Sister Lucy Kalapura, possessor of the said twinkling eyes, this meant wearing a churidar kameez to the “Women’s Wall” — the state-wide human chain organised by the Communist government in Kerala in support of gender equality. She then uploaded her photo on
Facebook with a note about
Women’s Wall and her choice of attire, pointing out that when priests wear regular clothes, no one created a fuss.
To the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC), the Catholic order to which the nun belongs, this was the last straw in a long list of “transgressions”. These include publishing a book of poems without the church’s permission (she had been seeking permission for two years), getting a driver’s licence and buying a car (an Alto) with a loan, participating in TV debates and writing Facebook posts which appeared to be critical of the church and taking part in a protest by six other nuns against Jalandhar diocese bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping one of them multiple times.
Retribution was swift. Sister Lucy was summoned to FCC’s headquarters in Aluva, 260 km from Mananthavady in Wayanad, where she is based, to explain her conduct. “I didn’t go,” the 55-year-old says, with her trademark chuckle. When contacted, FCC declined to comment on the matter.
Sister Lucy’s nonconformist stance and lack of inhibition, virtually unheard of among nuns in the patriarchal and strict Catholic orders of Kerala, has made her something of a celebrity in her home state these past few weeks. It comes at a time when the Catholic Church in the state is battling allegations of covering up multiple instances of sexual abuse and corruption by priests.
“If there is another protest by the nuns, I’ll go again,” she says emphatically during a lunch break at Sacred Heart Higher Secondary School, where she teaches math. As we talk, a feisty game of barefoot football gets under way in the school grounds under the gaze of a statue of Jesus Christ enclosed in a glass case.
“I had read about the case and I understood the reality of those nuns forced to take to the streets saying they had been sexually assaulted. I didn’t know them. But I believed them,” says the senior nun, who joined the FCC in 1982 at the age of 17.
Last week, four of the six nuns at the Missionaries of Jesus convent in Kottayam were sent a reminder of a March 2018 order transferring them to different states. The nuns replied they do not intend to give in to an order aimed at isolating the complainant.
“We’re afraid that if we go away to convents in Jharkhand and Bihar, we might meet the same fate as Father Kuriakose,” Sister Anupama, one of the six protesting nuns, told ET Magazine, referring to a prime witness against Mulakkal, who was found dead in Jalandhar last October.
Mulakkal, who is out on bail, continues to have the church’s support, much like Robin Vadakkumchery, a priest who is accused of raping and impregnating a school girl and then allegedly convincing her father to take the blame.
With limited options of conveying her support to the nuns’ strike last September, Sister Lucy had put up a public post on Facebook expressing solidarity. As the protest by the nuns near Kerala High Court in Kochi stretched to a fortnight, she used a three-day weekend to travel to the spot 300 km away. She delivered a speech at the protest venue, took part in some TV debates and returned to Wayanad to face a hostile convent and church.
For the “rebellious” act of supporting a rape complainant, she was removed from her duties such as teaching the Bible to students. But her congregation, where she is a popular figure, would have none of it. Its members barged into a parish meeting the next day and demanded that she be reinstated. The church complied.
It is easy to see why Sister Lucy is popular. While we talk near the school gate, she does not forget to smile, nod and exchange banter with students, staffers and parents passing by.
One student tells her she is “adipoli!” (awesome). A parent hugs her tightly. Sister Lucy’s celebrity status is reinforced in the evening at a tea shop, when a woman she has never met interrupts our conversation to say that she has seen her on TV and is a fan.
“You’re fighting for the right cause,” says the woman’s husband. While having tea and in between incessant calls from journalists for her comments on the nuns’ transfer order, she receives a call from Sister Anupama’s father.
“They should all stay together. It’s the other nuns in the convent who should be transferred,” she replies firmly. She signs offs with a comforting note. “Be brave, chachan (father). I’m with you.” Sister Lucy does not think she has done anything wrong.
“It’s not my fault there are some people in my community who cannot accept what I’m doing,” says the nun, who learnt driving at 53. But the path she has chosen is not easy. Like the nuns who protested against Mulakkal, she too has been facing a social boycott at her convent.
“There are nuns who have not spoken to me since September.” When there are only seven nuns in the convent, that silence can be deafening. Nor is there unstinted support from the local community this time around, with the churidar-kameez row proving more divisive than her decision to join the nuns’ protest.
“Going for the Women’s Wall was her right but I don’t think she should have worn a churidar,” says Soosy Thomas, who runs a women’s driving school and taught Sister Lucy too. Thomas, who identifies as a believer, says people in the church are finding it difficult to accept her decision to “dress differently”.
The pushback from the Catholic Church to any kind of dissent is not new, says Father Augustine Vattoly, a senior priest at the Syro Malabar Church, under which the FCC falls.
“Today, we’re living in a democracy but what is happening with the six nuns and Sister Lucy is no less than what happened during the Inquisition,” says Vattoly, who has earned the ire of the church for exposing corruption in its land deals.
Though societies become modern, the church is clinging to outdated ideas, he says. He finds the furore over Sister Lucy wearing a churidar-kameez particularly ludicrous.
“There was no divine edict that told us that priests we could wear pants and shirt. We just started wearing them. The nuns should too.”
Meanwhile, the church is clamping down on dissent. At a meeting of 55 bishops of the Syro Malabar Church on Friday, guidelines were issued to re-enforce discipline within the church, according to news reports. Showcause notices will now be sent to those breaking ranks and unsatisfactory explanations would invite punishment. But Sister Lucy and others like her, who have begun speaking out for reforms within the church, are unlikely to turn back now.