Tag Archives: Mother Teresa

The Nuns’ “Wedding Day”

On Friday, when I’ve been in Kolkata for nearly a week, I get to watch nuns take their final vows. I vaguely understand what this means, but ask some of the other volunteers (most of whom are Catholic and many of whom came to Kolkata because they were inspired by Mother Teresa) to explain. “It’s their final commitment, saying, yes, this is what I will do for the rest of my life. It is like they are marrying the church,” explains Natalie, a Malaysian friend who later confides that Mother Teresa has been an idol of hers since she was 15.

The mass, as Natalie correctly predicts, is two hours long. There is no air conditioning in the church, of course, and the large fans overhead seem to just be stirring the humid air into which several hundred people are breathing and sweating. I can hardly see the altar from my seat, but everyone shifts around enough that I keep getting great flashes of the shiny pomp and circumstance you get when the colorful world of India collides with costume-heavy Catholicism. The priests wear gold and red frocks and behind the altar is an enormous picture of Jesus studded with brightly colored bulbs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hollywood marquee.

Large parts of the service involve singing, and while almost everything is in English, the heavy Indian accents render the lyrics unintelligible. But the nuns’ voices sound beautiful anyway. The nuns don’t take their actual vows until about 2/3 of the way through the service. The priest asks them to repeat a long series of commitments after him. Then each of the 19 nuns takes her turn swearing out loud that she is committing herself to a life of “chastity, devotion, and obedience” to “our Lord Jesus Christ.” When the last vow is taken, the church bells are rung for a few minutes. Then the choir sings again.

IMG_5678 nuns church

IMG_5681 nuns church celebrate


I watch the faces of the Indian family members who have come to watch their daughters, sisters, aunts make the ultimate commitment to their faith. None betray the happiness or joy I would expect to see on their faces. Are Indians really so deadpan? I wonder.

Later I realize the solemn faces were strictly for church. Back at motherhouse, a few of us slide into the vast celebration the rest of the nuns are holding for the new 19. There’s a cordoned-off section for family and friends, who are now laughing and grinning and peering at the courtyard in anticipation.  The upper two floors are ringed with fellow nuns.

IMG_5682 nuns balcony

After a few minutes, the novice nuns come dancing in singing. Their song is part hymn, part theatrical chorale, but their dance is all Bollywood (a chaste version, of course). After applause, the new 19 appear, and the applause erupts into cheers. Bells are rung from the top floor. Older nuns greet the new 19 with garlands of flowers, and then everyone surges into a second room, where family members kiss and hug their new nuns.

IMG_5684 me and natalie nuns day

(Me and Natalie)IMG_5688 nuns danceThe novices celebrate the new 19IMG_5693 nuns give flowersFlowers!IMG_5698 nun lots of flowersSO many flowers

A group of Spanish-speaking volunteers (there is a HUGE Spanish contingent at motherhouse, because South America / Spain = pretty Catholic) serenades one nun with garlands of fresh flowers and a clap-happy chant in Spanish. A Chilean girl who is involved later tells me the nuns asked them to perform this task because the nun, who is Mexican, didn’t have any family members attend. They did a great job, because from watching, you wouldn’t have had any idea the Spanish contingent wasn’t best friends with this nun.

I learn later from an American volunteer—who is back for her second summer at motherhouse—that immediately after this celebration, the nuns are given their assignments. I hadn’t realized that they wouldn’t all be staying in Kolkata. In fact, most of them will be sent off to missions in far-off countries, probably places they have never been, where they won’t speak the language and won’t know anyone, and they’ll stay there for at least 5 years. I didn’t realize that’s how this works. It deepens my appreciation for the “obedience” and self-sacrifice the nuns have committed themselves to taking. And it deepens my appreciation for them.

Watching the families kiss and hug the new sisters as they bury them under countless garlands, I say to Natalie, “Wow. This is pretty incredible. It’s so special we got to see this.”

She smiles. “Yes,” she says. “It should be. It’s like their wedding day.”

Wow, I think. Even more special than I thought. With those words, it feels almost intrusive to be here, uninvited, for the “wedding day” of these 19 women. But in the true Indian way—and perhaps also the Catholic way—no one minds at all that we are there.

Motherhouse

Anne and I meet in Kolkata to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s motherhouses, a handful of homes Mother Teresa opened for the “destitute and the dying” in the 1950s that continue to operate today.  Now there are homes for many ages, but all of the people were found on the streets, without family, and most have mental and/or physical disabilities.

My first day is a Sunday, so we start by going to mass.  At 6:00 am.  The mass is structured similarly to most other masses I’ve been to, with the Indian twist of removing our shoes before entering the room where service is held, as well as the Indian obstacle of the priest having his sermon sporadically interrupted by the loud sounds of Kolkatan traffic drifting in through the open windows.

A little after 7:00, downstairs we have a breakfast of toast, chai, and bananas. Then we begin the day with prayers and by singing a sweet little song to volunteers who are finishing their last day.  (“We thank you thank you thank you … from our hearts,” etc.”)

Anne and I are volunteering at Prem Dan, a home for the elderly.  I have really no idea what to expect.  Anne has said we might be brushing their hair or just sitting with them.  She has told me to be “emotionally ready,” even though we both agree we’re not sure that’s possible and we don’t know what that means.

We walk for close to 40 minutes to reach Prem Dan.  I later learn there’s a bus, which I take once, then resume the morning walk, which takes us through a Muslim neighborhood, packed with tea stalls, mango sellers, sweet shops, and—my least favorite—meat shops, from which hemorrhage the sickly sweet stink of rotting meat.  At the end we walk through a sort of slum near the train tracks.  Children follow us in the streets, shouting, “Hello!  Hello!  What’s your name?  How are you!”  A handful of naked toddlers sometimes run giggling into curtained doorways.  Then we arrive at Prem Dan, an oasis of calm, order, and space in the dirty crowd of Kolkata.

It turns out we start by washing laundry.  A motley crew of Indian women in scrappy pink saris and foreigners are tossing laundry from basin to basin across a huge set of stone sinks.  We join the end of the human conveyor belt and begin wringing out the sopping but clean garments.  A lot of the fabrics are simple and rough – plain plaid and crosshatch patterns in either green, blue, yellow, purple, red, and pink predominate.  I try not to spend too much time identifying what each garment is, particularly when I realize a lot of them are stained.  Soapy water sloshes over my feet and I realize the yellow dye on my sandals is dying my feet yellow.  But the water is refreshing, as any part of us not drenched with water is already drenched with sweat.  It’s 8:45.

We toss the wrung fabrics into metal buckets and then take turns carrying the filled buckets to the roof, where staff (and, I realize later in the week, some of the more mobile and capable patients) are hanging/laying laundry out to dry.  I will be collecting this laundry again in about 2 hours—and yes, most of it will be dry then.  It’s pretty hot here.

When we’re done with laundry, it’s time to meet the patients.  Anna and Kayla, two American girls who are here on a school trip—I later meet many college students who are here on service trips—show me where to find plastic gloves and hand me a bottle of baby oil.  “We usually give them massages now, or paint their nails,” Anna explains.

I tiptoe into the main room where the women (the house is divided into a men’s side and a women’s side) are sitting.  Most are sitting upright on benches and chairs.  A handful are in wheelchairs.  A few are missing limbs.  Most are missing teeth.  Some appear to be blind.  A lot look very tiny, the way many old people do, except some of these have the frailty of people who have never eaten a square meal in their lives—the skin clings almost directly to bone with little interruption of fat or muscle.

Many of the women, as it turns out, are fairly with it.  It’s hard for me to gauge, since the ones who can speak only speak Bengali—my handful of Hindi words are helpful only half the time—and I have no idea if what they’re saying is remotely coherent.  Some are clearly not with it—they gaze into space or fail to respond to any sort of stimuli.

But almost all the women are with it enough to recognize that foreigners wearing gloves means it’s massage time, and many clamor after us, calling, “Auntie!” and rolling up their sleeves and pointing at their arms.

Oh.  I didn’t realize massages meant rubbing oil on their arms and legs.  Well.  Okay.  I approach a tiny shriveled woman who is beckoning to me.  She rolls up the bottom of her dress and points to her shins.

They are bony and have the long hair of someone who has never shaved.  I get down on my knees and open the baby oil.  Then again, and again, and when I kneel for the fourth time and look up at the hunchbacked Bengali woman peering down at me, it occurs to me that white people don’t kneel in front of brown people very often in India.