“I am ready to give up my life, but cannot stop feeding the poor as long as I am able to move,” says Sister Elsie Vadakkekara, an elderly Indian nun who never missed her appointment with the poor on the streets. Not even during the Covid19 pandemic lockdown.
At the age of 83, Sister Elsie Vadakkekara, the Catholic nun, braving scorching summer, winter or in pouring monsoon rains, is on the streets at midday every day to distribute food to the mentally ill people living in her neighbourhood in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Sister Elsie is a member of the Sisters of St. Ann of Providence Congregation based in Mithapur in the Rajkot Diocese. She defies the pandemic threat to her life to feed the abandoned people. And she has been continuing this passion for a decade.
“I cannot sit in the comfort of my convent when my people are left fending for themselves, especially during this pandemic lockdown,” UCA News reports as Sister Elsie said.
Authorities have imposed a strict lockdown in most parts of Gujarat since April, when the second Covid-19 wave began to surge in the area, infecting lakhs of people and killing thousands.
Gujarat is among the worst-affected areas in India, where more than 3,000 people die and at least 30,000 new positive cases are added daily, according to government data.
Mother Teresa of Mithapur
“I am ready to give up my life for them but cannot stop feeding them as long as I am able to move.”
“At this time, can I sit at home letting them go hungry?” asks Sister Elsie. Even in normal times, nobody cares for those she helps. “I cannot take any risk with their lives.”
The nun is fondly addressed as “Mother Teresa of Mithapur” in a reference to St Teresa of Kolkata, known internationally for her work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of eastern India.
“I am ready to give up my life for them. But I cannot stop feeding them as long as I am able to move,” said the bespectacled nun. When asked if she is worried about contracting the coronavirus, she said she “will not die earlier than the God-decided day.”
She feeds some 50 mentally ill persons on the streets between Mithapur and Okha port, covering a distance of 15 kilometres. The nun carries cooked food — rice, vegetables, chapatis, lentils and water pouches — in an auto-rickshaw. Driver Sanjay Siruka said they stop at some 45 locations to serve food.
“As soon as they see our vehicle, they rush towards it and receive the food in their hands from Sister,” Siruka said.
Local people support
Siruka said she distributes the food according to each person’s need. Some people get up to 10 chapatis, while others get three and other items daily.
“What we provide is sufficient for a person to eat at least twice in a day. However our target is that they should have at least one full meal,” she said.
Local businessmen and community leaders donate vegetables and other grocery items. Barring very exceptional situations, “we manage to run the project with local support,” said Sister Elsie.
Sister Elsie was forced to suspend her work for a month during the nationwide lockdown.
She says she is ready to die of Covid but would feel bad if they are not fed.
Father Vinod Karumalikal, the nun’s former parish priest, said church officials wanted her to discontinue the food distribution. Because they are concerned of her advanced age and the pandemic situation. “But she is not ready … She says she is ready to die of Covid but would feel bad if they are not fed,” he said.
Though other nuns from her congregation tried to take her place, Sister Elsie stoically continues her work.
In some cases, the mentally ill people refuse to collect food from her. Apparently, because they are frightened or for other unknown reasons. On a couple of occasions, they collected food then threw it away. Other sisters have recently joined her to distribute food to show their support, said Father Karumalikal.
Sister Elsie said she started the project following the request of a former parish priest, Father Titus Mandy. He saw a mentally ill man eating cow dung while sitting on the road and wanted the nuns to help.
“When he sought help, I volunteered and the project was launched on December 25, 2010,” recalled the nun.
Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot said Sister Elsie’s service shows the meaning of evangelization and witnessing Christ.
“Witnessing has more value than preaching,” the prelate told UCA News. “In a situation like the pandemic, Sister Vadakkekara has shown that love transcends everything.”