Indian nuns in Hawaii: Coming from afar to proclaim the Good News

The new sisters in Hilo, from left, Sister Lisa Chettri, Sister Lusika Sangma, Sister Marykutty Kottuppallil and Sister Ruth Zonunthari.  Photo Credit: Kara Nelson
The new sisters in Hilo, from left, Sister Lisa Chettri, Sister Lusika Sangma, Sister Marykutty Kottuppallil and Sister Ruth Zonunthari. Photo Credit: Kara Nelson


Even in Hawaii’s longstanding cultural melting pot, this is a first. A community of Indian nuns has made its home in Hilo.  The four sisters, members of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians, were invited last year to work in St. Joseph Parish by the previous pastor, Father Thomas Purayidathil.


“Father wanted to have the sisters who were in habit here to work for the people,” said Sister Marykutty Kottuppallil, the nun’s local superior.


She said that Father Purayidathil, who is also originally from India, “knew the charism and spirit of the congregation” and thought it would be a good fit for the parish.


That “charism,” or mission, is “evangelization and new evangelization.”


“New evangelization,” Sister Marykutty explained, is reaching out to those Catholics who have “fallen away” from the church.


The Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (MSMHC) were founded in 1942 in Guwahati, in northeast India, as part of the family of Salesian orders. (Father Purayidathil was once a Salesian priest.) Their motto is, “Go Proclaim the Good News.”


The congregation has 167 communities in and outside of India. Their ministry includes sacramental preparation, retreats and home visits, with particular care for women and children in rural areas. In India and elsewhere they operate schools and homes for the sick, the elderly, abandoned street children and children with disabilities.


The sisters, whose convent is on Olu Street in Hilo, are in the United States on R-1 religious worker visas. For all of them, St. Joseph Parish is their first American assignment.


Meet the sisters


Sister Marykutty, 42, the daughter of a businessman and homemaker, grew up a middle child with two sisters and three brothers. Two of her aunts are nuns and an uncle is a priest.


She described her home city of Kottayam in the south Indian state of Kerala as “just like here — Hilo — surrounded by seashore.”


“The weather is also just like Hilo,” she said. “All the fruit trees of Hilo are found in my place.”


Kottayam is urban, completely literate, and “fully Catholic,” Sister Marykutty said. It’s also a place where Hindus and Christians live in harmony.


Sister Marykutty said she discerned her religious calling at age 14, and entered the convent as an aspirant at 17, even though her entire family, including her grandparents, originally opposed her decision.


Finally, she said, her father granted his approval.


She made her vows at 22 and enrolled in college at 25, majoring in zoology and earning a minor in chemistry and botany.


Before coming to Hawaii last Nov. 15, she worked in Rome as a pastoral assistant.


A warm, friendly and well organized woman, Sister Marykutty speaks English, Italian, Hindi, and Malayalam.


At St. Joseph Parish, Sister Marykutty serves as a pastoral assistant, coordinating liturgies and church ministries. She is also an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and a lector. She teaches religious education on Sundays, brings Holy Communion to the sick and homebound, counsels parishioners and prays for their intentions.


Sister Lisa Chettri joined the convent at 15, encouraged by her family, especially her father.


“I didn’t want to become a nun,” she said, but her father believed that, of the family’s four girls, it would be good to “give at least one to the Lord.”


“And so he inspired me and he supported me,” Sister Lisa said. Now 38, she’s the only one in her family with a religious vocation.


Sister Lisa’s father was a government employee. Her mother is a housewife and runs a grocery store. She has one brother.


After joining the Sisters of Mary Help of Christians, Sister Lisa earned master’s degrees in English and sociology. Thoughtful and intelligent, she speaks English and several regional Indian dialects.


Before coming to Hawaii, she was principal of Tome Memorial Secondary School, a large high school in India. She arrived in Hilo on May 9 and is now the vice-principal of St. Joseph Elementary School.


Sister Ruth Zonunthari, a quiet nun of 32, is from Serchhip, Mizoram, a small town and “fully Christian” area in northeast India. She arrived in Hawaii with Sister Marykutty on Nov. 15.


Her father, now deceased, was a high school mathematics and English teacher. He influenced her “in every way,” she said. “He always said, ‘Your life is a responsibility. I will support you always to achieve your aim.’”


A middle child with three brothers and three sisters, she left home at 16 for the convent.


She felt the “guidance of God” through her formation period and attributed it to the prayers of her devoted father.


“He prayed a lot,” she said.


Sister Ruth said that it was only three years ago that her mother came to fully understand her calling. She told her daughter, “You are the source of blessing for our family.”


With a master’s degree in social work, she ran a rehabilitation center in India and taught high school English and history as well.


Sister Ruth’s ministry at St. Joseph is social outreach. She serves the homeless, distributes food at the food pantry on Mondays and Wednesdays and emergency rations at other times. She also offers spiritual support to the grieving through the parish bereavement ministry.


Sister Lusika Sangma, 41, belongs to the Garo tribe of Maghalaya State. She is from Kharkutta, Meghalaya, in northeast India.


She noted that Kharkutta means “abode of clouds.” It’s a small town and similar to Hilo, because it rains a lot, though much more than Hilo. It is in a Christian state, but more American Baptist than Catholic, she said.


She’s the youngest of four daughters and one son of a military father, who has died, and a homemaker mother. One of her sisters has also passed away.


Sister Lusika joined the congregation at the young age of 12 and began her pre-novitiate after grade 12. She has her master’s in sociology and has done post-graduate studies in media and communication.


Back in India, she was the director of media and social communications for her religious congregation in Guwahati.


Sister Lusika arrived on Jan. 24 at St. Joseph Parish where, as the religious education coordinator, she organizes faith formation and sacramental preparation for children and adults.


A warm Hilo welcome


The Hilo people have welcomed the sisters warmly. After Masses, many approach them to chat or give them a hug. One woman, Else DeMello, drove the sisters around to various destinations and errands for a while after their car was damaged in an accident.


“She’s an angel,” said Sister Lusika.


The sisters, in turn, love Hilo.


“I enjoy the people, the environment,” Sister Ruth said. “I love to see the ocean. I love to see green everywhere around like my place.”


Sister Lisa, too, is charmed by the island’s natural beauty and its people. “They’re very friendly, very welcoming, and very, very polite — gentle and polite.”


Sister Lusika appreciates “the warm nature” of Hawaii’s people. She described them in one word: “loving.”


How long will the sisters stay?


“As long as we live and as long as our superiors want,” Sister Marykutty said.


“We love the people of Hawaii,” she said. “They are very simple, very spiritual, and very hospitable. We feel that they are our own people. We call them ‘our people.’”


“We are happy, contented,” she said. “We can do much here.”


In their ministry to lapsed Catholics, the new sisters are reaching out with compassion and encouragement.


“When they come to share, we always encourage them to return,” Sister Marykutty said. “We say, ‘Our God is a God of compassion: He’s ready to welcome always.’ With that attitude, we welcome the people.”


Many have returned to the church, she said. She also hopes to reach out to those who don’t belong to any church.


The sisters use a structure called the Basic Christian Community to meet regularly with small groups of Catholics to study the Word of God and share reflections.


The Hilo Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians are expecting a fifth sister, Sister Leena Piholi, to join them soon. She will teach at St. Joseph Preschool.


Paperwork has delayed her arrival, but when she comes, the sisters will greet her at the airport with a lei and take her on an outing — a special treat for all since the sisters are so busy.


Have they been anxiously, prayerfully or joyfully awaiting Sister Leena’s arrival?


“All!” Sister Marykutty laughed.


The sisters would also welcome any local women interested in a religious vocation.


Said Sister Lusika: “We want to invite the young people to join us. Those who wish to become Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians, they are all welcome.”


And with such wonderful sisters, who wouldn’t feel welcome? God will bless their efforts here in Hawaii, and they will surely reap many fruits from their patient endeavors.


Printed with permission from the Hawaii Catholic Herald.  The original story published August 7, 2009.



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