BANGALORE – Sister Lucy Kalapura of Wayanad district in India’s Kerala state is rarely nervous, but her pulse raced last week as she prepared to give a statement in court.
“I am a nun fighting for justice. Please do not throw me out on the streets,” she told the Kerala High Court last Wednesday (July 14), representing herself after several lawyers declined to take her case.
She was challenging her eviction from a convent, and seeking police protection from alleged harassment by the congregation.
Sister Lucy, 56, has been a nun since she was 17 years old.
She belongs to the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC), an order of the Roman Catholic Church, in Wayanad’s Mananthavady municipality.
In 2019, she was dismissed for wrongdoing that included learning to drive and getting a driving licence, writing a book of poems, giving TV interviews and publishing articles in non-Christian dailies.
“If the reasons seem trivial, it’s because they are a smokescreen for the real reason the congregation is punishing me,” she told The Sunday Times.
In September 2018, she and a few other Kerala nuns organised a hunger strike demanding the arrest of Franco Mulakkal, a Catholic bishop accused of raping a nun 13 times between 2014 and 2016 at a convent in Kerala’s Kottayam district. The trial is in progress.
Although the allegation caused a massive upheaval in the country’s Roman Catholic community, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India said nothing. But it sent transfer orders to four of the six nuns who are witnesses in the case.
Sister Lucy first wrote a Facebook post expressing solidarity with the nuns, then joined the fortnight-long strike in Kochi city. There, she made a speech and gave interviews to a few Malayalam-language news channels.
When she returned to her congregation in Wayanad, the FCC said nothing of the rape case, but warned her about having worn a kurta – a traditional Indian shirt – in public instead of her nun’s habit.
It also stopped her from giving Bible classes in the convent school, but locals in the congregation fought for her to be reinstated.
Her outspokenness has come at a cost. In May 2019, she was expelled for violating her “vows of obedience”. She appealed against her dismissal internally, but in July, the FCC said the Vatican had rejected her appeal. It ordered her to vacate the convent immediately.
Sister Lucy’s battle against her “own home and family” has triggered much conversation across India about patriarchy and gender bias in the Catholic church.
Catholic institutions in the country employ three times more nuns than priests, and the former consist of the bulk of its workforce at the community level.
Ms Anita Cheria, director of the non-profit group OpenSpace which works to eliminate gender bias in religious spaces, said: “Like in a garment factory, nuns are the floor workers initiating a lot of the community work while the managers are mostly men. Nuns are exclusively expected to clean, cook for the priests and do menial tasks, and many even accept it as part of their spiritual duties.”
“The Indian Catholic church somehow accommodates corruption, sexual harassment, child abuse and unethical relationships, but disobedience – not listening to your superior – is not tolerated. Dissidents are stifled by demoting or delegitimising them,” added Ms Cheria.
According to Kottayam-based feminist theologian Kochurani Abraham, Indian patriarchal culture extends to the Catholic church, especially in “highly-clericalised” congregations.
“Congregations that have benevolent, gender-just leadership offer more scope for dialogue, where the women can negotiate their space quietly. But the highly clericalised ones exert more control on women’s mobility, dress and freedoms,” said Dr Abraham.
“Lucy is self-driven, and an unfortunate misfit in a strict, orthodox congregation, but the questions she’s raising through her life and against her dismissal are challenging religious institutions to open up a little more,” she added.
Today, Sister Lucy continues to live in her convent.
“I’m completely ostracised here. No one talks to me. I don’t get meals. Electricity and water supply is sometimes cut off. I can’t access the common rooms, kitchen, or even the prayer room,” she said.
But she refuses to move out till the civil court decides on her legal appeal against the eviction. The habit she wore for decades and her small room have now become marks of defiance.
“My superior called my 86-year-old mother last year, asking her to take me back. I left my parents’ home at 15 and have since visited them twice a year for a meal. My entire life has been for my convent. This is my home, and I won’t let them cast me out after 41 years of service,” Sister Lucy said.