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God’s Work in Kerala: Caring for the Aged

The elderly poor of Trichur know firsthand the love and dedication of the servants of God.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Some 30 years ago, in the southwestern Indian city of Trichur, an impoverished old woman was approached by a priest, who offered her charity. She turned down his generous offer of 100 rupees, pleading, “Father, please give me just 10 paise (a dime) so that I can buy a tiny pill of rat poison to end my miserable life!“

The priest was so moved by her desperation that he devoted the rest of his life to the poor. His name was Father Joseph Kundukulam. Eventually this humble priest became the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Trichur. He was, however, known throughout India, until his death on 25 April, as the Father of the Poor.

Perhaps inspired by that poor old woman, one of the Archbishop’s major apostolates was caring for the elderly poor; his caregivers were the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, a religious community that he established while still a priest.

In the late 1960’s, Father Joseph organized a group of women from his parish, originally to assist him in caring for the children of unwed mothers. As the success and size of this group grew, the women asked that they be reorganized into a Syro-Malabar Catholic religious community. One reason was for the safety of these selfless women who, as nuns, were less likely to become victims of abuse while caring for the children. As a result, the Society of the Nirmala Dasi (the Servants of God) was formed in 1971.

The Nirmala Dasi Sisters take a vow of extreme poverty: they receive no pay for their work and have no personal possessions. Everything in the community is owned in common. In addition, the sisters follow a strict rule of behavior – for example, they do not watch television or read novels. They are not allowed to take time off, except to visit sick relatives.

“Working with a strong but gentle faith,” one observer writes, “the sisters bring love and healing to people otherwise overlooked by society.” This is the mission of the Society of the Nirmala Dasi.

The sisters care for the alienated and the needy, such as orphans, the physically and mentally handicapped and the elderly poor. The community’s care of unwed mothers and their children at St. Christina’s Home, and their care for people with Hansen’s disease at the Damien Leprosy Institute – both of which are supported by CNEWA – are well appreciated.

At St. Joseph’s Home, the sisters care for elderly women who have nowhere to turn. Love knows no bounds in this place.

Traditionally, Indian sons care for aging parents by moving them in with their own families. But the time-honored extended family system of social welfare is breaking down. Societal changes, limited housing space, individualism and the breakup of the extended family have placed a strain on the aged. Many are abandoned and must fend for themselves unless they can find a reliable long-term care facility.

Tears well up in 78-year-old Mary’s eyes as she recounts her grim tale. Her husband died 40 years ago, so she worked as a housekeeper and raised her three children on her own. Both of Mary’s sons married, moved away and refused to care for their mother. Her daughter visits occasionally, but her economic situation, as well as a heart condition, do not allow her to look after her frail mother. As a result, Mary has been at St. Joseph’s for three years. She says she is very happy with the care and kindness she receives.

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Tags: Sisters Kerala Poor/Poverty Caring for the Elderly Women (rights/issues)