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God’s Servants of Action

Our Association supports both the formation and the work of this Syro-Malabar religious community for women.

text and photos by Cheryl Sheridan

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The sisters of Nirmala Dasi (in English, the Servants of God) are the heart and soul of the many humanitarian projects begun by the Syro-Malabar bishop of Trichur, Mar Joseph Kundukulam.

This community began as a group of volunteers in Trichur, a town in central Kerala, the southwestern Indian state where Christians have had a presence since the time of St. Thomas the Apostle.

In the late 1960s, Mar Kundukulam, then vicar of a parish and director of an orphanage, asked for volunteers among his parishioners to help care for the women and children at St. Christina’s Home, a residence for unwed mothers he had founded in 1967.

The original group of 15 women grew in number and dedication. However India’s conservative culture inhibited their work – it is considered inappropriate for women to move around without an escort, especially if the women are single and of a marriageable age, as many of the women were.

In 1970, when he was ordained bishop of Trichur, Mar Kundukulam received permission from Rome to create a pious association for his volunteers.

After a few years, members of this pious association wanted to form a religious community. One practical reason at the time, said the bishop, was the protection offered by the habit. The verbal abuse the women received from people who assumed them to be unwed mothers as they worked with the children was unbearable at times. Wearing the religious habit, the women reasoned, would protect them from potential hostilities and abuse.

Again the bishop petitioned Rome and soon the community’s status was raised to a congregation of common life.

Today the Society of Nirmala Dasi has more than 200 sisters working in the Diocese of Trichur, the slums of Bombay, northern India and Kenya. And now the community plans to open a convent in Hungary.

Working with a strong but gentle faith, the Nirmala Dasi Sisters bring love and healing to people otherwise overlooked by society. Irrespective of caste and creed, all those whom the sisters care for are welcomed and accepted as children of God. This philosophy, expounded by Mar Kundukulam – who has been known as the “Father of the Poor” since his days as a young vicar – is nothing short of revolutionary.

I fully believe that God Our Creator loves each one of us, indicated the bishop, despite the differences of caste and creed, wealth and poverty.

It was in this spirit that the Society of Nirmala Dasi was conceived.

For all their energy and effort, they do not consider taking any remuneration for their services. Poverty is stipulated in their constitution.

“We eat, pray and work, everyone together, all the time,” said a sister who works at the Damien Institute, a hospital for people with Hansen’s disease staffed by the religious and supported by Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Although the work of the Society has spread to three continents, each community’s schedule is exactly alike, varying only to accommodate local conditions and traditions.

At 6 A.M. the sisters prepare for daily liturgy, which is celebrated in the ancient Syro-Malabar manner.

After liturgy at St. Christina’s Home, where the community’s novices spend their first novitiate year, the religious take morning tea before beginning the long work day.

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Tags: India Sisters Health Care Syro-Malabar Catholic Church