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In 1969, he founded the Snehagiri Missionary Sisters, whose 460 sisters today run 60 homes throughout India and 8 overseas that care for the elderly and the mentally and physically disabled and offer educational programs for children and adults. In the late 1970’s, while recovering from a serious illness, Father Kaippenplackal grew increasingly concerned about the number of homeless elderly men on the streets of Pala, a town in southern Kerala and the seat of the eparchy where he worked. Soon after, he opened a shelter for them and, ten years later, he opened one for women.

Inspired by his selflessness, young women of faith flocked to the shelter to volunteer. This planted the seed in Father Kaippenplackal to create a community of women religious committed to serving the abandoned elderly. In 1998, the Deivadan Sisters were formally recognized as a religious congregation.

Today, the community numbers just 30 women, 7 of whom are novices. “Only by God’s grace are we little by little growing,” says Sister Shubha. Though they are few, the sisters undertake a colossal workload, operating eight homes in four districts and caring for a total of some 400 elderly persons.

“The sisters support them until they’re dead because there’s nobody else to look after them,” adds the priest.

For his part, Father Kaippenplackal continues to play a leading role in the congregation’s activities despite his declining health. He has been diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease. And, the knees that “have carried me so many years, are now tired,” he sighs. Nonetheless, three times each month, he makes the strenuous trip from Pala to Malayatoor.

“Our main objective is to live as the poor and help the poor,” the priest explains. “For that we work, spend our whole life and take our vows. Poverty, chastity and obedience are common for all religious. But we added another — the uplifting of the poor. We never take up schools, colleges or hospitals. Our only role, aim and work are to uplift the poor.”

While “serving the poor” may define in varying degrees the work of all women religious, direct involvement with the nitty-gritty of caring for the needy has become a lost art among some congregations in Kerala. The Syro-Malabar bishops have taken note of this shift in responsibilities, attributing to it, in no small measure, the decline in religious vocations among women across Kerala.

“We’ve been concentrating more on running institutions, where sisters don’t get the chance to experience what’s happening in the world,” says Mar Thomas Chakiath, auxiliary bishop of theArcheparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

These days, potential candidates see well- educated sisters and public-service oriented laity filling the same professional positions. These women wonder why they should respond to their calling if, at the end of the day, they will work as a teacher, nurse or administrator in institutions that also serve the wealthy.

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Tags: Sisters Kerala Poor/Poverty Caring for the Elderly Mental health/ mental illness