By DIANE CLARK CURTIS
In 1947, six Sisters of Charity of Nazareth left their home near Bardstown, Ky., to travel to Mokama, India, a place they barely knew and had never been.
They did not speak Hindi, did not expect to ever see their families again and faced harsh living conditions — they lacked basic supplies, running water and electricity. Traveling in groups of three aboard two steamer ships, the founding sisters would spend the early weeks and months caring for leprosy patients, going on to build a hospital and opening a nursing school.
Seventy-five years later, their story — and the stories of the lives changed by their presence — is told in “The Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India,” by Jyoti Thottam, an editor for The New York Times and the daughter of a nurse trained by the sisters. It was published in April by Viking Press.
Thottam chronicles both her mother’s story and that of the pioneering sisters as they intertwine in a post-World War II and a post-Partition India. During a visit to Kentucky in May for several book signings, she met with the Sisters of Charity at Nazareth, Ky., and discussed the book with them.
As a young girl, Thottam said, her mother traveled far from her village in southern India to Mokama in northern India, determined to become a nurse and going against the norms of the times.
“It’s hard to believe, my mother was only 15 when she left her home, the same age that my older daughter is right now,” said Thottam. “If I tried to imagine her just getting on a train to go a thousand miles away to a place that she had never been, I had never been, where they spoke a different language. Really, it’s incredible.”
Thottam described how her mother and others lived in remote areas, and “didn’t have a lot of contact beyond their own villages, but they started to
hear of … you could feel that sense of there were doors opening up in different places, but you had to be the kind of person that was willing to walk through them.”
Her mother, said Thottam, “was definitely one of those people, and that’s what, for young women like her, that’s what the nursing school at Nazareth Hospital represented. It was this door that opened into, really, into a great unknown. They didn’t know what Mokama was like, they didn’t know where that door would lead them, but they were willing to walk through it and see what happened.”
Thottam said the sisters, like her own mother, saw doors open up. While writing the book, it was important to Thottam to place the story in historical context.
“The year was 1947, and the mother superior of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth had managed to keep her order safe from the perils of World War II and focused on the work at home in Kentucky. But when the opportunity came for a mission in India, she saw in some of the younger nuns a keen desire to take their faith and healing skills abroad,” Thottam said.
“It was ambition and longing, passion and hunger … this desire, more than economic exigency or religious fervor, that brought them to Mokama. … What followed was a groundbreaking mission that no one could have predicted.”
Sister of Charity of Nazareth Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam, president of the congregation, offered praise for the book during Thottam’s visit.
“I feel so proud. We are all so proud. What a wonderful tribute to the six pioneer SCNs who went to India and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth as a whole,” said Sister Ayithamattam, who was born and raised in India.
She noted that she lived in Mokama for many years and ministered for eight years at Nazareth Hospital, which officially opened on July 19, 1948.
“Your book means so much to me personally. The people and places you name are so familiar and have been part of my life as an SCN,” she added.
While the book was in progress, Sister Margaret Rodericks — the first Indian woman to be elected to leadership in India — spoke with Thottam at length about the relationship between the sisters and Indian families, especially Indian women.
Sister Rodericks said her father balked at her desire to join the sisters, saying Mokama wasn’t even on the map. She became a novice and postulant at Mokama when the original six sisters were still in ministry. She witnessed the nursing skills of the sisters and the “trainloads of leprosy patients getting off the train and coming to Mokama,” she said.
She described how others feared these men and women, but the sisters offered comfort and care.
“You talk about pioneering,” said Sister Rodericks. “Fearless and courageous, that was the spirit of our early sisters.”
Thottam said that the book was a labor of love. Her mother’s story and the story of how six women from Kentucky came to be in India, always fascinated her.
“How did those nuns end up in Mokama, a town so tiny it didn’t appear on most maps of India? Why did they fill their hospital with teenage nurses from the other side of the country? Did they have any idea how radical their work would be — creating an enterprise run almost entirely by women and determined to care for anyone, regardless of caste or religion?”
During her research, traveling across India and the United States to interview sisters and nursing school graduates, Thottam met Sister Ann Roberta Powers. Sister Powers, one of the six founders of the ministry in India, was only 22 when she boarded the steamship for India.
The SCNs also granted access to the letters of the sisters who founded the ministry in India, as well as other archival documents from that time.
“That was an amazing gesture of trust that you all extended to me,” Thottam told the sisters during her May visit. “There were no conditions on it, and … that to me was such a powerful thing.”
Thottam emphasized how valuable the letters and annals are, and how much effort the sisters in India put into documenting and detailing life in those early days. It “was an incredible treasure for anyone who is interested in the history of this period. Honestly, there are so few records from that time, particularly in the voice of women just telling you what daily life was like.”
Throughout her presentations at Nazareth and in Louisville, Thottam spoke of her commitment to telling the story of faith-filled and determined women and of addressing “many of the questions I was hoping to answer in the book about women in the United States, women in religious communities, women in India at that time and later.”
The sisters are now celebrating 75 years of ministry in India. Nazareth Hospital Mokama, which at one point served 200 to 250 patients at a time, continues to provide health care, including caring for COVID-19 patients during the pandemic, sometimes with just one doctor, an SCN. That sister follows in the footsteps of the first sister educated as a doctor. Dr. Mary Wiss, also known as Sister Mary Martha, completed a surgical residency in 1958 at St. Joseph Infirmary before departing for India.
“That is something I hope that many readers take away from this book. … I think that the reason that Nazareth Hospital has endured, that your community as an institution has endured, is that willingness to change and be changed by the people and the places where you are working,” Thottam told the sisters. “Honestly, it’s something that very few American institutions have really absorbed the way that your community has.”
Thottam marveled that what started with just six sisters now includes hundreds in various ministries across India. Thottam’s mother, meanwhile, found her training at the nursing school in Mokama greatly sought after and respected. She worked in hospitals in India and the United States, eventually settling in Texas. There she had a successful career and raised a family.
It was while Thottam was juggling her own career in journalism and raising a family that she was drawn to learn more about her mom and to tackle her dream of writing a book. Thottam is a senior opinion editor for The New York Times. Her book can be found at Carmichael’s Bookstore and on Amazon.