The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Menzingen, was founded by Rev. Fr.Theodonius Florentini OFM Cap., a Capuchin and Mother Bernarda Heimgartner in Menzingen, Switzerland in 1844. The aftermath of the machine-centred Industrial Revolution and the man-centred French Revolution were rampaging over the 19th century Europe then. The Renaissance movement also kept God aside, giving full importance to man and his intellect.
Fr. Theodosius Florentini began to experience a wide gap between the Gospel and the changing world which seemed getting wider. This indefatigable, far-seeing Capuchin perceived "the need of the time is the will of God" and believed that the gap had to be closed and Gospel had to become the guiding principle of the Christian Europe again.
Maria Anna Heimgartner, later Mother Bernarda, and her two companions who had also been inspired by the same spirit, joined Fr. Theodosius Florentini in this to fill the gap between values. They found that education befitting the time to young girls was the means to cope with the troubles of the time. The founder later came across other means like factories, hospitals, etc. as well to fill the widening gap.
The 19th century Switzerland was familiar with only cloistered nuns and contemplatives but at this time Mother Bernarda made the 'choice' to be in active apostolate - 'to be a sister in the village' moulding the young girls. The first three Sisters, Sr. Bernarda Heimgartner, Sr. Feliciana Kramer and Sr. Cornelia Meider, made their profession on 16th October 1844.
Hearing about these three religious teachers, Fr. Rollin, of the village of Menzigen, invited them to his parish and entrusted them with the responsibility of the new parish school. It might seem an acknowledgement in appreciation but it was no easy matter; for, they had to face opposition from the rich factory owners and the parents who looked upon children as labourers and hence a source of income.
Sr. Bernarda was made the Superior of the new Congregation affiliated to the Third Order of St. Francis. It was no honour nor any reward but rather the laying of a cross upon the youthful shoulders of the 21 year old Sister! Her motto was to be the handmaid of children, handmaid of sisters and handmaid of God. With great energy and enthusiasm, the young Superior fulfilled her responsibilities as a sympathetic, understanding and warm-hearted person to all.
Mother Bernarda was spared nothing - hostilities from without, contradictions from within, premature death of the best and most promising members due to utter poverty and in addition, an incurable physical ailment which resulted in the early death of the silent sufferers. She and her Sisters overcame these calamities with an unshakable trust among themselves and absolute faith in the paternal providence of God. Ten Years later she wrote in her diary, "We do not allow ourselves to be discouraged on this account. We place all our trust in God, recognizing His honour and our good".
A remarkable trait of her spiritual life was her devoutness to the Cross of Christ. In the sign of the Cross she expressed her life's belief, "IN THE CROSS IS SALVATION". On 13th December 1863 Mother Bernarda who was just 41 years, gave her soul back to her Creator. Her tomb bears the inscription:
"SHE CHOSE THE CROSS;
SHE BORE THE CROSS;
SHE TRIUMPHED IN THE CROSS."
And the Mother Church raised her to the rank of the 'Blessed'. Today, the Holy Cross Sisters numbering over 2200 are spread out into 14 provinces in four continents, rendering their services to mankind, discerning the Will of God in the changing circumstances of the country in which they serve.
In the beginning of the twentieth century in the erstwhile State of Travancore, the doctors of the State felt the need for trained nurses in hospitals. This was brought to the notice of the then Maharaja of Travancore, His Highness Sree Moolam Thirunaal. The king expressed his deep concern over the matter to the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Menzingen, Switzerland and requested them to send Nursing Sisters to serve at the Government Hospitals of Travancore. On repeated appeals the Mother General sent five Sisters to India who reached Quilon on November 4, 1906. After a few days, the Sisters took up their duties at the Government Hospital, Trivandrum, the capital of the State.
Another batch of five Sisters arrived a month later and were appointed at the District Hospital, Quilon. Then followed more batches of Sisters. All were received with regard, respect, and devotion and welcomed by His Highness as well as the subjects. In their unquenching thirst for Social Service, the Sisters accepted Municipal services of health visiting as well. The demand of the Government for more nursing sisters could be satisfied only by further arrivals from the Mother House.
Since it was a time when the Nursing Profession as such was looked down on by the public, it was difficult to get trained personnel to care for the sick. The activities of the Sisters, therefore, were confined exclusively to the State Health Services for nearly 40 years. During this time, the Sisters put in extra efforts to train Travancorean girls in nursing. With their unstinted efforts and earnest endeavour, they could start the first Government Nursing School in 1910.
The attitude of the public towards nursing profession began to change gradually and more and more girls came forward to undergo training. In later years the number of qualified nurses in the State increased and the Government was faced with the problem of unemployment in nursing as in other fields. So there seemed in the fifties a slow move on the part of the Government to replace the Sisters with lay nurses. Under the circumstances, not to let the shoot of the Order in the fertile soil of Kerala wither, the Sisters felt the need for having their own hospitals and institutions.
Indian girls who desired to dedicate their lives to the service of their fellowmen slowly found their way to the Congregation. The number of Sisters at present is 595, spread over 66 Convents in eight States of India. They extend their services to private and Government related hospitals, dispensaries, community health projects, T.B. and Leprosy Sanatoriums, Leprosy Eradication Programmes and Schools, Foundling Homes, Home for the Aged, Kindergarten Schools, Day Care Centres, Nursing Schools and Hospices for Cancer Terminal cases. Besides they take active participation in pastoral and Catechetical work as well.
Thus far the narration gives a brief sketch on the Congregation in general. Now let us have a look at how it chanced for the Community to find her way to the Diocese. Once again, divine providence offered the opportuniy; only, the prelate had to put up with the incoveniences of his indisposition and the uncomfortable condition of being confined to bed!
At Kumbalam there was no hospital nor any health centre where people could get good care and treatment. Worse still, the place was devoid of any transport facilities either. In times of emergency it was extremely difficult for the patients to reach any hospital in order to get timely treatment. Taking all these grave matters into consideration, Rt. Rev Dr. Joseph Kureethara, Bishop of Cochin, felt the absolute necessity in starting a small hospital there.
His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara, accompanied by Rev. Fr. George Malatt, reached the Holy Cross Hospital, Kottiyam, Quilon, first for a medical check up in October 1981. His Excellency had occasion thus to have first hand information and on the spot knowledge about the Kottiyam Hospital and the Sisters there. Msgr. Malatt's own sister, Sr. Leena Mary, was also among them. Finding the Sisters, sincere, open and committed to their calling, His Excellency remarked it would be a great blessing to the people if the Holy Cross Sisters could come to the Diocese of Cochin.
The next day throug Sr. Leena Mary Malatt the Bishop managed to get a typewriter and some papers. His Excellecny then asked the brother and sister to sit on either side of the table and pray while he typed a petition to the Mother Provincial, Sr. Ida Mularikal. At that time the Bishop was totally unaware of the fact that the Mother General and some councillors from Switzerland had already arrived and were right there at the Holy Cross Convent, just behind the hospital.
In the afternoon, His Excellency, Dr. Jerome Fernandez, Bishop of Quilon, came to visit the Bishop of Cochin. It was more than a 'sick visit' or a courtesy call. Bishop Fernandez congratulated Bishop Kureethara saying that the petition he had sent that morning had been well received by the Sisters and that they had already decided to open a House and hospital in the Diocese of Cochin.
The positive reply to the request in black and white reached the Bishop's House, Cochin, in November 1981. Accordingly in February 1982, Rev. Sr. Ida Mularikal, Sr. Seraphica and Sr. Frieda Maria came to Cochin and were taken across the lake to Kumbalam, an island, in a country canoe, the only means to reach the then God-forsaken place.
A few years ago the Diocese had bought nearly three acres of level land and paddy field somewhere in the middle of the island. The Prelate himself took the Sisters to the property. On arrival, His Excellency was apparently jolted out of his wits to see that the property had been cut into three pieces when the land was marked out for the National High Way 47 by-pass and Ernakulam - Alleppey Railway line. His Excellency was quite disappointed but the response of the Sisters was positive and encouraging; for, they had already decided to have a House near Ernakulam and so would be quite content with even that small plot!
While Msgr. Michael Kadaviparambil was the Vicar at St. Lawrence Edacochin, he had bought a plot of 20 cents at Kumbalam with the money he had received by way of a legacy. When the parish of St. Joseph's, Kumbalam was erected on the Christmas day in 1977, the Parish Priest of St. Lawrence, Edacochin, had transferred the ownership of the said plot to the new parish. His Excellency passed this information to Rev. Mother Ida Mularikal and she agreed to start their convent on that little patch of land.
In 1983, papa Ildebrando Crespi, from Gallaratte, Italy and His Excellency were on a visit to Kumbalam by ferry from Edacochin. Papa had helped the Bishop build the Cortina Hospital and Infant Jesus Convent of J.M.J Sisters at Chellanam. On board was a tailor with his wife and child who had been at the Rosary Convent from morning till about 3 p.m. to get medicine for T.B. It was a hot day and they had been starving. Papa talked with him and when he heard about the plight of this family, he then and there promised His Excellency help to build a hospital at Kumbalam.
In June 1984 His Excellency went again to Kumbalam accompanied by papa Ildebrando, Holy Cross Sisters from Shertallai and Ernakulam, Sr. Candida from Mundamvely Convent, Fr. Xavier Kaaruvally and a few Central Council office bearers of St. Vincent de Paul Society. They reached the site in pouring rain and there right in the torrent, His Excellency blessed the foundation stone and laid it. Papa Ildebrando named it as "Bormio Hospital", Bormio, a small town up in the snowy mountains in Sondrio, northern Italy. Later he collected money from the people of Bormio for this hospital.
The solemn blessing and inauguration of the Holy Cross Convent and Bormio Hospital were on January 15, 1986. The generous and committed service of the Doctor and of the three Sisters attract all the people. It is indeed a great blessing for the people of this little island village of Kumbalam. Since then changes have come about, of course and it is no more an isolated island but connected to the mainland by bridges now.
In 1977 cowed down by the appalling increase in the number of terminally ill cancer patients rejected by the Tata Memorial Hospital, Bombay, to make place for those on whom scientific treatment may have some effect, Dr. L.J. De Souza, one of the leading surgeons of the Hospital, aspired to start a hospice. The purpose was to provide such patients with proper accommodation and extend palliative care as it is done in European countries.
Many families though would so lovingly have nursed them at home, he realsied that to the patients' suffering was added the pain of their seeing their near and dear ones toiling and moiling in the care for them. And he knew too that the number of the families that would be able to ease the pain of the sufferers in any satisfactory way would be so negligible.
So he approached Mother Ida Mularikal, the then Provincial Superior and asked her help and support for the realization of his dream of starting a hospice in the big city of Bombay. Sympathetically vibrant to his Christlike compassion for the suffering, Mother Ida agreed to take charge of the administration of the entire hospice. Thus in 1986, the Shanti Avedna Ashram, Bombay, found its beginning as the first of its kind in India.
Ever since, the plan of having a hospice in South India was taking root in Sr. Susan Moolel's mind in whose hands were the reins of the Province now. In the south too there exist numerous terminally ill cancer patients. The dizzying cries from and the stench of the cancer wards of our main Government hospitals were a symbolic hue and cry for hospices like the Shanti Avedna Ashram. The Congregation's Provincial Administration was untiring in its look out for a suitable, scenic place to construct the hospice and the people, coming to know of the plan, offered generously plots here and there.
It was in 1991 that when His Excellency, Bishop Joseph Kureethara, on his visit to Sr. Annie Koikkara, his special nurse who had cared for him while hospitalized at the Holy Cross Hospital, Kottiyam, a few years back that he stayed at the Shanti Avedna Ashram. He was very much moved by the sufferings of the patients he met there. In the morning when about to leave, His Excellency realized that three of them he had seen the previous day, were missing. They had died in the night! Then and there the Bishop decided to have a similar hospice in the Diocese.
Back at the Bishop's House, His Excellency got in touch with Sr. Susan Moolel and conveyed to her of his deep yearning to set up a hospice in the Diocese. The Bishop showed the Provincial two plots where the hospice could be located and Sr. Susan and the Provincial Administration chose the lake side plot at Perumpadappu. Three acres of land was donated by the Diocese and a Charitable Society was set up for the purpose with His Excellency as Patron.
On 12th October, 1993, the foundation stone was laid for the hospice but only with considerable difficulty the construction work could be continued. The labourers and their leaders posed a lot of problems, delaying the progress of the building. But on September 14, 1998, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Congregational Feast, the patients' block was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister, E.K. Nayanar. The first patient Mr. Francis was admitted during the inaugural function and the hospice started functioning. The construction work of the staff quarters and chapel is still on. At present there are four Sisters and five nurses and still they do home-nursing of cancer patients and actively participate in pastoral work and house visits.
After the Shanti Avedna Ashram in Bombay, the Holy Cross Hospice at Perumpadappu is the only one of its kind in India. A visit to the Hospice and a chance to mingle with the patients will definitely be an edifying experience to any one. Just have a glance at some sample of sentiments that emanated from the very depth of a few patients' hearts: "At this time of my life when modern medicine considers me a failure, I have this 'home' to lead me through this journey and cross over with dignity", Sankaran. Says Sulaiman; "…my three year old daughter… . For her, this is home. I have started the countdown although my wife hopes against hope. I am at peace. I am grateful to the Hospice authorities for this." To 54 year old Sadaanandan, "Hospice care is absolutely essential…… . Mentally I am comfortable because I do not feel alone. Now, through the efforts of the Sisters, I have my family back during these last days of my life. We are reconciled …. . It's home again."
To sum up, allow me to borrow the words of the honorary medical officer, Dr. M.R. Rengamony. "We are here because we do not want any one to die alone, afraid or in pain. We promote the family support concept, the lack of which leads to much mental agony. We control physical pain so as to enable even the terminally ill lead almost normal lives without being confined to bed. The emphasis in palliative care is on pain management and patient care."
What a blessing to the suffering in body and mind! Oh, merciful Father, thank you so much for the Hospice among us! Thank you! Thank you!! Thank You !!!
Written by His Excellency, (Late) Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Kureethara