In the year 2015, on Christmas day, we the MSI Lay Associates (four of us) from Hong Kong accompanied by Sr. Carmela, left for an eight-day visit to India. It was two years ago, yet the memories of this special “Journey to India” remain vivid in my mind till today.
India was the first mission country of the MSI Sisters. I have heard so much about the missionary services of the Sisters in India through some of the Indian Sisters who are here in Hong Kong. A few years ago, I got the chance to read the book “History of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate in India – Early Decades”. I was deeply moved in knowing how the pioneer Sisters had endured great hardship and various challenges to start their first mission in a distant land. Then in December 2015, the four of us from Hong Kong had the grace of walking in the footsteps of the pioneer Sisters in this Asian sub-continent. This was indeed a most precious Christmas gift for us.
In our eight-day journey, we went to three main places, namely Mumbai, Vijayawada and Hyderabad to visit some of the MSI communities there. The first community we visited was the Vimala Dermatological Centre in Mumbai. We saw how Sr. Bertilla Capra and the other Sisters care the Hansen and other patients, not just with medical treatment but with genuine care and affection which could not be substituted by any modern facilities. We also visited the orphanage close to the Centre. In spite of their background and the difficult circumstances of life, the children looked cheerful and we could see in them the rays of hope radiating from their little faces. It was probably because the parental care of the Sisters had soothed their hearts and made them feel that they were worthy of being loved.
After spending one and half a day at Mumbai, we travelled to Vijayawada to visit the communities of Niketan, Gudiwada and Bhimavaram. When we arrived at Niketan, we were invited for the dinner held by the old students of Nirmala High School to welcome their former principal, Sr. Angelica who had been in India for the holidays and who is missionary in Hong Kong. Even though the four of us were seemingly “outsiders”, we too were immersed in the joyous and fraternal atmosphere of the get-together. Very apparently the old students who were in their middle age, were serving the society in different walks of life, had a very deep affection for their alma mater. They shared with immense joy and gratitude how their teenage life had been shaped by the loving guidance and support of the Sisters and teachers. Their sharing gave us the best testimony of the wonderful missionary service rendered by the Sisters through education. They have sown the seeds of the Gospel in different schools which have nurtured the souls of countless youngsters entrusted to their care. Being a old student of Pope Paul VI College, the girls’ school set up by the Sisters in Hong Kong in 1969, I share the same sentiment in thanking the Lord for sending the Sisters to accompany us to grow and learn in the spirit of love and service.
On the following few days, we visited the communities at Gudiwada and Bhimavaram. My heart was filled with special excitement as we stepped on to the soil of Gudiwada. It was here, in 1948, that the first six Sisters had established their first community. A small dispensary with just one room set up by the Sisters then has become a hospital now (the Sacred Heart Hospital) with different medical facilities. There, we saw the Sisters comforting the Hansen patients, helping the expectant mothers and taking care of the new-born babies, treating the out-patients and attending to the needs of other patients. Again, what we had witnessed in Mumbai, the Sisters were running the hospital not as secular service-providers but as missionaries responding to the gracious call of God, a call which had driven the six pioneer Sisters from Europe to this part of the world in 1948.
We spent the last two days in Hyderabad. What impressed us much was the visit to the villages and our special thanks to Sr. Namita for accompanying us all along. We went to several villages to see the village churches, to visit a few sick and old people who lived alone. On the way, we received warm greetings from the villagers, some of them were Hindus but all of them were known to the Sisters. The Sisters used to go to the villages regularly to visit the families, to visit the sick and the needy, teach catechism and give faith formation for the villagers. We also went to visit a group of “abandoned” handicapped villagers who were helped by a Hindu lady and other volunteers including the Sisters. As a visitor, I witnessed many touching scenes which I can’t describe with my words. It may be enough to say that the Sisters work in the peripheries, both in the literal and real sense of the word, to bring the light, hope and joy of Jesus to the marginalized and needy who experience God’s love and mercy.
Being MSI Lay Associates, we were of course extremely delighted to have the opportunity to visit the different Lay Groups at Vijayawada, Vegavaram and Hyderabad. Their experiences were very valuable and fruitful as it enhanced us with mutual enrichment. During the time of our visit, many Lay Groups, including our group in Hong Kong, had been studying and reflecting on the text “To the Roots of Our Spirituality – Jesus, the Apostle of the Father, the Sower and the Seed”. We were privileged to have the chance of learning how our Lay Associates in India had responded to the charism and spirituality of the MSI. What impressed us, was that, the different Lay Groups were very well organized under the spiritual guidance of the Sisters-in-charge. They organize regular meetings, formation programmes, pilgrimage, missionary animation and pastoral services such as visiting the aged, sick, disabled, orphans, prisoners… and others who are in need. Many Lay Associates were also actively involved in their own parishes. Sharing in the mission of the Sisters, they bring the love of Jesus to those around them. We have indeed much to learn from their experiences and hope that there will be more interactions among the Lay Groups in different places if opportunities arises.
In brief, this eight-day visit to India is very satisfying for me, and certainly for the other three Lay Associates, in many ways. The sight-seeing in the city of Mumbai, the visit to some tourist places in Vijayawada such as the Kanaka Durga Temple and the Caves, the fun of wearing the saree for taking photos, the taste of homemade Indian food…were all enjoyable. But what made the journey truly unforgettable is not so much these eye-catching, external things but the people we met. In every MSI community, we were received with warm hospitality. We were very grateful to the Sisters, including Sr. Carmela and Sr. Angelica as they had taken the trouble of planning the programmes, arranging the accommodation, transport, meals and other needs for us, not to mention their time for accompanying us around.
To me, the journey also gave me the rare opportunity of meeting a few Sisters who had served in Hong Kong many years ago. They are Sr. Nazarena, Sr. Constantina, Sr. Benigna and Sr. Cecily whom I had not seen for more than twenty years. Sr. Nazarena and Sr. Benigna had once been my colleagues teaching at Pope Paul VI College. I could hardly believe that we would meet again in India after many years. When we met again, the time looked too short for us as there was so much to recall about the past days and so much to share about our “new lives”. I am much moved to say that despite their advanced age, these Sisters are fulfilling the will of God in their home country with untiring dedication and trust in His providence.
I was also deeply edified in seeing how the Sisters in the different communities were living their missionary vocation. They have left their dear ones and scarified many earthly things in response to God’s call – to be His “little instruments” as missionaries to bring the most beautiful gift – Jesus to all those who have not known Him, especially to the underprivileged, the weak and the poor. Actions always speak more than the words. Through their missionary service in different parts of the world, the Sisters are spreading the Gospel and healing the wounds of countless souls with their silent, selfless love. Their hard harvest does bear fruits, as reflected by the warm gestures of appreciation and affection on the part of those they serve – the patients, orphans, parishioners, students, … Christians or non-Christians. Needless to say, there are also the Lay Associates who have been walking closely with them, sharing their spirituality and mission of evangelization. Being a Lay and a past student of a MSI, I would always cherish in my heart all the things I have received and learned from the Sisters. As the Congregation is preparing for its XI General Chapter, I pray with all my heart that the Holy Spirit will keep guiding each and every one of the Sisters and accompany them to continue their missionary journey with apostolic courage and unfailing zeal. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patron of MSI, protect them and intercede for them.
Connie Lam, MSI Lay Associates, (Hong Kong – Cina)