Sisters of Charity

Bartolomea was born at Lovere to Modesto and CaterinaCanossi on the 13th of January 1807. She had two brothers and four sisters, who apart from Camilla all died in infancy causing deep sorrow above all to their mother. Bartolomea’s family was of modest means. Her father ran a business dealing in grain and also a small greengrocer’s. It was enough to support the family and also to finance some charitable donations. Her mother educated her daughters with care and also a deep Christian faith and Bartolmea grew up to be lively and good.

Having studied in the boarding school of the Poor Clares, she acquired a deep piety under the ever vigilant Mother Francesca Parpani. "I want to be a Saint, a great saint and a saint soon" were the words she uttered at the age of seven at the ‘Game of Straws’. Her spiritual guideFr. Angelo Bosio sensed the working of the Holy Spirit in her and guided her in her spiritual Journey. He urged her to note down all the inspirations she received. This resulted in the inspired document we now call ‘the Foundation Document” which forms the basis of our present Rule of Life. She wrote: “The Institute which will be founded in Lovere is be totally founded on charity and this must be its principle aim…should have as its aim the education of poor young girls…devote itself to the relief of the sick..” In this way she outlined a MISSION which, though starting as a personal response to the needs of her environment was deeply rooted in charity and as such destined to be kept up and to spread beyond the bounds of Lovere.

Bartolomea was helped in her project by Catherine Gerosa, a simple, rich, charitable lady of Lovere. Together they consecrated themselves to God in a simple ceremony on 21 November 1832 at Casa Gaia. Thus began the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity. Bartolomea was called to her eternal reward on 26 July 1833 eight months after founding the Congregation. It was left to Catherine Gerosa, under the able guidance of Don Angelo Bosio to carry on the work begun.

The story of the Sisters of Charity on Indian soil began on a day when Fr. Limana, (who worked in Krishnagar, Nadia District which was at that time mostly surrounded by forests), requested his Superior of the mission, Fr. Parietti to solicit, from the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome, for some sisters to look after the girls in the mission of Krishnagarand educate them since the priests were looking after the boys. This request was forwarded to Msgr. Marinoni, Superior of the Institute of the Foreign Mission.Msgr. Marinoni knocked at the door of several Congregations of sisters and received from all of them a negative answer, when finally he thought of going to ‘OspedaleCiceri’ (Ciceri hospital) where the Mother House of the Sisters of Charity was in those days. Msgr. Marinoni communicated his plans to the Pro-Vicar of the Diocese of Milan, Msgr. Vicar Ballerini, who was enthusiastic about the Sisters of Charity because he felt that they were the fittest persons to work in the mission. He knew that these sisters possessed great sense of sacrifice, renunciation and heroism. They also were rich in merits and blessings.

Mother Teresa Bosio, Superior of the Sisters of Charity, who were also known as Sisters of ‘Maria Bambina’, was approached.When Don Angelo Bosio, spiritual guide, heard this request from Mother Bosio, he was deeply touched at the thought of being selected for this privileged field of charity. The Institute was still in its infancy (28 years) and there was the fear of not being able to communicate with the sisters in the mission field thus rendering the possibility of being a separate entity. This was a daring step to undertake. But firmly trusting in God and in order to actualize the vision of St. Bartolomea,they agreed to send the sisters to the far away missions. As St. Vincenza dared to send the sisters beyond Lovere, now the sisters were to go beyond the boundaries of their own country and step into other countries!The sisters were exultant at this news!

Many volunteered for the missions, but Srs. AugustinaBaruffini, BenedettaDanielli, Lucia Viero and Antonia Ferrari were the privileged ones, who, after due preparations set sail for India accompanied by a lay person Rosa Abbiate to assist them, on 7th February 1860 and after a voyage of 37 days, reached Calcutta on 11th March. After three days of rest, they embarked in a frail boat which took them on a three days journey up the river Hooghly and then through the Anjana Canal, flanked by forests and villages stopping only at night in a village. (After 150 years, this canal can hardly be seen as it is just a small pond of stagnant water and the journey from Calcutta takes barely three hours!) The sisters arrived at their promised land 'Krishnagar' where they finally set foot on 17th March 1860. They were offered a thatched hut for their dwelling, without even having a hedge to protect them from wild animals. It was an unimaginable place – the memory of which the sisters recall and relive, generation after generation – the real virtue of poverty that the first four sisters were called to live.

Don Angelo had exhorted them to be courageous and to trust in the divine providence and God would never forsake them. This, the sisters found was the most apt thing to practice to keep themselves from dejection. As they reached Krishnagar, they began their mission with a group of 20 little orphan girls with whom the sisters had to share their home for want of any other accommodation. Officially, they started the orphanage on 19th March 1860.

At first the children ran away from them taking them to be white ghosts! But gradually the love and kindness of the sisters won them over and they became friendly. Language was a hindrance in the beginning but the sisters picked it up soon and communication became easier. Gradually, the sisters began to teach the children and they brought a transformation in the little ones.

Food was scarce and not what they were familiar with. Sr. Antonia Ferrari wrote to MotherBosio, “For two years our diet consisted of a little quantity of rice cooked in water with a little salt and a small piece of pumpkin.” Bread was out of question and other delicacies were a distant dream!

They faced other severe difficulties, namely, the tropical climate which they were not used with. Coming from cold weather they had to face hot and humid weather. Their attire suited for the climate of Europe, was totally unfit and they suffered immensely.But determined as they were, they visited families, learning their language and social and local customs to be useful in every field.

After everynatural calamity, the poor people, finding no other alternative, left their babies with the sisters to be looked after. Unwed mothers too found a place to abandon their babies and the number of children in the orphanage grew steadily, necessitating for a larger accommodation for them. By August 1866 the sisters were caring for 160 babies in the orphanage. Another little hut was built for them and the widows helped the sisters to look after them. The house was named ‘Holy Childhood Institution’. Though the data was lost in the flood waters, the statistics from 1933-1950 puts the figure as 4403 as per admission register of the orphans at Krishnagar, including babies who did not survive long. In 1938, a spacious building for the babies was constructed.

But nothing diminishedthe courage the sisters. Besides looking after the children, the sisters started visiting the sick in their homes and give medicines to those flocking to them with various illnesses. In time the sisters had another small hut as a dispensary, which later became the pivotal point for the people to rush to because the sisters, besides dispensing medicines, were compassionate and loving towards them.The work for the sisters was getting heavier as the hot and humid climate brought heavy rains, storms, cyclones, floods, famine and other natural calamities. Children were orphaned as the little huts of the people were washed away and the parents swept along trying to save their huts.

1866 - 1867 – The great famine of Bengal combined with subsequent floods killed thousands of people. Others lost their shelter and members of families. The starving parents started bringing in their dying babies to the sisters in the hope that they would save them. On 1st Nov.1867, a Cyclonic storm lashed Jessore which resulted in floods in Krishnagar and the surrounding villages. The sisters did not even dither to look after the patients in their huts or in the dispensary. Before the turn of the 19th century, the dispensary catered to an average of about 10,000 patients a year.

On 28th September 1865, two sisters began to work in the Hospital at Krishnagar which was in a miserable condition. They obtained permission from the authorities to visit the patients daily and tried to keep it hygienic to make the sick more comfortable. Their humane approach and devotion to the wellbeing of people were highly appreciated by the authorities and they requested the sisters to assume the complete charge of the hospital. The people too never failed to appreciate the services given to them especially in time of epidemic and other misfortunes.

The next step was to offer shelter to the young widows. In India at that time the custom of child marriage was in vogue. Many times the poor little girls were married off to much older men and thus they were widowed early. These widows were shunned by the society and were considered a burden to their families. They were forced to live in isolation and so they turned to other ways to sustain themselves. The sisters gathered them,offering them shelter and taught themvarious crafts to enable them to earn their livelihood. The sisters had to build another hut for them which was named ‘St. Mary Magdalene’s Refuge’ but the people called it the ‘The Ganges’ meaning ‘abode of the Mother’. Truly the sisters were mothers to them.

Another service the sisters undertook was to open a school for young brides. The girls were married off by the age of twelve. Consequently, there existed an urgent need of educating them, unprepared as they were to assume the many and serious responsibilities of a wife and a mother. The zealous sisters tried to impart to the young wives a moral and intellectual education, besides teaching them practical and useful skills needed by Bengali housewives.

The sisters embraced charity in any form manifested to them. But this life of deprivation took its toll. It was strange that as the sisters were dying, other sisters volunteered to take their place. The cemetery at Krishnagar bears silent witness to their heroic virtues, who did not hesitate to lay down their lives for the sake of the poor and the neediest. Sr. AngiolinaBalia, Superior of Krishnagar, was the first flower to be plucked by God for himself at the age of 27 on 11th October 1865.

Communication being difficult, the Superiors in Italy found it necessary to make Bengal a province. In 1865, Sr. CiciliaUetz came to Bengal as the 1st Provincial Superior and thus came into being the 1st province in Asia, the province of Bengal. More sisters started arriving, so the sisters thought they could extend their mission field and not stay only in Krishnagar.

Sr. Cicilia took courage to send sisters to distant villages and towns. Sr. AugustinaBaruffini went to open a new foundation at Jessore (Now in Bagladesh). Thus began the village work, a small speck at that time but was destined to grow into a big tree. Transport always was a great problem. The sisters had to traverse on foot, bullock-carts, horses, camels and even elephants. They also travelled by frail boats, at times crossing the river on precarious rotten bamboo bridges, which they did courageously.

The Institute has a particular mission to help young people in every situation in life, paying particular attention to the poorest, the lost and abandoned. It also assists the sick, the elderly, the marginalized and those who do not yet know the Gospel. This work is in line with its apostolic origins which have been re-interpreted with energy and care.

The Institute is international in character. It already had a presence in Bengal, India, in 1860. Today it is active in Europe (Italy, Spain, England and Romania); in Asia (India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, Israel, Nepal, Turkey); in the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, California); in Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Egypt).

We have established schools and colleges in the cities and villages,but mostly we work in the villages. Health sector too is seen to as dispensaries in the villages help poor people to have access to medicines and health care. We work in the hospitals and also have established our own. Above all we try to reach out to the tribal people and other neglected ones, so that they too may secure a better place in the society for themselves. The vision charity that our Foundress had is put into reality by us. St. Vincenza who carried on the torch of the vision of Bartolomea has urged to go where the need is great and urgent.

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