As part of Vocations Week, Sr Marie la Colombiere, of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, writes of her Order in India
A HUNDRED and fifty years is a commendable span of time. When those years have been filled with a commitment of service to people, a celebration is more than well in order!
The Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary will celebrate the 150th year of their journey across India in November 1992. The congregation has been active in India through eight states and in 309 institutions, touching thousands of people in love and service.
The sisters constitute a small band of 300 women reaching out to a section of India's millions.
The congregation was born in the heart of a young girl of 18. Claudine Thevenet, who lived through the bloodiest chapter of French history the Revolution of 1789.
She had survived the Terror and had suffered excruciating personal agonies, such as witnessing, when she was still only 18 years old. the brutal execution of her two brothers.
It is said that when Claudine's brothers survived the firing squad, they were clubbed to death with rifles before her eyes. Their last words to her were: "Forgive, Claudine, as we forgive."
Claudine Thevenet went beyond their request: she drew her inspiration from her crucified God and with faith in his design she responded to the misery despair and degradation around her.
She was drawn to the young and especially the girls who were helpless hostages of the Revolution horrors. In 1815 Fr Jacques Coindre, finding two ragged little orphan girls half dying of cold and hunger, brought them to her for food and shelter. So began the work which we in India are this year celebrating with awe and gratitude.
By 1816 the group formed under the guidance of Fr Coindre had become an association. The association spread in quite an astonishing manner, with dozens of young women joining its nucleus within the first few months of its existence.
As its primary aim, the association aimed to give the young of all classes of society an experience of the "active goodness of God" through a Christian education. The association was. at this stage, only a pious union its only binding force deep mutual friendship and a burning zeal to save the young.
In 1823, in almost prophetic manner, Fr Coindre impressed upon the association the need to form a religious congregation: he would work to secure papal approbation for them. The sisters agreed to follow his instructions, and elected Claudine Thevenet their first General.
Their charges would be taught a trade in order to earn a livelihood later on. Claudine died in 1837.
Five years later, Mgr Borghi, Vicar Apostolic of Tibet and Hindustan, sent an appeal to the Vicar General of Gap (France) for sisters who would be prepared to serve as educators.
Epidemics of cholera and plague, drought and famine. had led to the multiplying of orphans and abandoned children.
The sisters felt torn: though they felt the need for their services in India, they also knew that this extensive mission would strain their small congregation. The Europeans of the time viewed India, after all, as a distant land of vast jungles and arid plains, wild animals and serpents.
No religious order had as yet ventured to the mysterious East. The sisters, led by their Superior General Mother Andrew (who had succeeded their saintly foundress) received Mgr Borghi's appeal with trepidation as well as joy.
And yet all shared the sense of having been honoured by such an appeal: to be able to proclaim the goodness of God to the young in a needy land; to face the opposition of a different culture and religion: to separate themselves from France and their families.
On August 15 1841. they sent their unanimous "yes" to Mgr Borghi. Six religious were chosen to be the first Jesus and Mary Missionaries to India and preparations for a journey to the unknown commenced.
This is our celebration: the celebration of love. A love that moved six European women because of a burning love for God, to undertake a loving voyage to a land and people they had determined in their hearts to accept and serve.
At the Basilica of Fourviere on January 27 1842, Mothers Therese, Ambrose, Paul, Joachim, Augustine and an Irish novice parted from their sisters and said their farewells to France. The chosen hand set off from Marseilles the next day, bound for India.
A first-hand account of the journey can still be gleaned from the many interesting letters that survive from this period. The journey from Marseilles to Agra in India lasted for ten months due to a multitude of mishaps.
The monsoon season rendered a journey by road almost impossible, so that to reach Calcutta the sisters had to sail around the sub-continent. They arrived in Calcutta on July 27 1842.
Agra, their mission field, was reached in November. The cemetery in Agra is a silent but powerful testimony to the love and zeal of these first sisters. Martyrs to duty, they passed to God in the bloom of life between the years of 20 to 40 under conditions of scorching heat, famine, epidemics, internal skirmishes and later, the Indian mutiny of 1857.
More sisters came out to India to replace them and soon, young Indian women drawn by their spirit, work and the harmony that bound them, joined their ranks.
On the political front India was a cauldron of consistent skirmishes between the Europeans on her soil and the Indian powers. Socially, the Indian people had become victims of what may be regarded as one of the most vicious of evils the caste system.
Against this background. the Sisters of Jesus and Mary were among the pioneers in the education of girls. Claudine's vision was sound: woman is the heart of society, because only woman can be mother, with a great influence for good in society.
Until their coming. Indian women' education was neglected and looked upon with suspicion, ridicule and social disgrace. Until the end of the 18th century not a single school for girls existed in the country.
The most significant contribution made by the Christian missionaries to Indian national life has undoubtedly been in the field of education.
In 1842, the sisters opened a boarding school for European girls and another for Indian orphan girls.
Wherever the young congregation spread chiefly, at the beginning. to military stations schools for European and Indian girls stood side by side, sharing equally the zeal and affection of the sisters.
It may also be mentioned that three religious of Jesus and Mary received the Kaisere-i-Hind award for meritorious service in education.
Despite the many difficulties the sisters encountered, their annals point to a group of women who never lost their senses of humour.
One diary records their first taste of curry: "Nothing doubting, we helped ourselves ... even those among us who were most mortified had not the courage to try a second helping..."
The French sisters were followed by Irish, English, Spanish, Canadian, American, Mexican and Cuban sisters almost 200 of them.
By the turn of the century, the number of schools had increased and stretched from as far north as Sialkot (now in Pakistan) to Puna in Deccan India.
Today there are only three European Sisters in India, and we thank them and those before them for the rich legacy we have had handed down to us.
We serve in 39 institutions, in eight states, running three colleges (one of them Hindi medium). two teacher training colleges, 20 high schools (S Hindi medium), and a school for the handicapped.
After independence and in keeping with the original vision, we moved into the villages, and today we have 11 rural projects. At these centres, the sisters run hostels for the girls who attend the local village school.
The girls are fed and sheltered. taught hygiene and home-keeping together with a useful occupation. Attached to these are health care units which bring practical knowledge of health and nutrition to rural women.
From its inception the congregation has worked to answer the needs of the time: caring for abandoned military children and girls from all classes of society.
What is our need in India today? 80 per cent of India is rural and we are, for all the commendable work being done, a very small minority.
We must rethink how we can widen the scope of our work. Perhaps we can teach these women to discover their creative talents, thereby gain a livelihood, become economically independent, and grow in self worth.
The mission of reaching out to and uplifting women, both in rural and urban areas, must touch the conscience of every Christian today, when the suppression of women from female foeticides to dowry deaths have become tragedies to which we are immune.
In the words of Our Lord: "Unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains single grain. But if it dies, it yields a great harvest."