Convent life drives Kerala nun to suicide

A 34-year-old Clarist Sister is the latest of 15 cases of suicide over the past 12 years among religious sisters in Kerala, India, highlighting underlying problems in convent life for women.

"Some situations drive nuns to suicide," says Montfort Br Varghese Theckenath, President of the Conference of Religious India (CRI). "We are honest to admit the problem and we have to sort it out," he told Bangkok-based news agency UCA News.

Kerala generates the most male and female Religious in India. Br Theckenath says the state has 33,226 nuns. According to the 2006 CRI directory, India has 102,810 nuns and 7,216 novices.

According to Joseph Pulikunnel, a Catholic lay leader who edits Osanna ("Hosanna") magazine, Kerala has recorded 15 cases of suicide among nuns in the past 12 years. The latest was Clarist Sr Lisa, whose body was found last month in the guestroom of her convent near Kottayam, 2,650 kilometres south of New Delhi.

The police found a suicide note that cited disappointment in life as the reason the 34-year-old nun took the extreme step. An autopsy showed no wounds on her body. Police official PB Vijayan said Sr Lisa consumed poison, and investigators reported finding traces of pesticide in her room.

The deceased nun's father, Joseph Thottathil, blamed the convent for his daughter's death. The distraught 60-year-old father said his daughter was unhappy with her impending transfer to another convent and had informed her superiors, "but she never got justice from her superiors."

As the police continued to probe the case, some nuns and priests in Kerala discussed with UCA News possible reasons why nuns take their own life.

Fr Paul Thelakat, editor of Satyadeepam ("Lamp of Truth"), a Church weekly published out of Kochi, the state's commercial hub, blames disorientation and lack of communication.

Sr Elsy, superior of a Franciscan Missionaries of Christ the King convent, agrees with him. The 56-year-old religious says disappointment and despair lead some nuns to end their life. Nuns get "very limited opportunity" to ventilate their grievances. "It's a serious matter," added the superior, who is based in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram.

Sr Elsy and Fr Thelakat cite a need to review nuns' formation programs.

Only 22.5 percent of men who enter seminaries become priests, Sr Elsy pointed out, while the rest leave during formation, which usually lasts from nine to 15 years. In contrast, a nun gets only four years of training and "once you become a nun, it is difficult to get out." She explained that "society, the Church and family" discourage nuns from quitting the convent even if they experience dissatisfaction and disillusionment.

Fr Thelakat adds that priests "get lots of opportunities to meet people and exchange their views, but women religious are closeted in the convents."

Carmelite Sr Tina Jose, a lawyer who has been a nun for 34 years, says nuns face more challenges than their male counterparts. "There is discrimination against women in general, and if I deny this, I will be telling a big lie," she said.

But referring to Sr Lisa's suicide as "only a personal tragedy," the 53-year-old nun accused the media of trying to sensationalise the case.

Sr Jose said that Kerala reports the highest number of suicide cases in India. "Nuns are not from Venus. They represent a cross-section of this society," she continued. In her view, nuns' formation equips them to face pressure, but some who are emotionally weak commit suicide. "It does not reflect the true picture of women religious in Kerala," she insisted.

Suicides In Kerala Convents Indicate Underlying Problems, Church People Say (UCA News 13/7/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Kerala: Asia's cradle of Christianity (Indian Embassy Washington)

Church in India takes up farmers' mass suicide issue (CathNews 30/7/04)

14 Jul 2006