Sanjoepuram Children's Village in Chandpur in India's Uttar Pradesh state. (Photo: YouTube)
Sister Teslin Poovathanickal is proud of the wounds on her face. "Oh, they are my Ruby's gift," the 43-year-old member of the Preshitharam Sisters says as she runs her fingers over the marks.
Ruby, a 26-year-old woman with speech and hearing impairment who gets violent occasionally, scratched Sister Poovathanickal's face in a fit of anger a few months ago. But the sister saw the incident as part of her mission.
"She beats and spits on us. But after some time, she would come and say, 'Sister, sorry,' and we forget our pain," says the nun, who works in Sanjoe Bhawan (House of St. Joseph), a rehabilitation center for women aged 18 and older with various disabilities.
Sanjoe Bhawan is part of Sanjoepuram (City of St. Joseph) Children's Village in Chandpur in Uttar Pradesh state. Sanjoepuram is one of the few institutions in India that offers inclusive education. Sister Poovathanickal serves there with 17 other nuns from four congregations, all members of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Sanjoepuram is registered under the St. Joseph's Service Society, the social service wing of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Faridabad. The main campus is about 50 kilometers south of central Delhi.
The village currently shelters 64 girls and women aged 10-36 with speech problems, vision and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy and developmental disorders. Some residents are orphans or children of prisoners. The village includes Infant Jesus Senior Secondary School, where students from neighboring villages study with the Sanjoepuram children up to the 12th grade. The school has nearly 900 students, including 39 from Sanjoepuram.
Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad describes Sanjoepuram as a model for collaboration among religious congregations.
"At a time when fewer women opt for religious life, intercongregational collaboration is the future," the archbishop told Global Sisters Report. "Sanjoepuram brings together congregations with different charisms to work for a common cause. Our experience has been very positive."
The archbishop says the nuns serve Sanjoepuram not as employees but as partners, with two priests coordinating their efforts.
Each congregation focuses on a category of disability. "But they all work as a team to give the children a new life and present a common face of Christian charity," Archbishop Bharanikulangara told Global Sisters Report.
He says the nuns accept the children "as their own and try their best to offer them a family." They help them study, learn a profession and find a job. They even have helped arrange 10 marriages, he said.
Government rules stipulate that the houses can keep children only until they turn 18. By then, most children leave Sanjoepuram after completing school. Some go for higher studies while others find jobs.
However, women such as Ruby require institutional help. So they are shifted to Sanjoe Bhawan, says Father Jose Vettickal, who took over as Sanjoepuram director in August. The house currently has 12 women aged 18-36.
Clarist Sister Rosebel Mazhuvanchery says Ruby had come to Jeevandhara house, one of the six houses in Sanjoepuram, when she was 4. She completed 10th grade at Infant Jesus School and then started working as a school office assistant.
Last year, as Ruby turned 25, the nuns arranged her marriage, but her husband brought her back within a month when she showed signs of mental distress. Ruby started attacking the nuns, other girls and workers at Sanjoepuram, says Preshitharam Sister Remya Madathigul.
Sister Madathigul says Ruby had shown no signs of mental disorder before marriage. "Now, other sisters, too, help us in taking care of Ruby," she told Global Sisters Report.
Such collaboration among the nuns is the hallmark of Sanjoepuram, started in 1996 by Msgr. Sebastian Vadakkumpadan to bring children with special needs into the mainstream through education.
The priest was in Delhi to serve the spiritual needs of the Syro-Malabar Catholics before the eparchy was created in 2012. Archbishop Bharanikulangara says Msgr. Vadakkumpadan was distressed to see families hiding their children with disabilities from the public.
The monsignor founded an organization with the name of his favorite saint: A grotto of St. Joseph at the entrance welcomes visitors to the village, where peacocks, parrots, pigeons and squirrels roam under tall fruit trees. Msgr. Vadakkumpadan then invited women religious to collaborate with him to help girls with disabilities become part of the mainstream.
Over the past 24 years, changes have taken place both inside and outside of Sanjoepuram, the nuns say. While Sanjoepuram helped its residents to study and find jobs, the church institution has helped bring social change in villages around it.
Children such as Kiran give the sisters hope are. She was 4, immobile and unresponsive to her surroundings when she was brought to St. Mary's Home, part of Sanjoepuram, in 2006.
"But after years of care and training, she now responds and smiles when her name is called. Her improvement gives us hope," says Adoration Sister Rani Paul, superior of St. Mary's Home, where Kiran now lives with 14 other girls, some with disabilities and others without them.
Another success story involves Kavita, a visually impaired woman who teaches in the school and lives at St. Mary's. She is also preparing for a bachelor of arts exam through distance learning.
Two former Sanjoepuram residents — Reshmi and Cicy — study nursing at St. Francis College of Nursing in Ajmer.
"The sisters are our mothers," Reshmi told Global Sisters Report. The nuns' "mercy and compassion has changed our destiny. If they had not opened their home and heart to us, our life would have been in the dark," says the 21-year-old woman.