I was born on 16th February, 1947, as the fourth child of the Mulackal family in Bharananganam, Kottayam District, Kerala. My parents were the late Mr. Varkey Chandy and Aleyamma. I have two brothers, the first the late Joseph MC, and George, MC, then five girls, the late Mary Mathew, myself, Alice Thomas, Elsy Chandy, and Mariet Kumar. My early days at home, as I recall, were very happy, enjoyable, and carefree. My father was a great farmer. He worked hard in our field and produced all kinds of vegetables, roots and tubers. We also had goats, cows, pigs, and chickens as well as a dog. As a child, I played with the animals a lot, helped mother to care for the animals, and developed a love for them. Often, I helped my father and my brothers in caring for the plants, which gave me great opportunity to work in the soil and attend to plants. My mother was an only child, so she stayed with her mother who was a widow and my father was adopted into the family. Our life was very much centered on Grandma, and my early childhood was very much influenced by Grandmother, the late Rosamma Mulackal. She was very devout, prayerful, God-fearing, a very loving, caring, and gentle woman. She was faithful in attending daily Mass, and we children had to attend daily Mass with her. So, from very early in my life I had a great love for the Eucharist, Rosary, monthly devotion to different saints, and prayers.
I was interested in going to school and disturbed my brothers and older sister while they did their homework and studied. Because I was so eager, I was sent with them to school when I was four years old. I was very good in studies, as well as in extracurricular activities. My teachers, as well as my parents, especially my mother, were very happy and proud of my performance. So, from early days onwards I had a lot of opportunities for acting, singing, and dancing. My parents were proud of me. My early childhood and school days were very happy ones. I studied in Sacred Heart Girls Higher Secondary School, Bharananganam, a convent school where St. Alphonsa lived and died. In the school, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) Sisters often talked to us about the missions in the North and the need for missionaries. As a high school girl, I was in the Legion of Mary, Sodality, Social Service Group, KCSL (Kerala Catholic Students League) etc. and did many good things like visiting the sick and helping poor children by small donations which were collected by the teachers. Growing vegetables, tapioca, plantain etc. for auction on Mission Sunday was another activity which put a competitive spirit in us to raise funds for missions. Such activities and involvements planted in me a desire to dedicate my life as a missionary.
While I was in class six, my youngest sister was born in Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Hospital, Bharananganam, run by the Medical Mission Sisters. The love and care with which the Sisters and the nurses served the patients and their babies sowed the seeds of nursing and a desire to be like them when I grew up. In my heart, I secretly cherished and nurtured that desire. The FCC Sisters, through the summer class, catechism etc., continued to stir in my heart a deep desire to be a missionary and serve the poor in the missions. My desire was revealed to Father Wilfred, an OFM Capuchin. Having known me as a young girl and being aware of my desire to care for the sick, Father Wilfred, after my SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) result came, directed me to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who had a hospital and nursing school in Bihar. He helped me write to Sister Lawrencetta Veeneman. Sister Lawrencetta immediately replied that the Sisters who came for recruiting had already returned to Bihar; so I could not travel with them. She informed me that there were, however, nursing students and a teacher for Gaya who were travelling to Bihar, and I might be able to join them. With the help of a priest who sent nurses for training to Mokama, six of us travelled to Mokama on 5th August 1964 – Annamma and I to Nazareth Convent and the other four women destined for nursing at Nazareth Hospital. Trusting in Divine Providence and guidance, we began our missionary journey to the unknown and strange land, Mokama in Bihar. After five days of a long, very hot, humid, and tiring journey, we reached Mokama on 8th August 1964 at about 7:00 p.m. We were welcomed warmly at the railway station by our seniors and Sisters Marita Ann (Teresa Rose) Nabholz and Josephine Naduvilekunnel. With the help of our colleagues who came in June, Annamma and I got introduced to life at Nazareth Convent.
Two days later, we celebrated Sister Lawrencetta’s birthday. I took part in the cultural programme with a dance which helped me gain some attention, love, and recognition. During my first week in Mokama, I joined the group of candidates who came in June with Sister Marita Ann (Teresa Rose) Nabholz and Bridget Kappalumackel. During the early days as a candidate, everything was new to me. Some things were very strange and entirely different from what I was used to. The days were filled with languages – English and Hindi, prayer, household duties, classes on etiquette and table manners, play, relaxation, singing, silence, etc. There, I grew in the loving, understanding, sisterly and motherly care of Sister Marita Ann, our candidate mistress. At that time, we were about thirty-five in candidacy.
After about six months of candidacy, on February 2nd, 1965, Cassilda Castel, Mercy Thundathil, Aleykutty K M, Ceciliamma Lonappan, Grace Androth, Agnes Tudu, and I, Leelamma MC, were send to the novitiate. The novitiate days were of great learning, deepening my love for the SCN Congregation, learning about the Constitutions, Scripture, Mariology, Church History, etc. One of the special duties the novices performed was to mind the children of the village while the women attended Mass. Because I did not know the language, minding the children was a great challenge. While doing this, however, I was able to catch their spellbound attention by singing action songs in Malayalam. Sister Mary Celeste, who saw me in action, stated, “Leelamma is a born teacher.” So, my future was, in a way, designed to be a teacher although my passion and desire to be a nurse grew stronger as I thought of my future life. In the novitiate, all kinds of opportunities were given to us to grow in all spheres of life. Conducting Sunday Mission League (SML) meetings, participating in various dramas and cultural activities gave me experience as a missionary. We were also given many opportunities in the novitiate to develop our personalities, gifts and talents. I gained confidence in speaking and stage appearance and learned to enjoy and do everything with full enthusiasm and dedication. The appreciation and acceptance of my talents, gifts and personality helped me to grow day by day in spiritual, intellectual and social spheres. Regarding my future, my cherished desire from childhood to be a nurse remained very strong in me although I was labeled as a born teacher. Novitiate days had their own challenges of coping with one another, along with the discipline and strict observances of silence and stillness. I was so fidgety in class that one day I was even sent out of class for not being still.
We made our first profession on 21st December 1967. The year after that, we were sent to Nazareth Convent, Ranchi, for juniorate and college studies. After my Intermediate Arts (IA) programme in Ranchi, I had a taste of varied teaching experiences and even secretarial work. I enjoyed whatever I did, whether teaching or secretary work.
As a Kindergarten (KG) teacher in St. Xavier’s School, Mokama, I did very well with teaching, even taught children dances and dramatics, and had, for the first time, a much-appreciated Teachers’ Day with a cultural programme. While teaching in St. Xavier’s, I became sick, lost weight, and the doctors told me that my health was not suitable for nursing. So; it was decided that I could pursue a ministry of social work. In the meantime, I was given the mission to continue to teach till the college opened. During that summer I went to Darjeeling and made my annual retreat. My intention was to decide whether I wanted to remain as a teacher or leave and become a nurse, which I considered as the most important profession in my life. I shared with the retreat master that my purpose of the retreat was to make that decision and serve people by fulfilling my heart’s long-cherished dream of becoming a nurse. His response to my desire was so positive. The first thing he told me was “Nirmala, please leave and become a nurse and lead a happy life.” Hearing that I felt so happy and felt that here was a person who understood me. He also told me before I made the final decision, to read Matthew Chapter 13: 45-48 (the parable of the pearl). As I read it, so many thoughts fled my mind. I came to my senses and realized that if I wanted to be a nurse in the world, I had plenty of opportunities, but my desire was to be a nun and serve the sick and the poor by being a nurse. I wanted to serve the sick by living a religious life as a missionary. Outside the religious context, I found no meaning in being a nurse. On hearing this, Father Joseph Lerch, SJ, guided me to realize that God’s ways of directing our lives are very strange. He told me that if I wanted to “purchase the pearl,” the price I had to pay was to sell my desire to be a nurse, which I considered to be of great value in my life. The more I reflected over it I realized that my deeper desire was to be a Nun and the service I wanted to do was dedicating myself to serve the sick. Painfully, I let go of my long-cherished desires and dreams to be a nurse to possess Jesus, as the priceless pearl of my committed life. It took about three days for me to feel peace with my decision. As I shared with Father Lerch, he told me “If God wants you to be a nurse, believe that someday”. Jokingly I told him “Unless a miracle happens”. He replied, “Nirmala, believe that miracles do happen.”
After my return to Mokama and recognizing my desire to give up nursing to possess the priceless pearl, I was allowed to pursue studies in social work and told to seek admission the following year. In the meantime, I taught KG children in Mokama. I enjoyed teaching the children, it was fun, and I could integrate all of my creative skills and become very much like a child in all that I did. Before going to school one afternoon, I paid a visit to the chapel and saw Sister Teresa Rose was there. That evening, when I returned from school, Sister Teresa Rose called me and said, “Looking at you in the chapel this afternoon, I was wondering why can’t you go for nursing.” That came as shocking news for me. Out of the blue, all the feelings came back to me. I took a day or two to discern and told Sister that I have no other thought in my mind except becoming a nurse if chances are offered to me. Sister told me to think seriously again and decide. I had no other thought except nursing, and I recalled the statement of my retreat master, “Nirmala, believe that miracles do happen”. I was told to apply for a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Nursing in Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, College of Nursing). Thus, in August 1970, I joined RAK – College of Nursing. Studying at the CON, a Central Government Institute, with colleagues from multicultural and varied religious backgrounds with only about three other Catholic Sisters, amid many worldly attractions, I experienced many challenges, threats, and risks to remaining rooted in my desire to keep Jesus, the Pearl whom I had purchased. My retreat resolution, the Gospel passage Matthew 13:16-17, kept me firm in maintaining Jesus as the Pearl and most valuable treasure of my life. As the days of studies progressed, I was confirmed and affirmed in my belief that: “Miracles do happen today, if we let God take possession of our lives and surrender ourselves totally to Him”.
After graduation in 1975, I joined Nazareth Hospital, Mokama, as an intern. With the able and efficient nurses and our Sisters, especially Sister Karuna Thottumarickal and Doctor Anne Elizabeth Elampapalathottiyil, I gained skill in nursing and tirelessly serving the sick and suffering without counting the cost. I loved every opportunity I had to reinforce the learning I’d received in the college. During my internship, on 8th December 1975, I made my perpetual vows and committed myself fully to walk the path of Jesus as an SCN. As I write this, one thought that comes to my mind is that whatever I did in my life, once I took it up, I enjoyed it thoroughly and gave my very best in fulfilling it with interest, enthusiasm, and commitment. While I was doing my internship, Sister Teresa Rose told me that they needed some help in Bakhtiarpur because they were short of staff there. She asked me if I could help out in Bakhtiarpur as a community health nurse since Sister Joel Urumpil was sick. Reaching out to the poor in the community and helping them, teaching them to live a healthy life was my passion. I readily agreed and happily went to Bakhthiarpur.
At Bakhtiarpur, I had plenty of opportunities to learn about maternity care, baby care, conducting deliveries, episiotomy stitching etc. as well as visiting the village houses from door to door to give BCG (tuberculosis vaccine). The number of delivery cases kept coming day and night and there was not a single dull moment. Under the expert guidance of Sister Mary Frances Sauer and Sister Mary John Nadackal, and with the help of Cecilia, the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), I gained knowledge and skill in management of pregnant women, newborn care, medical care to the needy, immunization, etc. People with all kinds of needs came 24/7. A bell would ring for us, and we all ran to attend the new case. I was there for a year, which I refer to as “my Year of Perpetual Excitement”. Truly, I would consider it my internship year in which I gained skill, confidence and knowledge in public health, maternity care, and immunization.
After a year, I returned to Nazareth Hospital and was appointed as the Director of Community Health, with part time teaching in the school of nursing. My time with the Community Health Department (CHD) gave me a chance to do various programmes in the villages, give awareness programmes, health education, nukads – Nukkad Natak: dramas, performed to raise awareness of subjects such as family planning, healthcare, girls’ education, etc. to the rural, illiterate people of Mokama. It also connected me with various groups of people, government officials, health personnel. and local people, both rich and poor alike. I found the eight years I spent with the rural poor very satisfying. I was able to integrate all the knowledge, creativity, and naturopathy, herbal medicine etc. and help people take advantage of low cost, effective health care. Every program conducted in the village or center was accompanied with health teaching in which my teaching experience became very handy. I consider those eight years of grassroots level working and being very close to the poor, as the GOLDEN years of my nursing career for which I became a nurse and “purchased the Priceless Pearl.”
After eight years in Community Health, I was appointed as the Assistant Director of the School of Nursing. Teaching, working with the students at various levels, creative teaching, extracurricular activities, etc. helped me to gain the love and confidence of the nurses. I found by sharing my values, knowledge, and ideas with the nurses, although I got limited opportunity to personally work as a bedside nurse, I could multiply my values, ideas, talents, and reach out to thousands of people through the nurses who served and continue to serve with love, compassion and wholehearted devotion to the sick all over the world. Multiplying my values and caring for the poor through the staff and students and seeing them provide excellent, compassionate, and dedicated service wherever they are posted, whether in the USA (United States of America), the UK (United Kingdom) or in India, hearing from their In-Charges and the appreciation of their dedication and for the education we provide at Nazareth Hospital has been very satisfying and rewarding. I feel very happy about the role we play as educators, and thereby replicating and multiplying our values in rendering compassionate loving care to the suffering.
After fourteen years of continuous life at Nazareth Hospital, I was given an opportunity to work at St. John’s Medical College, Bangalore, as a lecturer at the College of Nursing and to go for higher studies. I was appointed as a lecturer to BSc. of Nursing students, General Nursing students, and to Post Basic BSc. students. It was very challenging for me to teach some of the topics and I had to spend hours in the library reviewing my knowledge. In the process, I felt that I had sufficient knowledge in all the nursing subjects and that taking another two years to study for a Master of Science (MSc.) in Nursing would be a useless waste of time just to get a degree on paper. So, I pursued a post-graduate diploma in Health Care Administration. A few months after the study, I had the privilege of accompanying, for a few months, Sister Sushila Palatty who was terminally ill. Then I spent a few months as a substitute health care service provider at the hills of Almora. Those months were very refreshing and lovely, and the weather was so appealing, cool, and delightful.
After four months, I came back to Nazareth Hospital as the Director of Nursing Service (DON). From 1993 till 2000, I worked as the DON. Once again, working with the young graduates and instilling in them the precious values of Jesus the Divine Healer, then helping them to enjoy their profession by providing quality care was very rewarding. After some years, I visited some of my former students in UK, USA, and at some of the leading hospitals in India. Hearing from their In-Charges (supervisors), doctors, and associates about the quality services they provide, as well as their dedication, commitment, and passion was very encouraging and fulfilling. My heart was filled with gratitude to all our Sisters and colleagues from 1948 till the closure of the school of nursing in recent years, for the selfless and tireless service all our Sister tutors and doctors have given to the nurses all through the years.
Before I became so old and helpless, I had a great desire to work in a rural set up where our Sisters lived very close to the people at the grassroot level with no modern conveniences. I was offered Chaibasa and Mandair. I chose Mandair and worked there for three years as In-Charge of the Health Centre. Three of us were there, Sisters Philo Bading, Aruna Kerketta, and I. All three of us worked as a team helping one another and enjoyed getting involved in all the activities regardless of our assigned mission. After the initial years of working in Community Health, my life in Mandair was thrilling. There was no running water or electricity, and very few public transportation facilities. Working in the field, kitchen, adjusting to a truly rural set up, and living so close to nature was very refreshing. The memory of those days is still very fresh in my mind. We did everything together, family prayer, helping with school functions, attending to the sick, Church functions, meetings. Many of the people we cared for believed in the influence of the evil spirit as the cause of illness, and at times, we had to literally do an exorcism, “Bhoot Jhadna”. Through the people’s deep faith and our trust in God, a number of women were helped with prayer and medical assistance to get well, to “get rid of the evil influence” in which they so strongly believed. Those three years were another “golden era” in my life, and I cherish every moment lived there as a deepening of my trust in God, Divine Providence, and simple, loving community living.
In 2003, when the whole world was suffering from HIV/AIDS, Bihar too had many cases of AIDs. The government asked Nazareth Hospital to serve the HIV affected and infected by opening a Community Care Centre. I was called back to Nazareth Hospital as the Administrator to take up this mission and the challenge in health care to meet the need of the hour. So, once again back at Nazareth Hospital, I was privileged to carry out the programme with the help of the government, active involvement of the staff, and the support of the local public. There were fears and apprehension about the future of the hospital as we cared for HIV AIDS patients. We were the first hospital to start the programme in Bihar and we were able to care for thousands of HIV infected and their affected families. I thank God for the daring spirit and the risk-taking opportunity God provided for us in caring for the HIV/AIDS infected, and affected and for using me as an instrument in helping to carry out that mission.
I retired from my role as Administrator in September 2010 after rendering service for about thirty years and having held all the key positions in the hospital, from the Director of Community Outreach to Administrator, a rare privilege. I took about three months for renewal and got ready for the next phase of Mission among the children at Asha Niwas, Gurgaon. Visiting the red-light areas and seeing the condition of the mothers of some of our children were shocking realities. It pained me to realize what women go through and suffer to earn a living. After about ten months, I was offered the mission of fundraising as the Director of the Eastern Province Development Office (EPDO). The fundraising mission got me reconnected with the Nazareth Hospital Alumni and many benefactors in India and abroad. I developed a taste for this fund-and-friend-raising mission. Visiting Nazareth Hospital alumni in UK, a few States in the USA, and in India got me reconnected with many of the Nazareth Hospital alumni, many of whom were my own students. Forming an alumni group and keeping up with them through periodic gatherings, experience sharing, celebrations, picnics, etc. rejuvenated and renewed our spirit and deepened our bond.
While I was still working at EPDO I got a special offer to work in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India-Coalition for AIDS and Related Diseases (CBCI CARD), a Church based registered organization financed by government and global fund, which worked for eliminating tuberculosis (TB) from India. Collaboration and networking with likeminded people had been a long-cherished dream of mine. So, I took up the job at CBCI CARD as its Executive Director in March 2016 while continuing the EPDO work. After holding both posts for two years, my growing age and deteriorating physical condition led me to resign from the EPDO. I continued with the position as Executive Director CBCI CARD. My companions were lay people belonging to all religions. Working with the team for eliminating TB from India by 2025, directing, guiding our team to reach out to the families to conscientize them, helping them to avail all facilities offered for their well-being from early diagnosis to treatment and cure, I found my community outreach service once again taking deeper root and helping people to help themselves by taking all available service. So, till 31st July 2021, I was privileged to work with various groups of staff and provide comprehensive health care to the victims of TB in four states of India. During my tenure, our team was able to help lakhs of people by case finding through door-to-door visits and accompanying cases for diagnosis and treatment through the Directly Observed Therapy (DOT) program. Additional help was given to them through nutritional program livelihood, skill training etc. During the past five years, I found my experience to be very enriching and have connected with many Church, civil, NGO (Non-Government Organizations) and ordinary people. Although up in age, the passion, care, recognition, love and appreciation of all team members, partners and authorities keep me going in full swing and I have enjoyed every bit of the work and its challenges.
As I look back at my fifty-seven years of SCN life, I find myself happy and I can confidently say that I have lived my committed life fully with joy, enthusiasm, and passion for mission. I enjoyed my life as a whole and gave myself fully in service whether in community or in mission. I thank God for keeping me healthy always, united in love, enthusiastic, energetic, and useful in both community activities and mission.
In the years ahead I would like to share my gifts of deep faith and love for the Eucharist. I would like to spend more time in prayer giving my time and presence in loving, empowering, and by being a graceful, loving, caring elderly Sister in my own unique way. I would like to do this in any of our local communities within the facility available there rather than in a retired home.
14 September 2021
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Such a blessing to read of your life and our shared desires teaching vs, nursing, staying active etc, Love the last picture especially. Martha in Quincy MA/
Yes, Nirmala, being a contemporary of yours I certainly appreciate your commitment, especially to the sick and the poor. You have been an inspiration.