Saints of the
New Millennium
Faith stories of ordinary Catholics in Asia

Pakistani Catholic maid finds strength in unwavering faith

For Razia Ranjha, the rosary in her hands, calloused from years of labor and sacrifice, is her sole refuge
Razia Ranjha is seen attending Holy Mass at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Basti Saiden Shah, Lahore, Pakistan in December 2023

Razia Ranjha is seen attending Holy Mass at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Basti Saiden Shah, Lahore, Pakistan in December 2023. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)

By Kamran Chaudhry

Razia Ranjha carefully packs an additional pair of shalwar kameez (traditional tunic and pleated trousers) in a plastic bag when heading to work on Tuesdays.

After a day of back-breaking work, sweeping and dusting the houses of her two Muslim employers, followed by visits to a couple of Christian homes to provide postnatal massage services, she heads to a sibling’s house nearby.

A quick shower and the 53-year-old mother is ready for the novena to St. Anthony at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Basti Saiden Shah, a Lahore slum dominated by Christians.

“It is important to clean oneself and wear fresh clothes before going to church,” Ranjha said.

She travels some eight kilometers to and from work by bus. But since there are no buses or other modes of transport to reach the slum, she has to walk another three kilometers.

The mother of seven children suffers from low blood pressure but doesn’t mind walking the distance. She pauses occasionally to ease the fatigue and presses her left arm to relieve the recurring pain from a humerus fracture caused by a fall down a rickety wooden staircase a couple of years ago.

“The pain becomes acute in winter,” she said. “I couldn’t even lift my arm for months, but now I can, only because of prayers and rosary recitations.”

Ranjha is seen collecting offerings as an usher during Holy Mass at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Basti Saiden Shah, Lahore, Pakistan in December 2023. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)

Rosary mission

Whatever the problems, Ranjha hasn’t missed a prayer session ever since joining the rosary group in 2018.

“I was chosen to pray out loud [to lead the rosary],” she reveals with a hearty laugh.

The 14-member rosary group gets regular invites from families in and around the slum to pray in times of trouble and on happier occasions for thanksgiving. The prayers followed by rosary and gospel recitations conclude with tea and snacks, or even dinner, depending on the time.

Ranjha also gets to meet friends and relatives in the slum where she lived for 18 years before shifting to her present one-room rented accommodation in another neighborhood this September.

In 2021, she joined the Secular Franciscan Order and started attending their monthly meetings every third Sunday. She plans to take her first vows at Dar Ul Naeem, the Franciscan formation house in Lahore, in March next year.

Her Sacred Heart Cathedral parish in Lahore archdiocese currently has five catechists lending pastoral care to 1,200 Catholic families in their respective circles.

Most of these Catholic communities are Urdu or Punjabi speaking, some of them well-off but mostly poor like Ranjha, living in Pakistan’s second-largest city.

Marrying at 13

She shares the tiny one-room home with five members of her family. The older children are married and living separately, except her eldest 33-year-old daughter who left her husband’s home after he married another woman in October.

“He wanted my daughter to shift to his parents’ house but she didn’t agree. The court granted him custody of their two children,” Ranjha said.

The mother in her is deeply concerned, but hopes that things will turn out well. But even if her daughter gets divorced, she’s determined to stay strong in faith.

“I trust God’s plan for us and will keep lifting up my family in prayer. We should get closer to God when we are hurt. We all need His guidance in our lives,” she said.

Praying the rosary gives her strength to face life’s troubles. “It allows me to express my hopes, fears, and gratitude to God.”

Ranjha herself was married at the age of 13 against her wishes and the Church’s advice against marriage at such a young age.

Struggles of poverty

She remembers that just a year before her marriage she had started accompanying her mother, also a domestic worker, to clean the houses of better off people.

She wanted to postpone the marriage for a few years.

“My in-laws threatened to break the engagement. I cried a lot. My father, a poor sanitation worker, succumbed to societal pressure,” she recalls.

Although she was born into a Catholic family, her husband belongs to the Protestant Full Gospel Assemblies Church in Kasur Parish, one of the oldest in Lahore, but Ranjha never went to the church again.

His parents and family “keep calling me back but I only get comfort in a Catholic Mass,” she said.

Ranjha never went to school but, with great expectations, enrolled her children in a government school that offered free books and tuitions for a minimal fee. But none of them could study beyond the fifth grade and are now working as sanitary workers or hairstylists.

Ranjha earns 2,500 rupees (US$ 8.87) a month cleaning houses besides making an additional 400 rupees by offering postnatal massage services, a traditional occupation she’s perfected through practice over the years.

Ranjha (center) is seen gesturing during prayer while attending Holy Mass at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Basti Saiden Shah, Lahore, Pakistan in December 2023. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)

Miracles of prayer

Sanitation workers, like her father and children, make up just 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of some 225 million. An estimated 80 percent of them are Christians.

Catholic sanitation workers make up roughly 25 percent of the community spread across three dioceses in the Punjab area — the Archdiocese of Lahore, as well as Multan and Faisalabad dioceses.

Amid all her personal and financial struggles, Ranjha’s only solace is the Catholic community within the four walls of the Holy Cross Church. The rosary in her hands, calloused from years of labor and sacrifice, is her sole refuge.

Praying before a poster of the crucified Christ near her bed followed by a rosary recitation is the first thing Ranjha does after waking up at 5:30 a.m.

Her strong faith is well-known in her neighborhood and church community.

Farzana Bibi, an elderly Catholic widow, said her fractured ankle from a recent fall in the bathroom started to heal only after Ranjha visited with her prayer group.

“We couldn’t reach hospital in time due to the crowds gathered for a political protest. Even so, the doctor ruled out surgery because I am diabetic. The home remedies and traditional cures were of little help,” she recalled.

But, Bibi said, the pain began to subside and her ankle started to heal miraculously after Ranjha visited her house.

Life, unlike a love story

To many like Bibi, who have experienced firsthand the strength of Ranjha’s prayers and friendly demeanor, she is known simply as “Razia Ranjhay wali” (Razia who belongs to Ranjha), a playful reference to her first name and her husband’s, which she uses as her second name.

There is also an oblique reference here to the immortal tale of star-crossed lovers, Heer and Ranjha, whose doomed love story is popular across the subcontinent. But Ranjha has no romantic illusions in her life. Her husband, a sweeper, is an alcoholic, who barely manages to earn enough.

“He only pays for food and rent and never joins me for prayers or visits to church. As a result, even the children don’t come to church,” she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice.

But then she has enough on her plate. Time always seems to be flying by as she scrambles to finish her daily work — cleaning, dusting, washing and cooking — with no possibility of slowing down.

Then there is the daily discrimination she has to put up with. Most Muslims in Pakistan consider poor Christians dirty as they are engaged in sanitation work. Ranjha has to keep her utensils separate in the big houses of rich Muslims where she’s employed and may occasionally be offered water, tea or a snack.

She also avoids engaging in religious discourse. Whenever asked about her faith, she tries to keep it simple: “I pray the same way as you do is all I say and they are happy that I am close to Allah.”

The only time she feels some satisfaction is when her employers gift her some money — 500 to 1,000 rupees — during Eid celebrations.  She usually saves the money for buying clothes, for herself and her family, during feasts and Christmas.

Ranjha (left) is seen listening to a homily while attending Holy Mass at the the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Basti Saiden Shah, Lahore, Pakistan in December 2023. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)

‘Seeking no charity’

But this year, Ranjha has no plans to buy new clothes for Christmas. She will instead pay for her annual insurance, which is due for renewal at the end of the year.

Increasing inflation in the country — the Pakistani rupee is expected to finish the year as Asia's worst-performing currency — has put paid to her plans.

 “There was a time when we could buy many things during Christmas. But now the situation is very bad. It’s ok. Good and bad times come and go,” she said.

But her faith tells her that God knows and provides everything that humans need.

Ranjha plans to request one of her daughters, who moved to Dubai six years ago, to send colorful Christmas lights for the family Christmas tree, which stands bare now. 

“She sends us new clothes and footwear when she is in a good mood. I always thank God for everything and have never asked our church leaders for any help,” she said.

 Ranjha does not believe in seeking charity. “My husband and I have warm clothes for winter. There are others who have nothing,” she said.

Her only plan is to attend Mass at Holy Cross Church on Dec. 25 then go back home and wish her family a Happy Christmas.

“This is the first Christmas for me away from Basti Saiden Shah. But I will never miss attending the Church there,” she said.

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