By Barb Arland-Fye
Most of the religious sisters had gone to bed by the time I arrived at St. Mary’s Convent in Bellary, Karnataka, India, to spend the night as their guest. For a fleeting moment, I recalled attending a Catholic girl’s boarding high school and missing a curfew!
That feeling was short-lived. The Franciscan Hospitaller Sister of the Immaculate Conception who opened the convent door greeted me warmly. She asked if I would like to take a warm shower. Yes, I said, feeling pleasantly tired on the fourth night of my dream assignment, covering Bishop Thomas Zinkula’s journey in India (Feb. 25-March 5).
Father Francis Bashyam, a good friend of the bishop who coordinated our itinerary, made arrangements with the sisters to provide a guest room for me that night. The clergy at the dinner party, including the bishop, planned to spend the night at Fr. Francis’ house, located on the grounds of the school he led, St. John Vianney in Bellary. A dinner party on the school grounds ran a little late, delaying my anticipated arrival at St. Mary’s Convent. I hoped the sisters wouldn’t mind, and they didn’t.
After escorting me to the quaint guest room, Sister left to allow me to unpack and get settled in. An overhead fan circulated the warm, but not stuffy air. A colorful spread covered the twin-size bed and the nightstand contained a covered glass of water. I checked out the bathroom but didn’t see a shower stall. Sister returned to my room with my “shower” — a full bucket of hot water!
Showers such as the one I’m accustomed to at home are a luxury in India. Many people take bucket showers; Fr. Francis said he prefers that method. I thanked Sister for my shower; we said good night and then I headed into the bathroom for a bucket shower. I felt squeaky clean afterwards.
Before she left the room, I learned that the sisters, who all work at St. Mary’s Hospital, rose early for morning prayer followed by Mass and breakfast. I said I would like to join the sisters for Mass and breakfast. She was very receptive to my request.
The next morning, I arrived at the chapel where around 10 sisters knelt on chairs with kneelers. Well-worn prayer books were tucked into a shelf on the chair. The sisters were barefoot because they had entered a sacred space.
I felt at home attending Mass even though the hymns were unfamiliar. The sisters and I belong to different cultures and ethnic groups, but our shared love of the faith bonded us. At breakfast, Sister had prepared an egg sandwich for me. Knowing that Indian food is a bit spicy for my digestion, I thought eggs sounded like a safe option and told her so the night before when she asked about my preferences. I told her I especially liked hard-boiled eggs. So, beside my egg sandwich I found a couple of hard-boiled eggs!
During our brief time together over breakfast, the sisters and I chatted about their lives and mine. We didn’t go in depth, of course, but I probably shared more details then they had time for. They listened attentively anyway before excusing themselves to head over to the hospital.
Mother Maria Clara founded the Franciscan Hospitaller Sisters of the Immaculate Conception nearly 148 years ago in France. The religious congregation’s website states that “To live the Franciscan hospitaller mission today, is, before anything else, to look at each person as a brother, a sister, guest to love and to receive, to care for, to warm.”
Their religious community sees the world as suffering from the wounds of “individualism, isolation, uncontrollable struggle for power, accumulation of wealth and devaluation of the human person,” among other maladies. But hospitality as a mission envisions “another possible world, by gestures and practices that inspire and which could be an evangelical answer to the wishes and the thirst of humanity: respect, proximity, welcome acceptance, listening, care, consolation, valuation of life in all situations and circumstances.”
As our diocese prepares for the Vision 20/20 convocation to revitalize our faith and to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, I think about the sisters who welcomed me so graciously and provided a room and a hot shower!
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)