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Challenging conventions, Indian nun lives out vocation

Presentation nun opted against 'higher' position in congregation to work to improve the welfare of the impoverished

Challenging conventions, Indian nun lives out vocation

Presentation Sister Dorothy who opted to work for the poor in New Delhi. (Photo by K.C. Philip)

K.C. Philip, Patna
India

September 11, 2017

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Thirty years ago a young Catholic nun and teacher, Sister Dorothy Fernandes, took a group from her school to see the harshness of life at a slum in the Indian capital New Delhi.

Witnessing great misery at that time led her to leave behind gentile convent life in order to work for the poorest of the poor.  

Sister Fernandes ended her role as a teacher at a prestigious school run by her Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary congregation, to seek dignity for people in need.

An "inner voice" beckoned her to go where life was raw, says the 65-year-old nun, a native of Goa, a former Portuguese colony in western India.

First she had an "immersion experience" among secluded Gond tribal people at a village in Chindwara district of Madhya Pradesh, central India.

She then came back to Delhi's largest slum, Yamuna Pushtha, and spent seven years saving women from the flesh trade and drugs through education and skills training.

In 1997, Sister Fernandes moved to work with villagers in the Maner area of Bihar state, just 20 kilometers from the state capital Patna. There she provided non-formal education to Dalits, people from the former un-touchable castes.

Her next stop was Patna, where she organized rag pickers, street vendors and rickshaw-pullers.

"I try to make a difference in the lives of these people, who render valuable service; the unheard and unseen contributors to the city," Sister Fernandes says.

Her pioneering work has included lobbying state government and municipal officials to gain amenities and protect the rights of the city's thousands of unorganized migrant laborers.

Her organization, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan (Right to Shelter Campaign), has supported demands for proper shelter by some 15,000 urban poor.

Most were impoverished men who migrated to the city in search of work to support their families.

They worked the whole day and slept at night in public places such as on footpaths and railway platforms.

The organization runs six urban learning centers for rag pickers in Patna and provides daily meals for 200 children. Some 3,000 children have graduated from tenth grade through her centers. And about 150 children get support to pursue their studies till grade 12.

The organization also runs tailoring classes for young women in the city's seven slums to help them become self-sustaining. Legal help is provided to women in conflict with the law, including securing bail.

Her group succeeded in getting about 5,000 construction workers registered with the Labor Department of Bihar. And some 200 were registered under the national government's Swalambhan (Self-Reliance) Pension Scheme.

So far the group has organized 2,700 vendor and lobbies for the allocation of vending zones.

In the winter months, they also provide four shelters for city rickshaw pullers who would otherwise sleep in the open.

"The life of city's poor, especially that of rickshaw pullers, has improved tremendously over the years due to the intervention of Sister Dorothy's organization," says Rajesh Kumar, the education coordinator of the group.

The nun is also part of a women's network called Women Awake, which has been a platform for women of seven north Indian states for the past 25 years.

The nun said she also pursued her "fight for justice" within the Catholic Church and her congregation.

"I love both the church and my congregation," she says.

However, helping the poor was her "evangelical imperative."

Sister Fernandes recalled how she was offered a higher position in the congregation but decided instead to strive to improve the welfare of the impoverished.

When she decided to take temporary leave from religious life, her provincial at that time saw it as a "crisis of vocation."

"For me it was not a crisis of vocation, but a call for a change of ministry," Sister Fernandes says.

Sometimes she felt isolated because she spoke a different language to the people she was helping and she also asked "uncomfortable" questions.

Quiet moments of the morning provided strength to "do what I do."

Sister Fernandes both listened to her own conscience and entered into dialogue with her superiors.

The congregation's current leaders, such as province procurator Sister Stella, lauds Sister Dorothy's work.

"She is truly the Nano of our times," Sister Stella said referring to their founder, Nano Nagle, who abandoned all the riches and comforts of her aristocratic family to work for the poor.

Sister Fernandes has no regrets.

"I'm part of a larger family, for a greater cause," she said.

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