A septuagenarian Catholic nun has won the hearts of people, mostly Hindus, in western India with her work among mentally ill persons found living on roadsides. Many call her the “Mother Teresa of Mithapur.”
Many in India view people with mental illness as dirty, potentially violent and even cursed. Inside the vehicle, Sister Elsie Vadakkekara of the Sisters of St. Ann of Providence in India sits on the rear seat and checks whether she has brought along sufficient paper plates and water pouches. “We give rice, roti [flattened bread made of wheat flour], a mixed vegetable curry and a water pouch to everyone,” she said.
Siruka, a Hindu who accompanies the nun on her mission, says the quantity of food differs from person to person. “Most take two roti, rice and vegetables. There are some who eat eight or 10 roti. What is interesting is that the sister knows each one’s requirement and distributes accordingly,” he said.
Siruka, who says he is a former alcoholic, joined the nun as her driver after quitting the habit. He is so involved with the work that he has never taken a day off since joining her. “I know if I take leave, they may not get food in time. They keep waiting for us and, therefore, I do not miss a single day,” he explains.
Sr. Vadakkekara says a woman helps her cook food in the convent except on Sundays. As the nun’s yellow vehicle passes through various lanes around Mithapur, covering a radius of 17 square miles with at least 40 stops, people rush toward the vehicle to collect their share of food. Currently, she feeds 45 people who are mentally ill and living in unhygienic and inhuman conditions. In some cases, the sister or her driver calls out their names and they come out to collect their meals. Others remain at their place, under a tree or in the corner of an abandoned building. In that case, the nun or Siruka seeks them out to hand them the food.
Many of them smile after collecting their packets and walk away, but some take the food without expression. Smile or no smile, Vadakkekara blesses everyone, touching their head or shoulder. She hugs the women.
“Earlier, I felt so bad to touch such persons, as they are so filthy,” sr.Vadakkekara admits. “But now I see the face of Jesus in everyone. Wouldn’t I embrace him if Jesus comes in this form before me?”
The nun, a medical nurse, has been working in a private hospital for 37 years. “But this work has transformed me and brought me closer to Jesus. I can’t explain the happiness and satisfaction I have now,” she says. If needed, the sister will bandage a wound but normally does not have time to offer medical help to people on the roadside.
Her day starts 3 a.m. “I spend my first two and a half hours in private prayer and then join the community prayers and Eucharist,” she says. “Prayer is the rock on which I stand.” At 7 a.m., she is at Tata Hospital in Mithapur, where she visits her patients and inquires about their well-being before the doctor on duty makes his rounds. She works in the hospital until 11 a.m. and then returns to the convent to embark on her meal distribution mission, which she finishes by 2 p.m.
She later joins the community prayers and spends some time with the elderly people in the neighborhood. She returns to the hospital at 4 p.m. to work until 7 p.m.
Fr. Vinod Karumalikal, a local priest, says that people with mental illness require special care, “but their family members just throw them out on the roads.”
The priest, who sometimes joins the nun in the food distribution, says many families take those with mental illnesses by train to the last station on the India-Pakistan border and dump them there, in a safer area on the seaside. “Even though the church started a shelter home for the mentally ill, it did not succeed as they never stayed in it and the idea was abandoned,” he adds. “The sisters are doing a ministry to the least,” he says. He is pleased that the sisters get “so much public support that we don’t need to buy vegetables, rice and other materials for cooking.”
Himmant Bhai, a wholesale dealer of onions and potatoes, says he is ready to sponsor anything for Sr. Vadakkekara. Bhai offers her as many free onions and potatoes as she wants. “Even at midnight, if I get a call from the nun, I open my shop,” he said. “If there is a shortage in my shop, I purchase the items from another shop for them.”
He says he and traders help the nun because they know she is doing a noble job that they cannot do. “Any shop in the town is ready to help her, as people are convinced about her commitment to the cause,” Bhai adds.
Sr. Vadakkekara says the shop owners are “so good to me that they ask me to pick as much of the vegetables as I want.” Dev Bhai, a retired private company employee who is now engaged in watch repairing, says he prays to God to grant Vadakkekara long life so that she could help more destitute people. “She serves those who need help the most,” he said. Many like him say that only Christians can do this kind of work. (Saji Thomas, GSR)