Catholic Herald Staff
When Servite Sr. Dominica Effertz was invited to visit India by the family of Fr. Madanu Bala Showry, she thought it would never happen. Effertz is a retired teacher of St. Francis de Sales School in Spooner but continues to live and serve the parish communities in Spooner, Sarona and Shell Lake.
Weeks later, in June 2017, the 85-year-old nun received a formal invitation to attend the wedding of Fr. Bala’s niece in October. Sr. Dominica began to see it was “an opportunity of a lifetime” and was convinced she should go to experience firsthand Fr. Bala’s Indian culture, spend time with his family, and visit some ministries for which she had been able to secure grant money.
The adventure encompassed celebration of joy and pain with Fr. Bala’s family and the familiar experience of humanity in very unfamiliar surroundings.
Embraced as a divine guest
“It was overwhelming to be welcomed so warmly and graciously,” Effertz said. She was given a red-carpet greeting and presented with flowers and lit candles.
Fr. Bala explained, “In India, when some prominent person comes, they become the ‘chief guest.’” As a special invitee to the wedding, Sr. Dominica was the chief guest and given ‘harapthi.’
He continued, “Harapthi is given to the divine … In Indian culture, we give this praise to God … As the guest becomes a divine guest for us, what is given to God is also given to the chief guest.”
The Indian priest said the greeting ‘namaste’ itself exemplifies this, “The divine in me greets the divine in you.”
While Sr. Dominica didn’t understand all the significance of these rituals – particularly surprising coming from the increasingly informal atmosphere in American culture – she was moved by the “unbelievable hospitality.” She said that every place she visited she was warmly greeted and always offered tea and something to eat.
“Their way of living is much slower paced than ours in the U.S. They are a friendly people, taking time and being present to others … No one seems to be in a hurry,” she said.
Fr. Bala confessed that one of the strangest American customs is that “everything is scheduled, by appointment.” In an Indian home, though small and now always clean, he said the door (or curtain) is always open. Seeing the divine everywhere and in everyone, the ancient culture is people centered.
“Indians wish to be with you. In India, time is not money. We valued the relationships,” Fr. Bala added. He shared that, while life in cities is faster paced and more scheduled, in the villages most people work for themselves or in agricultural partnerships. Whatever the setting, making visitors feel welcome is always the priority.
He spoke of how strange it is for him to make a hospital call and see patients alone in their rooms. In India, if somebody is hospitalized, the family gathers around them. There might be 50 people in the hospital to be present with each other; and if a person dies, “everything stops,” he said.
The priest spoke from firsthand experience. Upon their arrival to India, a memorial Mass was celebrated – with more than 30 priests, all cousins from Fr. Bala’s village – for his sister Fathima, who died of cancer in September 2016. Afterward, the family visited the cemetery and had a meal for the whole village, about 500 people.
On Oct. 11, after several days of ceremonial rituals, Sr. Dominica attended the wedding which was the impetus for her trip. Fr. Bala’s niece Priscilla and her fiancé Praveen were married at Immaculate Conception Church in Hyderabad in South Central India. Two bishops and 23 priests concelebrated.
Sr. Dominica was deeply impressed by the devotion and solemnity of each religious service she took part in, how beautifully the churches were decorated with flowers and religious banners. “The people are very reverent and respectful in the house of God,” she said; adding that everyone takes off their shoes or sandals and enters the church barefoot.
Acknowledging that she has seen more of the world than most of her family members, Sr. Dominica enjoyed watching the shepherds with their goat herds and was surprised to see the women always wearing a floor-length sari.
“The days were warm, but you just enjoy each new day and all that comes with it. We never talked about the temperature,” Sr. Dominica said.
Fr. Bala affirmed, “We never talk about the weather, we just take it … We don’t plan around the weather, we don’t talk about it.” The time of their visit was a rainy season, with temperatures in the 80s. Humid and much hotter in the summer months, he said most homes in villages have fans; only those who can afford it would have air conditioning.
“I saw lots of poverty, but in spite of their condition, the people are a joyful people,” Sr. Dominica shared.
Witnessing fruits of her labor
While in India, Sr. Dominica was able to visit and stay with various religious congregations of nuns and their ministries.
“It was especially good for me to meet these sisters, because I have been able to be supportive in helping many of these groups get financial aid for needed projects through the Mary Alphonse Bradley Grant Fund, which is a ministry of our Servite Sisters of Ladysmith, Wisconsin,” she said.
With Fr. Bala’s help, Sr. Dominica was able to specific and recommend several projects to the fund’s Board of Directors for consideration. Many were awarded assistance.
Established in 1998 with the transfer of an owned property in Wheeling, Illinois, to a Chicago group of Franciscan sisters, the fund’s purpose is to “provide assistance for human and societal needs, continuing the vision and ministry of their founders.”
Among the groups and homes Sr. Dominica visited were the Pallotine Sisters, who run a school and boarding home for children through grade five; the Adorer Sisters Congregation in Nalgonda, who live a life of prayer and provide education and skills training as rehabilitation for girls and young women formerly involved in prostitution; the St. Ann’s School for infected children of HIV parents; the College of Nursing and boarding home in Suryapet and the Mother Teresa Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Center for women in Narketpally, which is directed by an uncle of Fr. Bala.
The Sacred Heart School Campus in Mothkar was “truly a beautiful and impressive place” for Sr. Dominica to visit. It is the institution where Fr. Bala Showry served for six years. In addition to the school, which under Fr. Bala went from 125 to 900 students, the campus now includes boys’ and girls’ hostels, a playground and landscaping, a school extension and convent. In a primarily Hindu area, Fr. Bala experienced much resistance to his work. He shared that service becomes indirect evangelization, and that local support came when they saw he was there to serve, not to convert.
A performance by handicapped and mentally challenged students left a particular mark on the American nun at Franciscan Clarist Sisters’ Nirmal Joyitha Special School and Boarding Home.
Sr. Dominica concluded, “It was one of the most memorable trips of my life, with so many new and exciting experiences. I am so blessed in my vocation as a sister – so many opportunities for religious and education experiences during my lifetime! I’m most grateful to God for all my blessings!”