Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa Is A Dalit Nun Fighting For Thurumbar Community

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa is a dedicated and a brave nun who has been working for the empowerment of the Thurumbar community in Tamil Nadu.

Dalits are the so-called “untouchables”, “unseeables” of the Indian society. They are still treated untouchables in the Church, and in society. The government too treats the Dalits unequal, and this community are considered Dalits among the Dalits. Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa is one such nun who is fighting for the cause of equality for last 40 years.

These are the washermen (dhobi) community, who are called Thurumbar in Tamil. They are forced to wash the cloths of the Dalits, and are considered the unseeables; polluting to others who even see them.

They live outside the village borders mostly in huts without ownership of the land where they live, and do the traditional slave jobs like washing dead bodies, washing the menstrual clothes of girls who attain puberty, and bearing the torch during the procession of the deities. In return for these works, they used to beg house to house at night and get their food.

Even now, some dhobi families beg at night in return for their work. Thus, they live inhuman life and without human dignity. Most of them live in utter poverty and they are illiterate. The children who grow in this hostile situation experience the same and lack education and self-esteem.

Thurumbar women suffer more for caste, class, as well as their gender

The history and the story especially of Dalit women have been a story of oppression by the triple headed, centuries-old monster of caste, class, and gender. To be born into an untouchable caste is the worst misfortune that can happen to a woman.

Such a woman is a non-person, often with no right to property, no guarantee for her right to life, liberty, reputation and to free exercise of her powers, talents, and choices.

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa, is a Dalit nun who joined the Franciscan Sisters of St. Aloysius Gonzaga in the year 1974 committed herself to work for the Washer men community and faced severe obstacles to fulfil her religious vocation in the Lord.

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When the Dalits were denied entering into religious life, the Gonzaga congregation was started mainly to promote the Dalit vocation.

To live for God is not only to close oneself in the convents, but it is also to live like Christ. Sr. Alphonsa realised that the true prayer is working for the people in need, especially the Dalits who are discriminated even in the Church.

Though her initial life in the convent was unable to adjust, she was faithful to the call of her religious vocation.

When she was a child, she accompanied by her grandfather to the meetings with the great social reformist EVR Periyar, she developed the concept of social justice. When she was asked to marry her close relative, she chose to be a religious, she thought to offer her life for Christ and to the society.

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa faced a good deal of discrimination

Many troubles and difficulties came along the way, but she stood by her vocation as she understood God was leading her life. 44 years ago the convent life was so restricted compared to the present times. The nuns were not allowed to go out of the convent. The Gonsaga congregation was mainly started for the Dalit women as the Dalits were not allowed to enter into the religious congregations.

The Dalit nuns were discriminated by the Church heads. They were not supposed to prepare the altar or to cook for the bishops and high caste priests, as they would pollute the environment. The Dalit nuns were given food in separate plates and given communion after everybody received it.

Sr. Alphonsa was brave enough to raise all the unjust practices happened around her. One day when she went to purchase vegetables, she saw a lot of people protesting for some land issues and there she sat in protest among the people till the evening.

That was her first experience as a nun to be with the people.

Dalit Nun Sr. Alphonsa

People also welcomed her in their homes. There was a time when she started realising her call as a religious. If we are not for the poor and the down-trodden, our religious call does not give any meaning at all. She was asked to study nursing in Pondicherry by her congregation. She refused to go for higher studies due to a bad experience she faced in the past.

Likewise, she got a special permission from her congregation to work among the washer men community in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, she conducted research on the condition of the Dalit women there.

She went and stayed among the Dalits in dhobi family. She became one among them. Furthermore, she ate what was provided in begging from house to house. At night, she was given dinner in the family where she stayed. She dressed like the women of that community.

Though the family did not have enough facilities to make her stay comfortable, they provided the best they had. At times, the family were worried about her safety in the area. It was not a place for a nun to stay there.

There was a custom when these women are married, they had to go and spend their nuptial night with the so-called dominant caste village leader. This particular incident took place in a village called Palayanoor, Triuvanamalai district, Tamil Nadu.  If the Dalit women refused, they were denied food from the dominant caste people.

Her interest towards her work with the Dalit women of the washer men community made her to produce a documentary called ‘Echam Micham’ which means left over. So to say that the Dalit bridegrooms have to have physical intimacy with their brides only after the village leader. Also, they can have only the leftover food begged from the dominant caste people. This attitude continued among the Dalits with the concept that.

“If I go to him to satisfy his lust, food will reach my house, if I refuse to go to him to satisfy his lust , sadness will reach my house.”

Dalit community has always faced exclusion

Dalits faced exclusion by the dominant castes. When Sr. Alphonsa came to know about this atrocity, she tried to abolish this custom. Doing so, resulted in her getting threats from the Caste people.

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa had to face a lot of troubles in her journey towards empowering the Dalit women. They did not allow her to work among the Washermen community. She was beaten up, and police cases are filed against her. She went to jail many times. Her health suffered, yet she did not stop her works.

When working for this community, she managed to educate the boys and girls. As a result, a boy and a girl found their religious vocation and admitted for their formation. This community once considered unseeable now gets back their dignity and their rights because of the noble work of Sr. Alphonsa and Fr. Valan, a Salesian priest.

Recently Sr. Alphonsa had to intervene in shutting down a liquor shop which was in front of a school. She went and staged a dharna single-handedly. The officials came and tried to convince Sr. Alphonsa to stop it, but in vain.

At the end, the liquor shop was closed.

Discrimination didn’t stop her from working with the Thurumbar community

Thurumbar Community

A simple woman in appearance but strong in her convictions. She is an inspiration for many religious women and social workers. Though she faced caste discriminations in the Church and the Society, she continues her noble work.

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa is a dedicated and a brave nun who has been working for the empowerment of the Thurumbar community in Tamil Nadu. She has been threatened by the so-called dominant caste people so many times for working among the Dalits. Many false cases were filed against her.

Despite all the hardships, she never stepped back from her mission of love and dignity preached by Jesus. Treating one another  is the most challenging mission of the humanity, yet we find people like Sr. Alphonsa who wants to liberate the so called marginalised people of the Indian society.

She used to accompany her grandfather to meet the social reformer and the rationalist Thanthai EVR Periyar. She drew the inspiration by listening to him. Likewise, she is a role model of the religious nuns in the Church. Not only that, but she sees Jesus, her master, being with the poor and the marginalised.

She is an extraordinary woman religious who always lives her religious call to the maximum. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Office for Dalits and Backward Classes honoured her with Archbishop Oscar Romero Morning Star award for her tireless work in 2017.

Sr. Anthonysami Alphonsa has received so many state and national awards for her committed work.

We need more committed religious like Sr. Alphonsa to the Universal Church. It is the need of the hour to be the voice of the voiceless.

Recommended reading:

Image source: Edited on CanvaPro, from the Thurumbar Liberation Movement and Global Sister’s Report 

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