09/18/2012, 00.00
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Sisters of the Holy Family: 150 years of mission in Sri Lanka

by Melani Manel Perera
The anniversary falls next month. AsiaNews interviews Sister Francisca Perera, provincial superior of the congregation. The difficulties at the beginning, the apostolate of education for boys and girls, the evolution of their mission, in step with the changing times, and the constant search for communion between north and south. Marking 150 years, the theme is "Towards reconciliation."


Colombo (AsiaNews) - Next month, the Sisters of the Holy Family will celebrate 150 years of mission in Sri Lanka. Their arrival in former Ceylon is thanks to Msgr. Sameria: when he was ordained Bishop of Jaffna (Northern Province), in 1856, he wanted to call the nuns from Europe, because they dedicated themselves to the education of girls in the country. Today, the Sisters of the Holy Family have  41 communities in the Jaffna province alone, and another 54 in the province of Colombo. The theme chosen for this important anniversary is "Towards reconciliation." For the occasion, AsiaNews interviewed Sister Francisca Perera, provincial superior of the congregation in Sri Lanka.

Can you  tell us about the arrival of the Holy Family in Sri Lanka?

Yes, it was very moving, excited and tiring journey. Our Ven. Founder Piere Bienvenu Noailles whose zeal to spread the Good News to all nations knew no bounds accepted the invitation of Bishop Sameria and sent 6 of his Sisters to Sri Lanka.

They began their journey overseas, rivers, canals, land and deserts on 06 th September 1862 and after 45 days reached Galle. They then proceeded to Colombo and finally set out for Jaffna on the 31st October, in a steam ship provided by the Governor. They arrived in Jaffna on the 01st of November on All Saints day.

Their beginnings were very hard and hazardous. Sleepless nights with serpents and rats on the roof, torrential rains drenching their beds, epidemics of cholera and malaria as well as deprivations trails and challenges has to be faced. Their total trust and abandonment to divine providence gave them the strength and courage to respond to the needs with great zeal and untiring devotedness.

Seeing the urgent needs that presented themselves, they did not delay in entering into the field of action. They began their ministry with English education in school followed by orphanages, Tamil and sewing classes and dispensary work. The mission began to be alive. Mother Xavier, the leader of the community mentions, in her letters that the orphans were their consolation and that they were a beautiful bouquet to God.

Listening to the signs of the times and their calls, formation of both the Holy Family and the indigenous religious was also started. The sisters spread their services all over the Peninsula before they found a permanent place for themselves. By 1870 their mission field extended up to Kurunegala, the capital of the North western province, and then to Anuradhapura in the North central province. Here too, priority was given to Education in English and Sinhala medium, taking care of orphans and nursing. The next extension was to the western province, with Wennapuwa as the central while Jaffna became the center of the Northern communities.

At present there are 41 communities in Jaffna Province and 54 communities in Colombo Province. The two Provinces were established mainly for convenient management. In the present Sri Lankan politics social situation we are realize the important of building bridges and working as one family in order to witness to communion in our divided land. With this aim in view, we have one basic formation center, retreats and seminars organized for both Provinces and working in mixed communities. At the leadership level too, the planning is worked out together. This has brought about deepen mutual understanding and growth in love and communion and family spirit.

How are you preparing for this anniversary, and how do you feel as you approach it?  

I am filled with deep gratitude to God who has journeying with us lovingly and powerfully during all these long years, empowering us to implant and make our Holy Family charism alive in this island. Because, it evokes in us feelings of joy and deep appreciation, love and gratitude to our pioneer Missionaries for their courage and missionary zeal. Also, It is a call to reflect on our own commitment; a challenge to move forward to new ventures in our mission field in order to respond to the signs of the times.

We have planned to celebrate this great event as a Province on the 13th October together with all the members of P.B.N. Family belonging to the five vocations -namely Apostolic, Contemplative, Consecrated Seculars, Lay Associates - Holy Family Children, Youth and Adults and Priest Associates.

The period of spiritual preparation in our communities began on the 14th May with a special prayer service recalling the arrival of our Missionaries to Sri Lanka and their unconditional commitment to the Mission with thanksgiving and petitions; followed by family celebrations and fellowship meal. The following are some of the special features of this process of preparation.

Thanksgiving Mass in every parish where we are present as well as on our schools together with the parents and students.., Getting to know from the people their experiences of being with the Holy Family Sisters living and working in their villages at different times, and the impact we have made in their lives, by preparing a poster depicting the journey made by the schools with the Holy Family Sisters working there; organizing a day for creative writing of essays, and poems in parishes, Catechism classes and schools on the influence of Holy Family Sisters in their lives and in their milieu; producing a film showing the arrival of the first missionary Sisters, the hardships they faced in their mission fields, the Holy Family Spirituality and common mission and the expansion into various areas and ministries.


What have been the greatest challenges that the Sisters of the Holy Family have had to face in these past 150 years?

It seems to me some of the biggest challenges had to be faced by our pioneer Sisters at the beginning and during the period of expansion of their mission field. Working in an unknown land, with people of different cultures, needs and demands. Deprivations, trials, epidemics, difficult climate conditions etc.. Bringing about unity and peace in midst of strife and division.

And the great blow to Church in Sri Lanka was takeover of catholic schools in 1960. It caused many adverse results in several areas such education in catholic schools for catholic population. Nationalizing Training Schools and dearth of catholic teachers and funds etc...However these challenges encouraged rethinking and renewal of ministries and commitment. New ventures and modes of 'Presence' in remote areas and among poor people of different religions especially in Buddhist areas .Development of catechetical teaching at Parish level.

As a Congregation and as a Province the need was strongly felt to move out of the Island where we were well established serving in all the dioceses to reach out to other mission fields, needing missionaries bringing the Good News. Thus our Sri Lankan Sisters together with Sisters from other countries started Foundations in under privileged countries.

30 years of war have caused disaster in the country. Our Sisters had the opportunities to meet the brothers and sisters in the North to help in their tragic conditions As a province and as Inter-religious groups we were able organize ourselves to work in camps and hospitals, weeks and months bringing comfort and care to them. It was a great challenge to leave our comfort zones and commit ourselves to the need of the hour.

And your greatest achievements?  

Spreading out our apostolate in under-developed and rural areas 'To be a Presence' to the people regardless of cast, creed or race...., Sending sisters as missionaries to other countries such as Pakistan ,Philippines , South Africa, Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda, Congo Botswana, Argentina, France, Italy, and Britain.

Our formation has taken a positive step to give the formees a contextualized formation to be prophetic religious. In view of this we are giving the pre - novices extra one year of work experience outside the convent.

Sr. Francisca, how will you approach the theme of reconciliation?

War in has brought about mistrust between the people in the North and South. What we need is to build up broken trust and encourage confidence between the two groups. We as a Province we have taken this theme "Towards Reconciliation"  for our reflections as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Holy Family Sisters to Sri Lanka realizing that it is the need of the day. As a Province we have had many discussions and reflections on this theme realizing our need to be healed from our past memories. Sisters have participated in many programmes and discussion groups organized by different joint groups.




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