Mangaluru, May 05, 2018 : A century and a half ago, three Catholic nuns from France started a school in Mangaluru to educate girl children.
Their gesture was considered revolutionary because only boys went to school in that era. Girls stayed home to learn cooking, stitching and cleaning in preparation for a successful married life.
The school, which has now become St Ann’s High School, has taught thousands of girls from Karnataka and neighboring states. The nuns, who are known as the Sisters of the Apostolic Carmel, also spread their revolutionary mission to other parts of the country, setting up schools and colleges, exclusively for girl children.
In Karnataka alone, they manage 70 such institutions that together have taught some 1.5 million girls over the decades.
On May 5, the nuns will kick off their first school’s sesquicentennial celebrations (150 years) in Bengaluru, the capita of Karnataka.
Sister Lydia Fernandes, general councilor of the congregation and in-charge of the three-year jubilee programs, looks back with pride on the long and difficult road they have travelled.
“The work of the Carmelite sisters in starting institutions for girl children years ago has helped increase the literacy rate in coastal Karnataka,” she says. St Ann’s school was the first school for girls the nuns opened in Mangaluru in 1870 when the literacy rate on the western coast of India was “abysmally low.”
The congregation was founded in 1868 at Bayonne, France, by Mother Mary Veronica of the Passion (born Sophie Leeves), daughter of an Anglican minister at the British embassy in Constantinople.
“She recognized the need to have quality schools for illiterate girls in India,” said Sister Mary Susheela, the current superior general of the congregation.
They established their house in Mangalore in 1870 by the initiative of the then Bishop Marie Ephrem. The congregation is aggregated to the Order of Discalced Carmelites to which the prelate belonged.
Sister Veronica founded the active Carmelite order and trained sisters who were sent to India, the superior general explained. “They didn’t know the local language, but children picked up the teacher’s language quickly. We have taught children from all communities.”
The congregation now has convents across the globe — Africa Bahrain, Kuwait, Italy, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The nuns manage colleges, schools, training and technical institutes, hostels, boarding houses, children’s homes, special schools, nurseries, clinics, needlework centers, community welfare projects and mission stations.
St Ann’s counts among its alumni Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, freedom fighter and social reformer, Octavia Albuquerque, former member of legislative council, Philomena Peres, former chairperson of the Women’s Commission, and Margaret Alva, former Rajasthan governor and senior Congress politician.
“We were taught everything from needlework and gardening to debating and acting,” said Alva. “They were very good educators, taught us discipline and imparted a strong sense of nationalism. At that time, the students were very diverse and from different communities. But we never had a problem getting along.”