Service to God through 

Service to Mankind

Iris C F Gomes

Sr Escaline Miranda, Sr Orpha Tirkey and Sr Marie Lou Barbosa have a cheerfulness and vivacity that contradicts the conventional persona that nuns are meant to display. In Sr Orpha’s words, ‘We work hard, we play hard and we pray hard!’ That is the maxim of their religious life together.

The Sisters belong to the ICM, Immaculati Cordis Mariae or Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The order was called the Missionary Canonesses of St. Augustine when the foundress Mother Marie Louise De Meester was asked to administer an orphanage in British India which was overrun with orphans. The brave Belgian felt it was an opportunity to fulfil her desire to be a missionary and travelled to Mulagumoodu, in the Kannyakumari district of Tamil Nadu with her companion and novice Dame Marie Ursule in 1897.

There she began a school that taught regular subjects to girls for half the day and in the evenings they were trained in making European lace by Dame Marie Ursule who excelled at needlework and lace making. Realising the need for more helping hands, a novitiate was started in Roeselare, Belgium, which later became the base for the central house of the congregation.

Marie Louise battled excommunication by the local Bishop who wished to control her activity and instead of restricting herself to India, she went to the Philippines in 1910 to establish a mission. From there, with zeal founded in deep spirituality and trust in God’s providence, Marie Louise moved to the West Indies, United States, Congo and China. The missionary work was adapted to the needs of the people in each of these places and today has expanded into health care and administration of hospitals, mainstream education, special education (blind and deaf), social work and technical education.

After Vatican II, the more severe habit was given up for clothes of lay people, best suited to the culture of the region where the Sisters were working. The outlook of the order is very practical, much like that of their foundress. There is flexibility in time for prayer depending on the work being carried out, so strong is the belief in serving God through serving man. ‘The community is united and supportive of one another which is one of the reasons I joined the ICM Sisters,’ says Sr Orpha.

Sr Orpha speaks of her vocation which she fulfilled by defying her father, ‘I was a teacher with the Jesuits first and after five years I was transferred and began working in a school run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and it was a government post. I was thirty years old when I felt the call. I am from Chattisgarh and I had never heard of the ICM Sisters. I read about them in a magazine and decided to go and check for myself. I told them not to treat me like a child but like an adult and that I would decide to join after evaluating them.’ She found their community life so joyful and giving that she promptly resolved to become part of the community even if they objected to admitting her. In four years she became a nun and says, ‘I still hold on to my first call through any doubts that creep in.’

Sr Orpha works with the childline services in Goa, under Caritas. It is supported by the Central Government. She deals mainly with under eighteen children who have been abused, child labourers, children suffering from malnutrition, runaways and underage pregnant girls. These children are rehabilitated and given moral and legal support. If they have been sold then their parents are confronted and the child is restored his or her legal rights.

On Sundays Sr Orpha joins Sr Escaline and Sr Marie Lou for Mass in Hindi for the migrant labourers. The work with migrant labourers and domestic workers is another side to the good work carried out by these Sisters. The National Domestic Workers’ Movement is an initiative by Sr Jeanne Devos ICM, which began in Dindigui district of Tamil Nadu in 1985 to free domestic workers from the slavery like conditions they were subjected to, and brought them a gamut of government benefits in fruition. Sr Escaline, who became part of ICM after her tenth standard education and was much inspired by the work of the ICM Sisters having studied in their school for three years, soon spearheaded the Domestic Workers’ Movement after Sr Jeanne Devos. Now in her golden years, she prefers to cook, keep house and spend her time in prayer while Sr Marie Lou, a native of Goa, does most of the field work.

Sr Marie Lou’s main concern is to create awareness of the prevailing labour laws and provide for spiritual growth of domestic workers and labourers. The movement as a whole aims to form a labour union to prevent labourers and domestic workers from being swindled and exploited by their employers. ‘God has been very good,’ says Sr Escaline, ‘He has brought us together for his mission to continue. Money, priests and people are provided whenever we have the need of such.’ Besides Mass and retreats for Christian migrants and domestic workers, the Karam festival (celebrating the harvest) is celebrated on the 4th of October and here even labourers and workers of other faiths join in the celebration with gusto.