What does it mean to be a nun? It is not exactly what films show us – living a conscientious life in the serene confines of an abbey and turning the rosary beads to the name of God. For several nuns in Kerala, donning the habit also means bracing for a constant fight against the authoritative and patriarchal voices in the Church, dealing with sexual and emotional harassment and even struggling to stay alive if they make unsavoury noises. Here are a few stories of struggle, suffering, and triumph.
The Kuravilangadu sisters and other brave nuns
In September 2018, the sisters of Kuravilangadu convent in Kottayam broke tradition, when, they, in defiance of the Oath of Obedience walked out of the convent to start an agitation outside the Kerala High Court, demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal for the alleged rape of a nun.
Kerala had never witnessed such a mass agitation in which nuns, in loud and clear voice, raised slogans, demanding justice for the survivor who alleged that she was raped at least 13 times by Bishop Mulakkal. The strike garnered support from various organisations from different corners of the world, irrespective of political leanings. (The Additional District and Sessions Court in Kottayam on Friday acquitted Bishop Mulakkal in the case after the prosecution failed to prove charges against him).
By the time the Kuravilangadu sisters came forward to register a complaint of rape, the people of Kerala had become familiar with the bravery of nuns and their steely resolve to fight the authoritarian and patriarchal practices within the Church.
Sister Lucy Kalappura of Fransiscan Clarist Congregation in Manathawady rattled the big bosses by speaking in favour of the rape survivor. She, in return, was expelled from the Church, but refused to give in. The ‘charges’ against Sister Lucy were many. Not only was she targeted for speaking against Bishop Mulakkal, but was also blamed and shamed for adopting certain “lifestyle” choices. She was accused of obtaining a driving licence, buying a car, writing poetry – even publishing a book –, giving interviews to the media, participating in TV panel discussions and coming late to the convent in the night. She was asked to explain these ‘deviations’. Sister’s Lucy’s appeals to the Vatican against her dismissal from the Church fell on deaf ears.
She continues her fight till date. She has filed a case to get compensation for leaving the convent, has not stopped talking to the media, and continues appearing on TV debates and writing poems. She also published her autobiography In the name of Christ in which she makes very serious allegations of sexual harassment against priests.
Even before Sister Lucy came out loud against the priests, there was Sister Jesmi, former principal of Vimala College in Thrissur, who had been a nun for 33 years with Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) church. Sister Jesmi left the convent, gave up the habit (the nun’s dress) after she could no more take the emotional torment the job demanded and the alleged undemocratic and inhuman treatment meted out to nuns. She announced that she left the Church because she was in love with the God and the Church was no more a place where the God existed. In her bestselling autobiography Amen she too has disclosed several incidents of harassment and sexual assaults in the Church.
Fighting patriarchy of clergy
There are success stories too. The epic victory of six sisters of Little Flower Convent at Njarakkal in Ernakulam is a unique story of triumph not only over the hierarchy and power of the Church, but the patriarchy of clergy too.
The Little Flower Convent, a 70-year-old establishment in Njarakkal has 3 acres and 69 cents of land in which the sisters run two schools – Little Flower High School and St Joseph’s (Unaided) School. However, the parish priests of St. Mary’s Church, who were entrusted with the administrative work of the schools, staked claim over the convent land despite records saying otherwise.
When the Little Flower School was established in 1945, the then Vicar of St Mary’s Church was appointed (by the Mother Superior) as the nominee manager to run the regular administration of the school. Nuns going out for official purposes was not very common in those days and hence a nominee was appointed.
According to Sister Annie James, one of the six sisters who fought a long legal battle against the false claims of the Church, the priests had allegedly forged documents in 1971 to transfer the ownership of the land and the school to the Church. “The then sisters were completely unaware of this fraudulence. The priests did not do anything for 30 years and they raised claim over the land in 2007,” she said.
After being served an eviction notice by the church, the sisters of Little Flower Convent made an application to the department of education in which the government gave a favorable reply ascertaining the ownership of the land and school with the convent. The priests moved the high court against the order of the education department, but the court upheld the government’s order. The sisters won the case in the Supreme Court too.
Churches follow archaic customs and practices when it comes to nun hood. “Even though priests have the freedom to enjoy a modern way of life, the nuns have still been stuck with the patriarchal, undemocratic and inhuman practices,” says Reshmi, who used to be a nun for 25 years before leaving the convent for a normal life.
The voices that were muffled
But not every story is of triumph neither everybody is as lucky as Sister Lucy and Sister Jesmi to live and tell the tale. Many have been silenced. Since 1987, bodies of around 20 nuns have been found in wells of several convents across the state. And not a single case, barring one, has been investigated. All deaths besides that of Sister Abhaya have been dubbed as either accidents or suicides. Sister Abhaya was found dead in the St Pius X Convent in Kottayam in 1992. After investigations by several teams, the longest in the state, it was found that she was murdered by priest Father Thomas Kottor and nun Sister Sephy in the convent.
The latest among the nuns found dead in wells is Mable Stephen, alias Liya, a resident of the Pious Worker’s of St Joseph’s Convent in Kollam. She was found dead in the well inside the convent on April 16, 2021 which according to the police was a case of suicide.