“Love is our religion”

Our Emotional Participation in the World
English Translation
Audio Test:
Published On:

July 12, 2021

Categories of Inquiry:
No items found.
Ausgabe 31 / 2021:
July 2021
Wir alle leben in Mythen
Explore this Issue

Please become a member to access evolve Magazine articles.

Sister Lucy Kurien creates spaces for healing

To this day, Sister Lucy Kurien’s now 91-year-old mother insists on reminding her daughter that she became a nun without her mother’s permission. In fact, Sister Lucy tells me during our conversation, “When I spoke with my mother this morning she told me, ‘If anything happens, you are alone without family support.’” Sister Lucy smiles gently into the camera as she says this before shaking her head with a shrug. “I have built an organization of 2,000 people!” she exclaims. “I am far from alone.”

Born in the state of Kerala in southern India in 1956, Sister Lucy enjoyed a contented childhood in the bosom of family. With nine siblings and two loving parents, Sister Lucy found “everything [in her small village] very beautiful.” But by the age of 12 or 13, Sister Lucy had finished the available local schooling and took off for Bombay to continue her education.

Before leaving her home in Kerala, Sister Lucy had assumed that her mother tongue was spoken everywhere—at home they’d had no TVs or newspapers to suggest otherwise. Upon arriving in Bombay, however, she discovered that everything here happened in an entirely different language! Sister Lucy’s plan to continue her studies disintegrated right before her eyes. Though she was very homesick, Lucy decided to stay in Bombay and it was here that she became increasingly aware or her own happy nature. “I’ve always been a very internally happy person,” she tells me. “I enjoy what is there and am not bothered for too long by external things.” This equanimity would serve Sister Lucy well over the coming decades as she struggled first to recognize and then to realize her life’s calling.

Not long after Sister Lucy arrived in Bombay she got a job looking after the smaller children in a school run by nuns. Through this work, Sister Lucy came into contact with Mother Teresa and began going to the home she ran to play with the children there. Though she deeply enjoyed this, what she saw in Bombay also bothered her; back home, everyone was self-sufficient with their own house and water as well as enough food. In Bombay, by contrast, Sister Lucy saw extreme poverty, she saw beggars sleeping on the street, and she began to wonder how she could help people. “So many people are born into lap of poverty in India,” she tells me. “People just want to survive, and to look out for themselves.” At the age of 14, Sister Lucy realized that her heart was pulled to help the poor. By the time Sister Lucy turned 18, she had decided she wanted to become a nun and join Mother Teresa’s order.            

But when she returned to Kerala to share this news with her parents, their reaction was less than thrilled. “We have heard that this Mother Teresa helps people with leprosy,” they said. “We do not want our daughter getting leprosy.” At the time, everyone still thought leprosy was highly contagious. Sister Lucy’s parents forbid her from joining Mother Teresa’s order and refused to sign the form she needed to do so. Though her own mother didn’t hold back in sharing her doubts about Sister Lucy’s desire to become a nun (“They’re too disciplined, it won’t fit your nature, you’re too young to make such a big decision”), Lucy’s attraction to the life of a nun (Her sisters had made the big decisions to marry and have children at younger ages, she pointed out) didn’t waver. She couldn’t say when it had begun, or why, but something about the nun’s life called to her—Sister Lucy felt sure it was where her happiness and best ability to contribute to a better world lay. Frustrated but determined to continue on her own path, Sister Lucy returned to Bombay and to her work with children at the nun’s school.

It wasn’t until a decade later, after Sister Lucy had (against her mother’s will but with her father’s permission) become a nun with the Holy Cross Congregation (who did not work with leprosy patients) that her heart’s work began to take shape. Though she had thought that if she became a nun she would be helping Bombay’s most desperate inhabitants, Sister Lucy was very disappointed to find that her own life wasn’t at all touching the lives of the poor. Her sister nuns were focused on teaching and nursing where it would bring income to the congregation rather than where their work would be of the most service. Every time Sister Lucy saw women and children on the street, which was quite often, she felt so sad and hurt, but whenever she shared these feelings with her sisters she had the impression that they were not similarly affected; no one else, she thought, seemed to see the pain and need all around them.

Sister Lucy was in her early 30’s point when suddenly one, tragic experience changed her life. She had gotten permission to work with a sister doing social work in a nearby town and was there one evening when a woman about 7 months pregnant approached her to ask for shelter for the night. The woman was Hindu, and Sister Lucy knew that the convent wasn’t allowed to shelter Hindu women, especially on such short notice. After going inside to make sure that there was nothing she could do for the woman, Sister Lucy sent her away.

Later that night, she woke to loud shouting. Sister Lucy got dressed and left the convent to investigate, following the sounds until she came to a blazing fire. The screams were coming from within the flames—the woman Sister Lucy had sent away earlier had been turned out and set on fire by her husband. Though Sister Lucy helped to put the fire out and took the woman to the hospital, there was nothing the doctors could do. The woman was already 90% burned and even the baby that Sister Lucy insisted they cut out to save was now nothing more than a fully-cooked lump in her hands. Despite having become a nun, Sister Lucy hadn’t been able to help in time. Extremely upset and angry with herself, she made a promise: after this night, she would do more to help the poor.

For the first time, “a terrible sadness” came into Sister Lucy’s life. “I could not forget about this woman,” she tells me with downcast eyes. “I had no idea anymore what I was doing, or why.” Back at her convent the day after the pregnant woman and her child had died, Sister Lucy was so frustrated that she overturned a table. This got the attention of the other sisters, and she was sent to a priest for counseling. After speaking with Sister Lucy, the priest asked her, “Instead of waiting for the other sisters, why don’t you do something?”

“What can I do, without any money or education?” Sister Lucy asked.

“If you have love in your heart, you can find a way,” he replied.

These words stuck with Sister Lucy; it was time to do something.

As it happened, the same priest taught Hinduism in Germany from time to time. About a year after meeting with Sister Lucy, he told her that an Austrian student of his was looking for an opportunity to help destitute women in India. The priest arranged for this man to come to India and to meet Sister Lucy. He stayed for an entire month, often meeting Sister Lucy to discuss her hopes and desires. Finally, he asked her what she would do if she had money. “I would create a home for abandoned children,” she said. This was enough for the man, who gave her what she needed to buy small piece of land before leaving. Sister Lucy slowly collected more money to build her first home for abandoned and destitute women and children in 1997.

Today Maher (Marathi for my mother's home), the organization Sister Lucy founded, has 54 homes in 6 states in India with over 200 staff members committed to working toward the goal of food and safe shelter for everyone. “I am not superior to anyone, I have merely been placed in a different position. Wherever I can reach out and help, that’s what I want to do.” Sister Lucy’s vitality sparkles in her eyes as she shares Maher’s approach to religion and celebrations with me: “We celebrate everything. The traumatized need all the celebration they can get.” Maher seeks to promote peace and harmony in a highly diverse and often divided land. “Love is our religion,” Sister Lucy tells me with an emphatic nod.

When I ask whether she ever gets overwhelmed by the monumental number of people in need of Maher’s support, Sister Lucy is quiet for a moment. Then she answers, “Sure, sometimes I feel frustrated that I can’t do more. I wish there were more hands and more people to do the work—there’s just so much need. I would be very happy to do more, but I have never thought of giving up. Whenever I feel miserable, I just look into the eyes of a child and my energy returns.”

Indeed, Sister Lucy speaks of the transformation of children as one of the most meaningful parts of her work. Witnessing the process of traumatized children being able to run their own lives, or of destitute and abandoned women finally finding their place in society, Sister Lucy describes Maher as working to replace hopelessness with healing. Though coping with the global pandemic has seriously challenged Maher’s community lifestyle, so far, Sister Lucy affirms, “we have somehow been coping. We miss the vibrancy of our international volunteers, the languages, the cultures, and the art. Our children cannot wait until we can connect with the world again. But somehow, we continue.”

Miranda Perrone
Share this article: