4 congregations of sisters, merge charisms to benefit people with leprosy I SDG 3,10,17

Thomas Scaria

Journalist for the Union of Catholic Asian News

also for Matters India

Sr. Fathima Mary Lourdraj bandages a patient at Sumanahalli’s clinic in Bengaluru, India. The main charism of her order, the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, is to serve those afflicted with leprosy.  

BENGALURU, INDIA — Nuns from four congregations have been credited with merging their charisms to devise an integrated approach to treating and rehabilitating leprosy patients in this southern Indian city.

“We follow different charisms and spirituality, but when we work together, they help people differently,” says Sr. Christina Fernandes, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate who serve the Sumanahalli Society in Bengaluru, capital of Karnataka state.

The Karnataka government selected Sumanahalli, which means “village of people of good hearts,” for this year’s “Best NGO Award.” India’s government, led by a Hindu nationalist party, conferred the award on Jan. 30, the World Health Organization’s World Leprosy Day, and also the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death. The government hailed the Catholic center’s “commendable services” in treating and rehabilitating leprosy patients.

Sr. Fathima Mary Lourdraj works with a resident of the Sumanahalli rehabilitation center after his legs were bandaged.

Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by a bacterium that primarily affects the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, the skin, upper respiratory tract, eyes, and lining of the nose.

Claretian Fr. George Kannanthanam, director of the Sumanahalli Society, says the credit must go to “the inter-congregational forum of sisters that has provided a dignified life to more than 11,000 leprosy-affected people in the past 45 years,” when the society was founded by the Bangalore Archdiocese.

This year’s World Leprosy Day theme was “United for Dignity,” which, the priest says, is true in the case of the sisters and patients at Sumanahalli.

The sisters’ integrated approach comprises treatment, education, vocational training, job placement, housing, and family settlement, Kannanthanam told Global Sisters Report.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tarbes have convents inside the Sumanahalli campus, while the Montfort Sisters or Daughters of Wisdom and the Daughters of the Church operate from outside.

“Although we work according to the individual charism, they all merge to meet the same goal — place the leprosy patients back in society as productive citizens,” Fernandes, a nurse, told GSR as she washed and bandaged the wounds of patients in a clinic on the Sumanahalli campus. Her congregation was founded in 1876 in Valencia, Spain, to take care of leprosy patients, she added.

Sr. Christina Fernandes, left, of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate says she draws motivation from the woman at right, who was one of the first patients at Sumanahalli and is like a mother to the sisters. Fernandes has served there for 26 years.

Currently, the Franciscan and Tarbes congregations have deputed five nuns each to serve Sumanahalli while residing on the campus. The Montfort congregation now sends three sisters and the Daughters of the Church assigns two to work at Sumanahalli.

The Franciscans manage the clinic while the Tarbes sisters attend to the patients’ education, job placements and housing projects. The Montfort sisters are engaged in community surveys, clinics and referrals, and the Daughters of the Church look after the patients’ overall care.

St. Joseph of Tarbes Sr. Mary Mascarenhas, who has worked in Sumanahalli for four decades, points out that India now accounts for more than 50% of new leprosy cases in the world, although the World Health Organization in 2005 declared leprosy an eliminated disease. India too claimed leprosy was no more a health issue.

Such declarations have only led to “reducing attention to the problem of leprosy in society and cutting down on funds,” laments Mascarenhas, who is often called the “Mother Teresa of Bangalore” for her work among leprosy patients.

The 80-year-old nun says they could correct leprosy patients’ physical wounds and deformities, but the wounds caused by social stigma and isolation are “so deep and take years to heal.”

After the WHO declaration, Amici di Raoul Follereau (AIFO, Friends of Raoul Follereau), an Italian agency that used to fund Sumanahalli from 1976, stopped the aid.

Claretian Fr. George Kannanthanam, the director of the Sumanahalli Society, won a 2003 award from Indian President Abdul Kalam as “Best Employer for the Disabled” for his leadership in helping to eliminate leprosy (Hansen’s disease) in India.

Kannanthanam says leprosy may be eliminated in the government records, but “our community teams continue to bring new cases forcing us to look for local funds.”

Thomas Scaria