Indian bishops’ first women commission secretary dies

Trichur (Matters India): Sister Cleopatra, a renowned educationist who was instrumental in setting up a commission for women under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), died in Trichur, Kerala, on Wednesday. She was 81.

She was a member of the Congregation of Mother Carmel (CMC), India’s first congregation for women.

Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, would lead her funeral services at 4 pm on May 8 in the chapel of St Mary’s Convent, Ollur, near Trichur, the congregation has announced.

Sr Cleopatra was born on December 3, 1933, as Kochu (little) Mary. She joined the congregation when she was 16. She chose the name Cleopatra at the time of her first profession in 1952. She studied masters in English from St. Mary’s College under the Notre Dame University in the States and obtained doctorate from Calicut University, Kerala.

After her final profession in 1956, she joined Vimala College, Trichur, as professor and head of the Department of English. She also worked in Holy Cross College Nagercoil, in Tamil Nadu.

Sr. Cleopatra had served as Senate Member of the University of Calicut.

Sister Cleopatra worked also as the secretary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal’s Kerala Service Team.

She was elected provincial of Nirmala Province Thrissur and served two terms from 1986-1992. She was also elected national president of the women’s section of Conference of Religious India (CRI) from 1989-1992.

After her provincial’s term, Sr Cleopatra was appointed vice postulator of Cause of Mother Euphrasia.

In 1992, she was appointed the secretary of the CBCI Women’s Desk, which was set up to serve as a catalyst for promoting and supporting all initiatives and women’s associations that aim at empowerment of women. Two years later, it was raised as a commission and she served it for six years.

Sister Cleopatra participated in the fourth World Conference on women in China and also in the International Meeting of Women Leaders in Rome, as the only representative of South Asia at the invitation of Pope John 11.

She was awarded the Literary Award to the Writers by the Kalasadan of Trichur archdiocese and ‘Bharathmatha (Mother India) Award` from Calcutta in recognition of her life, career and achievements.

The bishops decided to establish a separate commission for women to accelerate their participation in Church life. It was based on the recommendations of a committee that evaluated CBCI works during its first 50 years up to 1994.

The committee said the Church had neglected women and suggested a separate commission to ensure women´s participation in the Church, including decision-making organizations.

Some bishops opposed the new commission, saying it was wrong to divide laity into men and women, adding that a commission for men would be needed later.

The Catholic Council of India, a representative body of bishops, priests, Religious and laity, and the Conference of Religious India both recommended a separate women´s commission.

After the desk was raised to a commission, Sister Cleopatra said the elevation gave “new status and weight to our setup” making it “easier now to interact with government and other agencies.”

She said the commission helped generate greater awareness on women´s issues in the Church. According to her women´s role in the Church and women´s issues got better attention in the Church agenda after the commission was set up.

One of her first acts as the desk secretary was to reprint Pope John Paul II´s 1988 apostolic letter, “The Dignity of Women” (Mulieris Dignitatem) and distribute it among Catholic women leaders.

Diocesan level studies in early 1990s had shown that many women lacked the theological training and confidence needed to take up leadership posts. So, her desk launched trainings to motivate women for leadership and greater participation in the Church activities.

The first training program took place in 1994 for 10 eastern tribal dioceses at Ranchi.

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