Indian President Pranab Mukherjee presents Sister Lucy Kurien with the Nari Shakti (women empowerment) award, March 8. (Photo courtesy of Sister Lucy Kurien)
Be it the mentally challenged, HIV infected, old women or street children, Sister Lucy Kurien's homes are open for all.
Through her organization — called Maher (mother's home) — Sister Kurien assists destitute women and children irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
"The focus is always on the street, especially the women who are mentally challenged and those suffering from HIV," said Sister Kurien, who belongs to the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod.
Currently Maher has 38 short-stay and long-stay homes in the Indian states of Jharkhand, Kerala and Maharashtra. In total they house over 860 street children and more than 320 destitute women.
The short-stay homes are for victims of domestic violence, rape and unwed mothers while the long-stay homes house children, HIV patients, old and mentally challenged women.
The nun said that they pick up children from the streets who are begging or are poor with single parents. "We help them study and some are doing very well," she said.
Sister Kurien's journey to improve the lives of needy women and children started 19 years ago after she experienced a shocking incident.
"A woman fearing for her life from her husband came asking for shelter which I could not give as I was staying in a convent and that very night she was burnt to death by him. This moved me," Sister Kurien said.
The nun said that she wanted to be among the hapless women and help them because "my congregation was only into teaching and nursing."
She had to seek special permission from her provincial to move out of the convent to help those she saw in need but "that was not easy."
"The congregation asked me to give them a memorandum of understanding that I would belong to this congregation and it would not bear any responsibility for my project," said Sister Kurien, adding she also could no longer wear her congregation's clothing as it would have made people treat her as an outsider.
"I wanted to live exactly how Jesus would have lived," she said.
In 1997, the nun started Maher in the Pune district of the western Indian state of Maharashtra. This was made possible through donations from lay people, especially a musician from Austria.
But she initially met resistance among some of the locals.
"People thought that I came to do conversions," Sister Kurien said. "The locals spat on me and even attacked my home but I continued my work," she said.
The nun said that church people thought that she left the church and "went crazy."
"The nuns from my congregation felt embarrassed to call me one of their own," she added.
"Ever since I was young, I was always moved by Mother Teresa's work and really wanted to do something like that. I always had that calling," she said.
Sister Kurien's homes are a haven for interreligious unity as she stresses on promoting teachings of all religions.
"I have holy books of all religions be it the Bible, Quran or Geeta. I believe in respecting all religions and worshipping one divine power," she said, adding that all Indian festivals are celebrated with equal fervor.
In recognition of her services, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee awarded Sister Kurien with the Nari Shakti (women empowerment) award on March 8 in New Delhi.