A Smile in the habit

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She is 80 now, but you could rarely see her without a smile on her face. At this age Sr. Gaetana Kottarathil is completely contented describing proudly her journey in consecrated life and work, as “a special gift from God.” Though she walks around the corridors slowly today, she is excited to recollect and describe me the day she joined the convent at the age of 15. Definitely she must have been strong and beautiful and had an indomitable spirit to serve the Lord and his people.

Sr. Gaetana is an Ursuline of Mary Immaculate nun who was inspired to join the consecrated life by their particular life style. She joined the Convent of Ursulines in Payyambalam, Kannur on her birthday in 1952. When joined, she did not know much about Ursulines but her neighbor, who encouraged Sr. Gaetana, was already in this convent.

She only had elementary education when she decided to join the convent with the great desire to become a nun and a missionary. She was ready to go to any extend of hard work to achieve this goal. No sooner than she joined Gaetana was put in an orphanage in Punchakkad, Payyannur to help the children and to work in the kitchen. The superiors thought that this would help her to know the type of life sisters were living in the convent. There was lot of struggles during that time. The convents were not as sophisticated and luxurious as of today. There were occasions when she had to “sleep in the kitchen floor due to lack of place in the convent.” However, the zeal for becoming a nun turned everything into joy.

After an year she was sent back to Kannur where she underwent formation and training to become a nun. The formation was not fashioned to have 4 years as of today but mainly focused on attending the Holy Mass everyday, half an hour meditation and the remaining time to be spent in work. During her 1 year novitiate the novices were asked to focus more on spiritual reading and lead a spiritual life. They had to meet the formation mistress every month and once she advised Sr. Gaetana to pray some ejaculatory prayers such as – ‘Oh blessed Trinity I love you, save souls’ while they were at work. They had to learn the Rulebook by heart. There were a few classes about Foundress Mother Brigida Morello, which she did not comprehend much. The only prayer she knew was rosary and used to pray to Mother Mary always, to sustain in her vocation. The mysteries of rosary made her reflect about the events of Bl. Virgin Mary and to secure strength from her life.

She made her first profession in Kannur in 1955 after 3 years of hard work and dedicated service in the convent even during the novitiate. She was happy and prayed to be the bride of Jesus till the end of her life. Nevertheless, she feared remaining such long in religious vocation. They were 5 and all were dressed as brides with decorative dress and crown on the head and long gown. They entered the chapel of the convent bubbling with joy. During the function they are given the religious habit. Her face sparkles as she says about the white habit and white head veil she wore on that day. Her parents and relatives from home were present at the occasion to grace the solemnity. She felt extremely happy as she was meeting them for the first time after joining the convent.

She recalls today that the consecrated life required the deep ‘thapass’ to remain faithful in vocation and to live as a nun. Sr. Gaetana grew up in a cultural context when leaving the convent was considered to be shameful.

Life was tough in the convent. “We used to get up in the early morning by hearing the voice of the train passing by” explains Sr Gaetana, who spent much of her time in managing the kitchen in various convents. They usually spent little time in the chapel for prayer but focused more on work. However, times of work were turned to be moments of prayer as they were continuously reciting rosary after rosaries.

Sr. Celine Kannanaikal UMI, who is declared as Servant of God was a novice that time and she taught Sr. Gaetana, how to do meditation as Sr. Gaetana humbly agrees she did not know any prayer except the rosary. Sr. Gaetana is so blessed to have shared the room with the blessed Celine. Though she was a teacher, she was very obedient, humble, gentle, compassionate, and a prayerful person and the novices were not allowed to talk much. Sr. Celine used to pray a lot in her room whenever she got free time. Mother mistress had instructed Celine not to share with anybody about her experiences as Celine had some troubles from devil. She was trying to give a good example always. When Celine died Sr. Gaetana was already left for North Indian mission. Exactly one month after her profession Sr. Celine died as she was suffering from serious illness.

“All in the convent liked me and loved me because I loved to do any work. I love the congregation and grateful for everything that I have received till today.” There was lot of sufferings and sacrifices in her life. There were days when they went to sleep hungry, as there wasn’t sufficient food for all at the beginning of the congregation. But she was happy to offer it for the salvation of the souls, penance for her sins and to withstand her vocation.

She still recollects passionately the day she cried in front of the Blessed Sacrament to get strength and courage to go ahead in this life. She states cheerfully, “I experienced God’s protection all throughout my life.” She feels sad for her physical weaknesses, which occasionally had prevented her keep awake in the presence of God in the chapel. She consoles herself telling, “may be it’s a temptation from Satan.” Indeed it was the heavy work she was doing from morning till evening really had exhausted her leading her to doze a while in the quietness and relaxed moments in the Lord’s house.

Sr. Gaetana describes her personal vocation: “Giving was my mission. Still I give than receiving.” At this age 80 also she is a cheerful giver, taking care of the guests in the community in whatever way she can and her innocent smiling face makes everyone feel at home.

Struggles are the stepping-stones in the path of Religious life and Jesus invites everyone to walk the way to Calvary with Him, carrying the cross of daily life to experience the joy and peace of Easter. The story of Sr. Gaetana shall inspire many religious of today especially those who are finding difficult to choose this way of life.

Sr Ranjana Thomas

Sr Ranjana UMI, who has secured MA degree in Social Communications from Pontifical Gregorian University, is an expert in media and communication. She teaches communication as well as conducts workshops on media literacy in schools for students as well as teachers.

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