A pregnant woman came pleading for help to Sister Lucy Kurien at the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod’s convent in the Indian city of Pune. The woman asked for shelter fearing her alcoholic husband, but rules did not allow for a lay person to stay.
The nun asked her to come the next day and told her that she would try to arrange alternate accommodation for her.
Later that night the woman was attacked and she, and her unborn child, would die in a hospital from the burn injuries inflicted by her husband.
The tragedy left Sister Lucy shattered. For years, she wanted to assist many others like the woman but there was nothing she could do as her congregation’s ministry was only involved in teaching and nursing.
Her spiritual director, Jesuit Father Francis D’Sa told her: “If you want to so much help the poor. Do something yourself.”
But that was impossible as she had no money nor education. “I had studied only up to the seventh grade,” she said.
However, the priest consoled her “you have love in your heart. God will show you the way.”
Even after Father D’Sa left for Germany, Sister Lucy would pour out her concerns to him in letters, writing of her inability to help those in need.
Once she wrote “one woman told me how her husband put her hand into a pot of boiling rice and how she and her children starved that night. How can people be so cruel?”
It so happened that an Austrian approached the priest as he wanted to fund a project for women in India.
The priest showed him all of Sister Lucy’s letters. He came to India and gave her Rs 100,000 (US$1,370) and promised further help. With the money she bought a small piece of land in the remote village of Vadhu Budruk in Pune district of western Maharashtra state.
Then local people chipped in with whatever they could and from that ‘Maher’ or ‘Mother’s House’ as it is known in the local language, Marathi, was built in 1997.
Sister Lucy’s congregation allowed her to continue as a nun but disassociated itself from her work that developed into the Maher Humanitarian Network which celebrated its 24th anniversary this month.
Maher now includes 50 homes currently sheltering 984 children, 520 destitute women and 123 destitute men in the states of Maharashtra, southern Kerala and Jharkhand and West Bengal in the east.
“We have been donated land in southern states of Karnataka and neighboring Andhra Pradesh, so two more centers will come up soon,” she said.
Sister Lucy also founded the Interfaith Association for Service to Humanity and Nature. It has members in 10 countries. She is a featured speaker at interfaith conferences abroad.
Maher youth have led Peace Camps in the United States, India, and Africa.
“There are many challenges, but the Divine gives the strength and courage to surmount them,” said Sister Lucy, the third among nine children of a farmer from Kerala’s Kannur district.
She gave an example of a boy named Rahul who was a street child sent from another home that found him unmanageable.
“One day he slapped the cook. Maher staff from Kerala asked me to decide between Rahul and them. I looked at him, he was nervous and shivering. I just went up and hugged him. Rahul melted and apologized,” Sister Lucy said.
“A few years ago, he came to me with his first salary after joining the army. He confided to me ‘you hugged and kissed me that day in front of your fuming staff that saved me. I was planning to join a terror outfit and shoot the staff at the home’,” she said.
Love does work wonders, said the 65-year-old.
Maher’s human resource officer, Gaus Sayyad, is also a product of the home.
“At age five I used to clean cars and work at a roadside tea stall to help my family,” Sayyad said.
“One day, Sister Lucy asked me if I wanted to go to school. She took me to Maher where I did my schooling, graduation and Master’s in Business Administration. I got selected for a firm in the United States.”
Then he quit the well-paying job to serve at Maher.
“I will give my life to Maher who added wings to my dreams,” said Sayyad.
Manisha Kailashpande said she came to Maher as a young widow with her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter in 2002. “Sister gave me and my children shelter. My son graduated and joined the police while my daughter is doing her post-graduation in economics.”
“We are proud of Sister Lucy and her work. She continues to be part of our congregation,” said Sister Flory Menezes, one of the councilors from the Pune Province of Holy Cross Sisters.
Their Pune provincial, Sister Bromadine Palokaran, said “like our foundress Mother Claudine Echernier, Sister Lucy knows no limits in caring and providing for the orphans and those shunned by society.”
Maher is home to the abused, neglected, physically challenged and mentally disturbed. It has been rated as one of the top 10 NGOS in India. In 2017, Maher was awarded “Special Consultative Status” by the United Nations.
Sister Lucy has also won numerous national and international awards, including “Nari Shakti Puraskar” (women’s strength award) from the federal government for her outstanding contribution to women’s empowerment in 2016.
Recently she was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world during the 2020 pandemic crisis by Austrian magazine “OOOM”. She was 12th on the list.
But for Sister Lucy, the greatest reward are the content smiles of the women she sheltered and the children she has educated who now stand tall on their feet.