132 years of service : Reflecting God’s love on earth | Sunday Observer

132 years of service : Reflecting God’s love on earth

Many nations united in Christ
Many nations united in Christ

The Bible talks about fruits of the spirit. There is one beautiful religious oasis in Colombo where these spiritual fruits manifest in daily life. It is the Convent of the Religious Congregation of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary or the FMM as they are known globally.

Nestled in Colombo 8 the convent is partially hidden by the large building, St. Anthony’s Nursery. Adjacent to this is a small chapel. When I entered these premises there was a sense of calm as it is a place where prayer and adoration reign supreme.

Sacred footsteps

Sister Elsie Rodrigo met me in the verandah. As we sat in the dining room we were joined by Sister Janet Nethasinghe, Sister Rose and Sister Antoinette Gomez - the Provincial Superior. Sister Rose, the elder nun began the conversation and said, “Our order has been in Sri Lanka for more than 100 years.

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary was an order established by Sister Helen Chappotin, a French nun who served in India. She was a visionary who prepared the order for Christian service in 1877. The Bishop in Ceylon had requested for some nuns as teachers, so that six Sisters came to Moratuwa in 1886 as English teachers. Since then our Sisters have served as teachers and nurses at the Colombo General Hospital. They also worked at the leprosy hospital in Hendala and Maanthivu in Batticaloa.

We left the hospital ministry in 1964”. Sister Gomez then said, ‘This is our Mother House, the headquarters for all FMM Sisters. We have around 30 nuns of varying ages. Today our order has expanded to 17 convents and some of our large convents are located at Rajagiriya, Moratuwa, Negombo, Nuwara Eliya and Piliyandala.

Sister Janet is a graduate in Psychology and a visiting lecturer. With a smile of confidence she explained, “I joined the order as a young girl of 19 years. It was a new experience, leaving the comfort of home and the love of our families. Our formation period as novices was strict. I completed my degree and am serving for the past 40 years. Today I am able to use this experience for trauma counselling for the survivors of the Easter Sunday attacks. I have visited and counselled families at St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya”.

Sister Rodrigo then joined in “The motto of our order is Ecce Ancilla Domini- (behold the handmaiden of the Lord), the words spoken by blessed Mary in the Bible. I too came as a young girl. In those years we would wake up at 5am and the first thing would be to say the motto. It was the grace of God that helped us remain loyal to this holy order”.

The FMM Sisters had many memories to share and miracles to thank God for. Sister Rose said, ‘When I came as a young novice, God called me and gave me inner strength. If you don’t feel that love and passion for God, you cannot serve him. We are thankful for the young girls who continue to faithfully answer that call and join our ranks. As you know in this digital age there is so much materialism and selfish desire”. The serene atmosphere was interrupted as some young nuns walked down the corridor and I was surprised to see a bevy of foreign sisters: from Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Sister Gomez explained, “We are part of a global order. The FMM Sisters work in 70 countries across the world. We have 17 Sri Lankan Sisters serving as missionaries in many nations’.

So how does a young girl become a Franciscan sister? All aspiring nuns must first have their GCE A/L qualifications. After a period of personal reflection they can join the pre novitiate. Here at the convent in Rajagiriya they learn to live as a community of Sisters - learning scripture, cooking, cleaning, washing and darning their uniforms. After completing two years they make their first profession (vows). Then the novitiates prepare for five years, during which time they undergo one year of learning intense theology. Thereafter they undertake a time of ‘deeper discernment’ and make their final profession. Soon after they are sent to one of the 17 convents to dispense their skills to uplift their community and spread the gospel.

Sweet culinary delights

Sister Rose who had worked in Rome for 24 years had another ability to share. She said, ‘The Franciscan Sisters are famous for their cordials, jams and pickles. Well, this aspect of our community life goes back to the 1960s. There was a French nun called Sister Marcelle. One day an old man carrying a heavy sack came to the convent in Nuwara Eliya. She was moved with compassion and purchased the sack of fruits. She later decided to make jam with some fruits and served it for breakfast. The feedback was not that good so Sister Marcelle refined the recipe and made it taste sweeter. During that week two French priests visited the convent and were surprised to taste the homemade jam. They wanted to take some bottles to France. This was the beginning of our jam. During those early years an Italian nun made cheese. We soon expanded to make other fruit based products. Our small counter at Borella is open today from morning to evening. Our star fruit relish is a sought after dish”. The income from this stall helps run the Convent.

Sister Gomez spoke of their ministry in various provinces, and added, “The FMM nuns were the first to set up a small school for the veddha community in Vakkarai, Eastern Province. We also excel in our work with lepers. Decades ago it was Fr. Damian who first began working with lepers overseas.

After the end of the war in the Northern Province our Sisters worked with the returning refugees. We lived with them caring for their spiritual needs. After the Tsunami we helped in many areas. We have been operating a nursery for children in Colombo. We also run a hostel for working single women in Colombo. Every morning we are up at 5 am and gather at the chapel for Mass by 6am. We are joined by office workers, teachers and parents, and focus on prayer and meditation”. More sisters gathered near the hall for gospel sharing. I asked them to stand for a photograph.

It was a beautiful moment as these nuns, who follow the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis of Assisi, stood smiling united in the bond of Christian fraternity. Their joyous life of unity and sacrifice was evident on their radiant faces. It was time to leave and Sister Rose reminded me “God remains faithful to us and we remain faithful to Him”. 

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