early childhood, she developed a life-threatening disease that left her bedridden. Not until age 9 did she learn to walk, and then with an uneven gait. Back in those days, Keralite society was unforgiving when it came to a perceived deformity or difference. Mary P.L. dreamed of becoming a nurse, but her disability prevented her from going to school.

“Finally, I told my priest I wanted to give my life to God. He told me to visit Nazareth.”

For many years now, Mary P.L. has served as St. Antony’s de facto nurse.

“I’m happiest when busiest,” she said beaming. Fortunately, for St. Antony’s many elderly and sick residents, Mary P.L. enjoys her role.

St. Antony’s is just one of several facilities that make up Nazareth. Clustered together on an unmarked 80-acre estate off a tortuous country road several miles from the region’s main highway, the complex of buildings is hidden among rubber tree farms, coconut orchards and rice paddies. By design, it is not the kind of place upon which one just stumbles.

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