This year the Daughters of St Paul Congregation is celebrating 100 years of their existence.
Beginning “in Bethlehem” as Blessed James Alberione, the founder, often referred to his foundations, the congregation now is spread in 53 nations.
Centenary is a time of “stocktaking” for the Institution as well for the individual members. Not so much for its economic situation but more for the members, to evaluate whether they are on the right track marked by the founder; whether they are on the path of holiness, as Co-foundress Servant of God Thecla Merlo often reminded them.
Fr James Alberione was well aware of the social situations in Italy when he founded the Religious Congregations of the Pauline family beginning with the Society of St Paul in 1914.
He had reflected and prayed over and consulted with his spiritual director, read the books of famous Italian Sociologist Toniolo, before deciding on the charism of the new congregation. Modern media of Communication, he said, would help penetrate the Gospel message in the minds and hearts of the younger generations as they would be already familiar with these instruments.
He did not suddenly stumbled on this idea. As a young seminarian he was led astray through reading any sort of books hidden under his pillow. When enlightenment dawned on him he realized that the same media that led him on a wrong path could be used to benefit the young people like him and the humanity that was getting ready to enter the 20th century. He was then in the seminary of Alba. The year was 1899.
A man of vision he soon realized the immense potential in women and decided they could be also on par with men in the same media field for the proclamation of the word.
He wasted no time and in 1915 the Daughters of St Paul was born.
All this historical background was implanted in my young heart as I graduated with the religious profession after a 3-and half-year rigorous formation program in with the Daughters of St Paul. Like my co- novices I too was ready to launch out into the mission field after the years of preparation in solitude and prayer coupled with practical experience.
And we parted ways.
I headed for Shillong, capital of Meghalaya state in northeastern India. After three days of train journey and three hours of uphill jeep travel, I landed in the city called the Scotland of the East.
My life was full of joy and enthusiasm and ready for adventure. To add to my joy was a junior sister, one year senior to me in the same community, whose warm embrace on that cold evening of Shillong is still vivid in my mind. Her warm welcome at once put me at ease and I felt at home in my new mission place and felt secure under the protection of an elder sister.
The wooden Khasi home, built above the floor on pillars, I found, was a good place for me to ruminate when I was not in the active mission. In fact, here, the nature – cool and surrounded by mighty pine trees and hills, helped me get closer to God. The prayerful climate of the novitiate would continue for a long time here.
My immediate mission consisted of family visits with another experienced sister. We would set out by 8 am each one carrying a bag full of books. We would fill our bags to the brim and took care not to drop them as we climbed the little hills and steep flight of steps to each khasi families.
Khasis were a fearless people then. The doors would be left open wide and we would walk in unhesitatingly if it was a Christian family. Most of the time we returned home by noon with empty bags. Those days we were happy. Even if the bags were half-full, we were still enthusiastic because we had done our mission.
We had met God’s people. That is what our Founder had warned us, “You will never be able to enjoy the fruit of your mission because it will be not be seen soon.” We believed his words. Day after day we continued trusting that our footsteps are counted and are valuable.
There were also days when we cried. The bags would begin to weigh heavier as the morning turned to noon and no books moved out of the bag. Our young steps through the steep and winding roads refused to takes us forward along with the books and we would cry out, “O Lord where are you? The bag contains your ‘words of eternal life.’”
Prayers never go unheard, it is said. There would wait an angel who would empty the bags and we would be on our way home jumping praising God and thanking God. Those were unique experiences in our young life.
Books were for the literate. For those illiterate we were ready with films.
On a weekend one of the priests in a remote village took us to his parish. Having known only well-established parishes in Kerala and in Mumbai I was eager to reach his mission place. It took us nearly five hours driving through extremely narrow winding roads uphill, looking down to deep valleys.
It was a breathtaking journey for me a first timer. I enjoyed it because I was prepared for adventures for Jesus Christ. When we reached our destination Mawsynram, the place that receives most rainfalls in the world, it was already dark, cold and grim as the sun had set long ago. The moon was beginning show up. I was very glad when the priest known for his acetic life in the missions, took us both to the convent of the sisters to freshen up.
The convent in Mawsynram was a little house with a tin roof. It had three rooms and a tiny kitchen, dining hall, dormitory and a hall for the boarders. After freshening up we moved to the hill and set up our projector, and the priest signaled us to begin. I looked around and found only a few people seated.
I saw in the dim moonlight people returning from their fields with baskets and farm equipment and children hanging on to them. My companion was focused on the well running of the film while I was inspecting the size of the crowd. It kept increasing as the night deepened. By the time the film had run to its end, a large crowd had gathered on the hill.
It reminded me of Jesus on the hill with people gathered around him. I did not voice my thinking, “It is well into the night. Give them a cup of soup.”
By 2 a m in the morning we returned to our little convent for dinner and rest.
I had fallen asleep when I felt something running over me. While pushing aside my blanket to catch the intruder I sensed a flickering light at the side of our beds. It did not take much time for me to realize that we were sleeping on either side of the tabernacle! A rare privilege for the missionaries.
When we woke up on the next morning to the cool day, I felt standing on a mountain of which I read in the novel Heidi. There were sheep and cattle all around. There were also grandparents.
Surprises were waiting. The previous day’s dining hall had turned into a chapel and we celebrated Eucharist. The supper of the Lord over, it was transformed into a dining hall, and classroom. Later I was told the room was a dormitory for the boarders at night. Here the Lord literally lived among his people!
I carried this experience with me as I pursued my formation and moved on to various apostolic activities in our Province. At every step I touched the Lord in different ways.
Even after several years, my memories of that morning are fresh in my mind. I touched the Lord in that coolness hovering over us. These memories travelled with me again when years later I moved from village to village in Assam, accompanying Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil on his mission tours.
Living in bamboo houses, sharing local food and listening to a language which only love can understand, I experienced the depth of God’s love. Such love is the strength that carries one through thunderstorms and floods of life. It still carries me.
Fr James Alberione was a victim of Tuberculosis as his first fledgling congregation was growing. His spiritual director and his constant prayer helped him to tide over the moments of anxiety of leading a newly found Institution.
Having cured miraculously he went on to found four more religious Congregations and four secular institutes and one Cooperators of the Pauline Family. Young Alberione was still under the experience he had with the Divine Master on the memorable night that divided the two centuries (1989-1900). The Master had told him “I am with you. Do not be afraid. Live in continual conversion.’
I cannot but be imbued by the same spirit of the Master who continues to whisper in my heart the same message, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
And it leads me through all my pathways safely, resolutely even to unknown destinations.