Life stories of 3 nuns! Sr. Mary Sebastian, Sr. Jesme and Sr. Abhaya

A nun who wanted to quit a Kerala church, now faces criminal cases, branded mentally unstable"I forgave them and tolerated everything till now. I cannot take it any further,” Sr Mary Sebastian says – Megha Varier| – Monday, August 8, 2016

(in the pic: Sr. Mary Sebastian)

 (Note:  This triple story on Mary Sebastian, Jesme and Abhaya was forwarded to us  by  kalian,  and Dr. Hilda Raja,,  just for information and constructive reflection. 

History is the best teacher. Also history repeats itself, because if something happened it can happen again. When many similar or identitical things happen, it helps us to compare to find out common causes to take precautions. When sisters or priests leave, often they themselves are blamed, not the institution to which they belong. Often they are seen like a worker in a company who is sacked for wrong doing. The assumption is that the institution never makes mistakes. It is always the employ who flouts rules and gets punished. This is not the truth always. Equally or more often the company or religious institution is the wrong doer for treating the employ or the member of the institution like a slave, denying him/her freedom of expression, movement and other dues.

True, priests and religious  volunteer to do free service, even for life time. But nature of work and work place change, opinions and convictions change and accordingly humans have or should have the freedom to make course correction. When that happens, what is to be done is to thank the person  concerned for the years of free service rendered and help the person to settle down in life by paying back at least part of the money that person helped the Institution to make. This is natural justice practiced in small and big companies. But the pity is, religious institutions, even the world wide establishment called the Catholic Chuch, which is also like a huge financial corporation, refuses to honor this elementary rule of justice they preach from house tops.

Now more and more people leave priesthood and religious life for just reasons. What was once an act of shame is now becoming a respectable thing. Also the church is slowly, though very reluctantly, realizing its grave duty both to compensate members who leave and also to help them to settle down in life as James Kottorthey have not saved anything  for themselves for a rainy day. Equally the general public is realizing its duty not to defame or look down upon these brothers and sisters of theirs. May the stories of these three sisters, however painful and shameful they are, help educate and enlighten all of us. james kottoor, editor) 

The Church preaches charity, kindness, and compassion towards everyone but Sr. Mary Sebastian, a 45-year-old nun, is afraid that the very institution that she has served for 25 years might harm her.

Sr. Mary wants to leave the Church and it is a well-known fact that the Church does not take too kindly to rebels. In January this year, Sr. Mary took the decision to quit the Church because of the harassment that she allegedly faced in the hands of her superiors at the Syro-Malabar Church’s Cherpunkal Nasrathubhavan Convent under Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) in Pala, Kottayam district of Kerala. She has been living there for the past three years. 

Sr. Mary approached the Church to grant her 3 years of exclaustration that allows a nun to stay outside the convent as a common citizen and return to the convent after the designated period. However, she was denied permission as the Church feared that granting her this would encourage other nuns to follow suit.

When the Church deliberately delayed the proceedings, Sr. Mary approached the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement, an organization that works for rehabilitation of ex-priests and ex-nuns. Matters went haywire after the organization intervened.

In May, she was given dispensation and was asked to quit the Church. Having decided that it is best to do so, Sr. Mary demanded that she be paid her due in order for her to lead a life outside the church. The authorities objected.

Renji Njellani, organizing secretary of KCRM, points out that any priest or nun who wishes to quit the Church is entitled to be given money according to the canon law. The Church refused to pay the sum of Rs. 30 lakh that Sr. Mary demanded and offered to pay Rs.1 lakh, after months of negotiation.

Two weeks ago, Sr. Mary filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and Women’s Commission alleging that she was facing physical and mental harassment at the hands of her superiors. But after she approached Women’s Commission, the Church, she alleges, has found new ways of taunting her.

They even filed a police complaint recently, accusing her of theft. She says that police officials threatened her to quit the Church as per their order. 

Last week, a complaint was filed with Child Welfare Committee accusing her of harassing the children at Balabhavan, a children’s home associated with the convent. Sr. Mary claims that the authorities of the committee forcefully made her sign a document pledging that she will stay away from the children. Renji points out that the Church in fact uses the committee to its own advantage, with priests appointed in key positions. 

“I am scared for my life… They are so powerful that they may even harm me!” – these were her first words as Sr. Mary spoke to The News Minute over phone. Sr. Mary claims that false allegations have been levelled against her ever since she joined the Church. In 1997 when she was a student of Master of Social Work, her superiors at the convent had accused her of being in a relationship with a priest.

“Nobody asked for any explanation from my side…I wasn’t given a chance to prove the allegations wrong, or at the least defend myself. They accused me of wrong doing and I was forcefully sent for retreat camps where I wasn’t allowed to speak to anybody. I used to spend the days cut off from the outside world,” she says.

But things became worse when in the early 2000s, Sr. Mary objected to a misappropriation at Shanthinilayam, a special school in Pala run by the Church. 

“When I found that they were forging documents to include nuns in the teachers’ list to claim university grants, I objected. I discussed the issue with other nuns and the superiors came to know about it. Since then, they have constantly been trying to tag me as a mentally challenged person,” she says.

She also alleges that she was repeatedly transferred from one convent to the other, at the behest of the Church, often in the middle of an academic year. Sr. Mary, who works as a teacher at a school run by the Church, says that she was brutally assaulted by her superiors at the various convents she has lived over the years.

“They would hit me, accusing me of various things, including robbery. They hid letters addressed to me. I forgave them and tolerated everything till now. I cannot take it any further,” she says. The Church involved her family in all these matters too and would demand that they visit to sort things out.

Sr. Mary’s decision to leave the Church citing harassment is not a unique instance. Only a few years ago, Sister Jesme, who had been a nun for over 33 years, quit the Church alleging harassment by her superiors. Her leaving and the subsequent release of her autobiography "Amen: The autobiography of a nun" had created a huge controversy at that time. Sr. Abhaya’s murder, in which priests are the prime accused, is yet another example of how things are not exactly holy in the Church.

Once she leaves the convent, Sr. Mary cannot go back home. "Do you know what it means to be a nun who quit the Order? Our society hasn't grown enough to accept such things. People will see it as my betrayal towards Jesus. But only if they knew that my fight is against the Church and not Jesus…." 

She says that her family does not want her to return home. "In fact they don't want me to quit the Church. It is all because of the stigma that is associated with it. Society will only target my family for my actions." Dismissing the allegations of harassment at the hands of superiors, spokesman for Syro-Malabar order of the Catholic Church, Dr Paul Thelakkat states that the Church does not stop anybody from quitting.

Saying that he is unaware of the case in detail, Dr. Thelakkat claims that the canon law does not prescribe the Church to pay compensation to those who quit.

“As far as I understand, there is only one problem here. If the nun wants to quit, it is up to her to decide. But she cannot hold the Church responsible to provide rehabilitation. When a nun joins the Church, she voluntarily does so, agreeing that she will not hold any property under her name. Then how can she now stake claim in the Church’s joint property?” he asks.

Instances where the Church does provide monetary help to those who quit are purely out of ‘humanitarian concerns’, he maintains, adding that the nunnery is a service and not a means to earn money.

Published: November 14, 2009 17:09 IST | Updated: November 14, 2009 17:09 IST November 14, 2009

‘My story had to be told' –  SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

                       THE HINDU

In the eye of a storm: Sister Jesme.

Sister Jesme on why she wrote that controversial book Amen.

Over three decades ago, when she consigned herself to the nunnery, life seemed to have made a beautiful promise to Sister Jesme. Barely 17, she was convinced that her path was serving her Master as his bride. So with care, she chose her new name as a nun, Jesme by adding ‘me' (herself) to the first three letters (Jes) from Jesus's name.

Today, Sister Jesme (now 53) lives in a small flat in Kozhikode outside the walls of the Congregation of Mother of Carmel, her abode from the 1970s to mid-2007. She is an outcast from the church now due to her refusal to bow to set norms and never failing to ask why.

“Gradually, the breeze became a storm,” is how she puts it. Her family abandoned her; it hurt her then, she admits but reasons, “but they wanted to be within the community.”

Picking up her pen

After living in hiding for a while, she resolved to pick up the pen. The result was a Malayalam book that came out earlier this year and is now considered heretical or an eye-opener depending on the reader's perspective. The English version Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun , published by Penguin India, recently hit the stands.

In a telephone conversation, Sister Jesme is bright and breezy. “When I came out of CMC, I was desolate, but Jesus took care of me. Considering I served the Congregation for so long, it didn't give even a penny for my survival. But miraculously, just then I started getting my pension from the Government. A month before, the pension money would have been the Congregation's.”

Sister Jesme, a Masters in English Literature, taught in educational institutes run by the Congregation across Kerala, her last posting being Principal of the prestigious Amala College in Kerala. As the college is a Government–aided institution, she is entitled to a modest pension, which she says is, “enough to keep me going and help needy students.”

Amen is just 178 pages but what hits you is the frankness and sincerity of narration. At times, the reader may get tired of one detailed episode after another, but finally comes a realisation that each episode is a bead in a chain of events that finally prompted her to step out of the grey habit.

She accuses the Congregation of rampant corruption, “the huge chunk of money raised during admissions hardly goes though any accounting.” The infighting and viciousness of sisters come into the open. The victim has no succour.

Homosexuality seems to be a bane many young girls have to silently endure at the nunnery. Sister Jesme suffered it too. Yet another taboo she talks about is how a few church fathers force themselves sexually on nuns. She plucks out an episode from her life as an example.

Gender inequality

Above all, the book brings to fore an important point of gender inequality. While a nun has to wear only her habit, a father can choose to dress the way he likes. While a nun can't marry, a father can. “The nuns do menial jobs while fathers don't,” her list goes on.

With the Congregation not ready to answer her searching questions, Sister Jesme had to make a break. “Or else, I would have been declared insane. Appointments with various doctors were being fixed. What hurts most was the church calling me a sex worker.”

But she is not scared, she insists; although there is a flicker of fear when she says, “After I came out of the nunnery, I chose to wear a saffron sari. Those photographs were flashed in the local media. Fearing attack by fanatics, my friends and students brought salwar kameezes for me to wear. I couldn't go out of my place of hiding for sometime.” A few nuns and some fathers, she says, supported her but feared stepping out of the threshold of the church. “It is not easy you see,” she says softly.

But now Sister Jesme thinks Jesus chose her to do the needful. “My story had to be told. He chose me to let the world know the truth. I hope there will be a change for better.” She wrote the book “also because it was important to declare that I can think coherently and am not insane as the Congregation alleged. I also wanted to show that my love for Jesus has not dwindled even after so much suffering.” She first wrote the book in English, but her local publisher, D.C. Books, wanted it in Malayalam. “My Malayalam is not so good enough, so a friend helped me.”

Today, Sister Jesme is thinking of her second book, a novel “about the struggle of a poor student I feel people should know”. She also has “an offer from an award-winning Malayalam director” to turn Amen into a film. “I also talk about my experience as a nun in gender workshops.”

Kerala: Nun Struck Sister Abhaya In The Head With An Axe: CBI – Tootiefairy / 7 yrs ago / 

               Nun struck Sister Abhaya in head with axe: CBI – 

                               VR Jayaraj | Kochi

Kerala was on Monday shocked to hear the CBI’s revelation in the Sr Abhaya murder case that it was Knanaya Catholic nun Sr Seffi, then 26 years of age, who had struck Sr Abhyaya in her head with an axe before throwing her in the well of the convent at an unearthly hour on March 27, 1992.

The CBI told the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam that Sr Seffi had struck Abhaya three times in the head at St Pius X Convent, Kottayam before hurling the nun's body in the well behind the convent in the wee hours of the day. Sr Seffi had struck Sr Abhaya with the back of an axe twice behind her right ear and a third time right in the top of the head, inside the kitchen of the convent.

The investigating team of the CBI said in the court that with the strike in the top of the head, Sr Abhaya had gone unconscious. The investigators explained the brutality of the act of Sr Seffi, now 42, and her companions towards a younger co-nun by saying the perpetrators of the crime had left the spot only after ensuring that Sr Abhaya was dead in the well. Sr Seffi was presently the third accused in the case in which Knanaya Church's senior priests Fr Thomas M Kottoor (59) and Fr Jose Puthrukayil(56) are first and second accused respectively.

After Sr Abhaya had fallen unconscious following Sr Seffi's axe-strikes in the head, Fr Kottoor and Fr Puthrukayil had dragged her with the help of the nun to the well behind the convent and hurled her in it. The three waited near the well to ensure the death of the nun, the CBI said. The court extended the remand of the three in judicial custody till January 12.

After ensuring that Sr Abhaya was dead in the well, the three accused persons had in a strategic move closed the door of the kitchen from outside with the express intention of diverting the focus of any probes. The CBI told the court that the destruction and distortion of evidences in the case had started right with that act.

Sr Seffi had struck Sr Abhaya in the head with an axe that she found near the kitchen of the convent after the latter spotted her with Fr Kottoor and Fr Puthrukayil in a small room near the kitchen in compromising postures. {DP } The nun had committed the cruel act out of fear of humiliation and possible expulsion from her ascetic life if Sr Abhaya reported what she saw to the higher authorities of the Church, the CBI said.

The investigators told the court that the two priests and the nun with the help of several others had made efforts to destroy evidences in order to project Sr Abhaya's death as a case of suicide by influencing the investigating agencies, first the local police and later the Crime Branch. The local police and the Crime Branch had written off the murder case as one of suicide. The CBI also said that it was likely that more persons could be arrayed as accused though the number of accused was now limited to three. However, the agency did not make clear whether the addition of more persons as accused was in connection with the murder of the activities later during the investigation stage.

The Central investigating agency had said earlier that the killers had struck Sr Abhaya with an axe in the head three times before throwing her in the well but had not made clear who had struck her. Dr C Radhakrishnan, the former police surgeon at the Medical College Hospital, Kottayam, who had done the autopsy on Sr Abhaya's body, had told the CBI that he had seen three massive injury marks on the nun's head.

The period of the third remand of the three accused, arrested on November 19, had come to an end on Monday and the court extended it till January 12. The CBI told the court that releasing the three at this juncture could cause serious problems to the investigations as a massive public relations campaign was on from some quarters (the Knanaya Church) to project the Central agency's probe as an effort at victimizing innocent church personalities. 

The CBI told the court that a big campaign was going on against the CBI with the intention of derailing the probe and pamphlets, demonstrations and other means were being used for this. 

Several nuns from St Joseph's Generate and St Pius X Convent in Kottayam had been present at the court premises to see the accused persons. The court allowed the visitors to talk to them briefly before moving them back to the Sub-Jail, Ernakulam where they would spend their remand period.

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