By Sister Julia George
Ranchi: Sister Benigna Vadasseri in early June celebrated her 60 years as a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk, a religious order for women that started in Belgium in 1818. She has spent most of religious life as a schoolteacher in Jharkhand, a tribal-dominated state in an eastern India. She says her greatest challenge was educating the first generation tribal girls from the hinterland of Jharkhand. Gradually she realized that she needed the tribal girls for her growth as a person more than the girls need her for their education.
Sister Vadasseri shared with Matters India about her long innings in religious life.
MATTERS INDIA: Congratulations for completing 60 years as a religious. What are you uppermost thoughts now?
SISTER BENIGNA VADASSERI: It is amazing to feel, to experience and to realize that on June 8, 2018, I completed 60 years of commitment to God’s people and fidelity to the One who called me and made me His own. My uppermost thoughts are gratitude to God, my congregation, my superiors, my formators and my sisters with whom I have lived 60 years in different communities. My heart is filled with joy and happiness. I feel deeply grateful to all those who journeyed with me to reach this milestone. It is indeed, a journey ended and a journey begun.
How did you celebrate the jubilee?
For almost a year I have been living in the home for the elderly Sisters. We are a community of seven. Three of us are confined to their bed most of the time.
I had a very simple celebration in company of Sr. Alphonsa, who is my elder sister, the inmates of the home and some Sisters from Ranchi community. I was thrilled to cut the chocolate cake and to receive flowers. We received a canvas with two hands holding a big loaf of bread with the inscription; “Father, give us this day our daily bread.” This reminds us of the bread that nourishes us both spiritually and physically.
Looking back, what were the happy and satisfying events? What were the challenges?
Looking back, I have mixed feelings welling up my heart, feelings of joy and gratitude, of contentment, a sense of fulfillment. It is a great feeling that to realize that God called me from a very ordinary background, qualified and empowered, used to carry out His mission. Words are inadequate to express the joy and fulfillment I experience on this grace filled day. With Mother Mary I say, the Mighty One has done great things in and through me. My mission was educating the young tribal girls from the rural areas of Jharkhand as an assistant teacher and as the headmistress of a high school. This ministry provided ample opportunities to mould and shape the lives of young girls. My mission was that of a potter. At the end of every academic year I experienced great joy and satisfaction when my students went to the next higher class, Those who could not make to the next higher class gave me an opportunity to evaluate myself.
I had to face many challenges. The greatest challenge was educating the first generation tribal girls from the hinterland of Jharkhand. At home they spoke their dialects like: Kuruk, Mundari, Santhali and Kharia, In the school, we had to teach them the basics of both Hindi and English, Teaching good pronunciation in English was very tough. The parents were illiterate. So, they could not help their children. Gradually I realized that I need these tribal girls for my own growth as a person more than they need me for their education. This was a real revelation for which I am today very grateful to God.
Please explain briefly about your background, your vocation? Why did you choose the Ursuline congregation?
I was born in a Syrian Catholic family in Palluruthy, Kochi, Kerala. We were seven children — four sons and three daughters. I am the sixth. My parents played a great role in my religious upbringing. I lost my father when I was three years old. At the age six, my paternal aunty, a widow who lost her only son at the age of 11/2 years; took me to her home. I stayed with her until I completed matriculation and Teacher Training Course. One of the convents offered me a job on condition I would join them. Since I wanted to be a missionary, I declined the offer. I stayed at home for one year. On a fine day I met Mary, my classmate who had joined the Ursulines and was on home visit. A conversation with Mary resulted in my decision to join the Ursulines in Ranchi. I travelled with Mary to Ranchi in 1954.
What have you been doing in the congregation all these 60 years?
After the novitiate, I completed my graduation from St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi. Then I was assigned to teach in the High Schools in Simdega and Ranchi. I worked for 20 years as headmistress of Ursuline Girls’ High School, Khunti; from where I retired in 1995. In 1997 I was sent to Assam, In 2007, I came back to Ranchi for health reasons.
How do you compare the religious life when you joined the congregation with the present times?
Religious life has changed a lot as the Religious are getting involved in the struggles of the marginalized. To be a Religious today is more challenging than sixty years ago. One has to take personal responsibility for her life and mission.
Do you think religious life has lost its relevance now? What should congregations do to remain relevant?
Religious life is still very relevant and we can offer much to the world. The best gift we can offer to present humanity is a sense of Hope And how to make meaning in the midst of chaos, violence, marginalization, displacement in the name of development, unsafe migration, sexual abuse, etc. Violence is not an answer to the problems of humanity. Love, care, and understanding can bring about peace and harmony. We need to reinvent Religious life to be relevant today.
What are the challenges facing religious life now?
The Church and Religious life are faced with many challenges due to globalization, degradation of ecology, use and throw culture, to name a few. The religious need to change their thinking in order to face present challenges constructively.
Presently the Church globally as well as locally is facing tough times. Jesus never promised that His followers will have a smooth sailing always, but that He will be with us till the end of times. This does not mean we can be very passive. We must be prophetic.
There are allegations that women religious are not recognized in the Church. They are treated as second class citizens by the male-dominated clergy? Do you agree?
I do agree that the women Religious are treated as second class citizens by the Church and the clergy. In many instances, we are treated as cheap labor. Pope Francis has exhorted the Church leaders to change this attitude towards women religious and we in turn need to assert our dignity and be empowered women.
Do you support bishops issuing pastoral letters urging people to pray for the nation? Are they not political activities?
I fully endorse the pastoral letters of the bishops urging the faithful to pray for the nation. Ursulines daily pray for the country. All of us need wisdom from above to recognize and accept one another as brothers and sisters.
My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to God and all those who have journeyed with for the past sixty years. I am sure the Lord will hold my hand and lead me on days to come.