Sister Sheela Palamoottil: A Profile

Posted by Kelly McDaniels

May 7, 2024

I was born on August 17, 1947, in Ettumanoor, Kerala. Later, my family moved to Kanakkary, Kothanalloor Parish. I am the fifth among the seven children of my parents, Mr. Joseph Palamoottil and Mrs. Thresiamma. My brothers and sisters are Mariakkutty, Thresiamma, Joseph, Agnes, Philomina and Thomas. At present, the only living sibling is Mariakkutty, who is 94 years old and bedridden.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil with her parents and brothers

My sixth sister died while I was in Class IX. After that, I had to shoulder many responsibilities due to my sister’s months-long hospitalization. The following year, my fourth sister also died of hepatitis. So, I had to discontinue schooling for three years due to financial difficulties. After my oldest brother began working, he had to pay all the dues of my school fees and enrolled me again in school from Class IX. I was active in Mission League and sodality all through my school days and I was the school leader too. I helped my parents at home, on the farm, and prayed earnestly that I could become a missionary. My desire to become a nun grew in my heart at a young age. Ours was a devout Catholic family and my faith was deepened by my parents.

My father had a mini library where I had the opportunity to read inspiring stories of saints. Listening to the stories of missionaries who visited our parish confirmed my desire to join the convent. My father knew Sister Mary Chakkalakal’s brother, Father Thomas Chakkalackal, who spoke highly about the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Thus, he was instrumental in my joining the SCNs. The words “Sisters of Charity of Nazareth,” which I found in the vocation promotion advertisement, fascinated me. Immediately after the SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) examination, I was waiting for my result, and at the right time, the advertisement about the SCNs coming for recruitment, appeared in the newspaper. I persuaded my father to talk to the Sisters. It was then that Sisters Josephine Naduvilekunnel and Ann George Mukalel interviewed me. It was so difficult for the brother who educated me to part with me as he expected me to become a teacher like him and support the family. With much difficulty, he gave me permission and supported me all through my life.

On the 21st June 1968, my pilgrim journey began, with another fifteen candidates, accompanied by Sisters Anne Elizabeth Elampalathottiyil and Ann George from Cochin Terminal to Mokama. On the 24th, we were welcomed with angelic smiles by the Sisters when we arrived at Mokama. Thus, began the first day of my missionary life.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil with her novice mistress Sister Patricia Mary Kelly

I reached Mokama on the 24th of June 1968 and entered postulancy on September 11th, 1969, received the habit, and entered the novitiate on July 3rd, 1970. I took the name Sheela at that time, although for all official purposes, I still use my name as Siciliamma. I made my first vows on the 9th of June, 1972, and perpetual vows on December 1st, 1980.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil with her brothers on the day she made first vows

After making first vows, I was appointed to Nazareth Bhavan, Sokho, in the Munger District of Bihar. I was there from June 1972 to July 1975. This was a pioneering mission with Sisters Maria Palathingal and Francine Moozhiyil as the pioneer women.

Father Daniel Rice, SJ, invited me to start the school. There was neither a school building nor any children. I began going to the villages, searching for children. The first classroom was an open shed and there, I conducted the first class. Later, three teachers who had studied only up to Class V joined me. I trained them according to my God-given abilities.

In the evenings, I spent my time in the villages, evangelizing the people through catechism classes. During the holidays, I spent time with Sister Maria and assisted her in giving vaccination and immunization programs. There was a chicken pox epidemic in the villages, and I helped Sister Maria Palathingal. I also had several training programs for parents to be better citizens in the church and society. There was a big gathering for the Sports Day. I was wonderstruck at the thought that I, an unskilled person, could conduct all these activities successfully.

This was a challenging mission as the people were utterly poor and starving. It was during this time that I was affected by tuberculosis and I had to take ninety injections. Little did anyone know it was going to ruin my health, leaving me with a lasting lack of balance. Sokho was a place used for exposure programs for those in formation, especially the Jesuits. After three years, I was transferred from there. When I left, the school was upgraded to the 5th standard. I drew a lot of inspiration to be a true missionary from Father Dan Rice, SJ.

From July 1975 to April 1976, I was a student in Jyoti Niwas College at Fraser Town, Bangalore. For the first year of pre-university college, I resided at Nazareth Sadan, Bangalore. The college was shifted to Hosur Road in Madiwala in June 1976. Since Nazareth Sadan was closed by then, I stayed in the hostel for the rest of my studies in Bangalore. During my college studies, I also joined the youth programme called AICUF (All India Catholic University Federation) and NSS (National Social Service) Team.

From 1977 to April 1980, I completed my studies in social work at Roshini Nilaya, Mangalore. I joined a six-month programme of tertianship in preparation for my final commitment. I made my final vows on December 1st in 1980.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil with Aisha Kavalakattu (a novice) in Jamtara, 1985

I was on the Jamtara mission from December 1980 to July 1985. The Bishop of Dumka, His Lordship Telesphore Toppo, invited the Sisters to begin the mission and I was a pioneer there during the time of Sister Margaret Rodericks as Provincial. Sister Beena Chirackal, a newly professed, Philomina Hembrom, a candidate, and Aisha Kavalakkattu, a novice, were my community members. Sister Gracy Thombrakudiyil joined the community after six months. We lived in an old building which was the former residence of the Jesuits. There was no church close by, but occasionally, a priest came from Madhupur, a close by sub-station, to meet our spiritual needs.

After the big welcome of the first day, we were left with no stove to cook our meal for the next day. We put three bricks together as an instant stove and used firewood to manage our kitchen. Margaret, our provincial, was amazed. Once again, we went in all four directions to look for the “lost sheep” of our Christian faith. The place was predominantly populated by the Santhals.

With the help of Father Samuth, SJ, from Madhupur parish, we contacted Catholics of villages up to thirty kilometers away with the help of Father Samuth, SJ, from Madhupur parish organizing regular monthly prayers and celebrating the Eucharist with them. I was able to make people aware of the need for education.

With the help of the Director of Social Development Center of Dumka Diocese, Father Richard, we started an organization named “Ebhen Baise” (“awakening the people”). The first village we organized was Beva. After the seminar, three people from the village offered their cowsheds as classrooms. They also provided a teacher from the village. Sister Philomina Hembrom, herself a Santhal, was the second teacher. As the days went by, we requested and got a hall built by the Bishop. The school was shifted to Bewa and the first principal, Sister Sonia Kattackal was appointed. Hence, I moved out and started five other non-formal centers. I also helped Sister Beena Chirackal conduct health camps and mobile clinics. We began a tailoring centre for the young girls, a hostel for the children, and prepared several families for baptism.

I was able to change some structures and instill in the people the kingdom values of love, peace, and justice. I was also able to bring the classroom among the people by holding classes in the villages. Groups such as novices, Jesuit tertians, and diocesan theologians took advantage of the social analysis sessions I arranged. I also was instrumental in helping the diocesan centre with programmes for women and better health care. Money being a problem, I commuted most of the time on foot and rarely by train. I had the responsibility as the coordinator-cum-administrator of the community and overall ministry in charge.

In August 1985, I moved to Nazareth Academy, Gaya, as a pioneer in pastoral ministry. It was very difficult to break through certain customs and traditions there. For example, it was believed that only men could proclaim the word of God. With the support of Sister Ann Palatty, I was able to empower other women to proclaim the word from the pulpit. Father Ziebert, SJ, then parish priest, appointed a lady to accompany me to the families. Both of us visited the Catholic families regularly. I stayed in the village called Sonabigha and conducted a one-week retreat there.

It was a time when the Eastern Province thought about giving a new direction to our institutions. So, I tried many new experiments such as starting outreach programmes for the students. Sister Sujita, SND, who was called upon to evaluate our ministry, was so amazed to hear from the people about how commendable my work was!

By now, I was appointed as the Social Action Ministry Coordinator for the Province. I needed some exposure to strengthen my ministry. Hence, I moved to Bihar Dalit Vikas Samiti, Barh, in 1987. There I covered a vast area of five districts organizing women empowerment programmes. I walked with the staff for hours and days eating whatever they could offer and sleeping under the trees or on the top of their terrace. Usually, meetings were held at night since the people returned home from work only at that time. The next day we would move on to another village. For five years I had no room of my own, sleeping at night only after the male staff left for their homes after work. Mother Earth carried us in her lap. After Sandhya Baxla’s drowning during the floods in 1987, I was asked to go to Khagaria to organize several relief works. After three weeks of effort, though other teams returned, I stayed on for nine more months to bring comfort and solace to the flood affected victims.

I had never thought of becoming a lawyer until I experienced the exploitation of our people by the landlords. In 1994, I completed my Bachelor of Legislative Law (LLB) from Anugrah Narayan Singh (ANS) College Barh, Patna District, affiliated to Magadh Univerty and graduated as a lawyer for the Congregation. I was enrolled in the Bihar State Bar Council in 1996.

From February 1992 to November 1992, I was in Shahpur, Madhepura District. The Sisters were living in a hut given by the people. Since Sister Ann George had gone to the USA for meetings and Sister Sunita Vayalipara, for treatment, our people thought that the Sisters had abandoned them. I was sent to revive the place. I met Bishop Thakur of Muzaffarpur and updated him about the need for a convent. He sanctioned the money and we built a convent. We are immensely grateful to the Bishop for his understanding. While the construction was going on, I organized the people, gave affirmation that SCNs would continue to work and restarted the education of the village children along with Sisters Xavier Valiakunnackal and Sister Bibiana Kindo. Later, I handed over the work to Sister Joyce Kalapuracal.

Rajgir is a historical and tourist place, but the women and children of Rajgir had no status in there politically or economically and remained illiterate. Christian presence was also lacking. This was the time India province was venturing into new challenges. Sister Lucy Puthukkattu from Community Health Centre, Bakhtiarpur, drove me to Rajgir by Jeep. I was appointed to begin missionary activities there. With the previous contact I had made, we were able to rent part of Mr. Ram Chandra Paswan’s house at Block Mode as our residence-cum-office.

On 3rd July 1993, I started visiting the people and making contacts with the help of two lay people. In the evening, I bought a kerosene stove, cooking vessels, provisions and made kitchdi (rice and dal mixed) as my first meal. After spending days in survey and study, I named the organization as Chetanalaya, Rajgir, which I successfully got registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. The aim was to bring all-around development of Dalits, women and children, and the marginalized. Permission for the Ministry in Rajgir was given by Sister Sarita Manavalan and her team.

I started the ministry with Rs. 1000/- from the finance office. After a few months, I had to look for funds from elsewhere like Bihar Education Project through Gaya Nazareth Academy Society. I was able to support twenty Balwadi Centres, twenty non-formal centres, and twenty adult education centers through this project. Later on, from the Central Government, Human Resource Department, we were granted funds for twenty-five more non-formal centres, Balwadi, and adult education centres. I am ever indebted to Sister Ann Palatty for her unwavering support of the poor and marginalized. With the local support we were able to take care of another five centers, hence a total of fifty centers.

Sister Elsy Vettical joined the local community for a short while in February 1994. Then Sister Ann Moyalan joined for a year and initiated the health programmes followed by Sisters Mary John Nadakal and Archana Valiaparampil. With the help of Diakonia Agency, we started health programmes in twenty-five villages which include antenatal and immunization programmes. We trained twenty-five health workers, empowered them with home remedies, and both preventive and promotive health care programmes. Sister Anne Philip Gnavally joined the community for a short while, giving me moral support. By this time, we were able to acquire a plot of six acres of land in Hansrajpur Village and constructed the health centre. It became possible only because of the determination and hard work of Sister Bridget Kappalumakal, the Provincial at that time.

The health centre was blessed in 2000 by Bishop Benedict Osta , the Bishop of Patna during Sister Teresa Kotturan’s time as provincial. As a lawyer, I took the lead in forming the Bar Council in Rajgir Sub-Divisional Court. I was the first President of the Bar Council in Rajgir which was registered in 2000.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil with Bishop Benedict Osta in Rajgir

I believed in not only taking up individual cases, but also imparting legal knowledge to the people of the area. Through various activities like International Women’s Day, Literacy Day, and Sports and Arts Day, through conducting leadership programmes and exposure programmes, children and parents were awakened to the need for education. As a result, the majority of children were enrolled in schools and realized the importance of continuing their higher education. Through self-help groups, issues pertaining to their lives were discussed, solutions sought, and they became more powerful. Labourers bargained for better wages. The group decided they could take loans from their monthly savings, with so little interest. Thus, dependency on landlords and money lenders was reduced.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil working with children

Eco-friendly activities were given equal importance. We began growing fruits and vegetables which supplied our needs and we shared them with our neighbors.

It was challenging, fearful, and traumatic when I was trapped by the dacoits on my return journey from Patna to Rajgir from Patna. The dacoits stopped the bus, pushed the driver out and took charge of the vehicle. I hid my bag containing money and Registration Certificate of the Society between my feet and covered it with my sari. They took away my silver chain and watch and continued their search for quite some time under gunpoint for the valuables of other passengers. I kept calling Jesus’ name, and they did not come back to me afterwards. I underwent two more robberies caused by the landlords as they were threatened by my presence and the empowerment of our people. They even used some of our staff to form a trade union, in an attempt to destroy our movement. I thank God for the protection and care of me and I am ever grateful to my Congregation for the support, encouragement and their trust in me to venture out into the unknown. As I look back, I am amazed how God has used me as His instrument in bringing His kingdom into the midst of poverty, illiteracy, and chaos, and gathering the scattered Catholics into one fold. I passed on my mantle to Sister Rose Plathottathil and left for Korimahua in the Giridih District in 2001.

From 2001 January to 2002 June, I moved among the people to the villages, visiting homes, organizing Mass for the Catholics, conducting non-formal classes, and empowering the women. In the substation called Thilayabani, I organized five non-formal centres. These centers were handed over to the Sisters of St. Anne of Ranchi. Sister Sudha Puthoor continued the work in Korimahua as I was transferred to Gurgaon in Haryana.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil empowering the women in Korimahua

God was calling me to something new. In Asha Niwas, Gurgaon, from 2002 to 2004, I was instrumental in getting the children of the sex workers from GB Road (Garstin Bastion Road), Delhi. With the help of the staff, each day we would bring more children to our Centre. This was a collaborative ministry, and I had to be confined only to this.

Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam, the Vice Provincial at that time, invited me to move on to Kakkavayal in January 2004. I was there from 2004 to June 2012. It was a time of stagnation regarding the ministry in Kakkavayal. There was an offer to start a blind school, and I was sent there to begin it. After the survey and study, we found that it was not the felt need. I started contacting other like-minded NGOs, parishes, and Sisters and realized that collaboration was a better way to function there. We started a children’s home where the tribal children, children of single parents, and children from poor families could benefit. This was registered under the Kerala Orphanage Control Board. The children went to the Government Higher Secondary school, Kakkavayal. I networked with “Neethi Vedi” (Altar of Justice), and JWALA-child line, Wynad Sthri Kshema Samithi and Stree Vedi-Keral, network of women’s organizations. We were actively involved in the issues of women and children. I was the administrator of Neeti Vedi.

I also took part in parish ministry. I extended my services to Mariam English Medium School, Anakkampoil, as the manager of the school while I was the coordinator and administrator of the ministry.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil caring for the earth in Kakkavayal

Through eco-friendly activities, not only did we care for the earth, but our children were partially supported by the produce of the land. I am thankful to our province for the help and support from the Ministry Fund without which our ministry in Kakkavayal could not have flourished.

I was elected as the first vice provincial of Bangalore Province in 2012, after the bifurcation of the two provinces, namely Patna and Bangalore. I served in this capacity till May 2017. I also undertook the responsibility as administrator of Nazareth Convent, Chandapura, which gave me an opportunity to serve my Sisters.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil as the first Vice Provincial of the Bangalore Province

It called forth my ability to organize things as well as to function as a liaison for the Social Action ministry in Bangalore Province. In June 2017, the mantle of leadership as Vice Provincial was passed on to Sister Beena Chirackal after the Province elections, and I was appointed to the Kallanode mission.

It was a challenge to collaborate with the parish activities initially, but later it turned out to bear fruit in abundance. My simple ways and approachable nature helped me to win over hearts and my ministry became more meaningful.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil with workers in Kallanode

Visiting families and being with the sick and the bedridden, animating the unit ward prayers and women’s association, palliative care, and programmes for senior citizens and taking care of the land and its resources kept me busy and brought me closer to the people. Being the Coordinator of the community and attending parish council meetings brought a bond between us and the parish.

We had an idea to start a day care centre to cater to the babies. But in Kallanode, we established a day care centre for the elderly who come to our centre from Monday to Friday, 9.30 to 3.30 p.m. They eagerly await every morning to come to the centre and spend time in prayer, listen to various inputs, do exercises, recreate, and share their life stories. Picnic in a year is an opportunity to showcase their hidden talents. It was a dream come true to actualize the day care center once the new convent building was completed. The parish priest announced in the church, when appreciating the work done by us, that I was one of the main pillars of our parish. Our day care centre is upheld by the diocese of Tamarasserry as we have pioneered in the senior citizens programme.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil involved in women empowerment in Kallnode

Pilgrims keep moving. So am I now in Anakkampoyil from 25th May 2023 till this date. I am appointed as administrator-cum-coordinator and to be a presence to my Sisters in the community. Pastoral ministry being a priority for me, and us as a Congregation, attending ward level prayer meetings has become part and parcel of my life. On the part of the parish, there is a dream to begin ministry to the senior citizens of the parish and the parish priest is looking to me to take the initiative. If God is willing, I am hopeful for it in the near future. I am grateful to God for the way my hands and feet move. God alone knows my faltering steps! Thanks to the Almighty for holding me as precious, and for protecting me from all harm.

Sister Sheela Palamoottil

It gives me immense joy and a sense of satisfaction as I look back over the years to know that I could empower the weak, marginalized, deprived sections of our society to bring the kingdom values of peace, and justice and harmony. As St. Paul says, “I have neither gold nor silver,” but the love of God impelled me to walk into the highways and byways, bringing peace and love to the broken hearts and by being a voice for the voiceless. I am grateful to God and my Congregation for the support and the trust placed in me and my Sisters and collaborators in every mission which has encouraged me to be whom I am.

 

Interested in reading more Marie Menard Committee stories? Click here: https://nazareth.org/tag/marie-menard/

2 Comments

  1. Ann Palatty

    Sheela, I have walked quite a few miles with you along your missionary journey. You have been and are a woman who have remained at the grass roots. May God be praised for your inspirational love for the underprivileged.

    Reply
  2. Joel

    I read it in one sitting! I have been part of Sheela’s mission. Thank you Sheela.

    Reply

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