An Interview with Sr Dorothy Fernandes PBVM
Sr Dorothy Fernandes PBVM has worked among the marginalized and poor of Patna, Bihar, for twenty-two years as a foot soldier fighting for their right to shelter, food, literacy and the government schemes allotted to them. Presently she is on the advisory team of the social wing of Sewa Kendra, Patna, an active member of the FORUM of Religious for Justice and Peace and of the Executive team of WANI (Women Awake New Initiatives), a network for rural and urban women in North India.
In 2010 she was elected to the provincial team of the Presentation Sisters in India. From 2012 to 2015, she served as Vice Provincial of the Indian Province. She was interviewed for MAGNET by Sr Celine Vas BS, our Associate Editor.
Magnet: Sr Dorothy, I attended the 3rd Conference of the Religious and Migration in the 21st Century series, at Don Bosco, New Delhi, on September 10, 2018. You spoke about your struggles to move from the familiar ground to the unfamiliar. What is it all about?
Sr Dorothy: Moving out of institutional living and from the teaching profession in our school in Delhi, I realized that I need to pitch my tent with people in need. I was restless, till I responded to the Inner Voice calling me to leave the familiar and to move into the unknown.
It was not easy to get permission from the leadership. It was a four-year long struggle, years of being misunderstood; the inner voice was so strong that I felt I would have to apply for exclaustration. It was God’s blessing that I was alert to what was being told to me…I was asked to write that I have a crisis of vocation but, when I reflected, I became aware that it was not a crisis in vocation. What was at stake was the choice of ministry. I was being called to work for and with the people on the margins, so I immediately said that I will write this and so there was no exclaustration but continual turmoil within.
Magnet: So, you got permission to opt for the missions in Patna?
Sr Dorothy: No. When God calls, He also tests us. After sharing all my struggles with not wanting to work in schools, I was offered a transfer to different communities with higher posts. I stood my ground. Not being heard after speaking my truth was very painful. Finally, one night I got a call that I would be sent to a very remote village in Madhya Pradesh. I had not bargained for this—to go from a city like Delhi to a remote village without electricity or furniture, with fire wood as our only means of fuel; the cow dung floor our ground… among the Gond tribals.
Magnet: You wanted to work with the poor, and you got it.
Sr Dorothy: I hesitated to say “Yes” as I didn’t know if that’s what I was asking …but it was a challenge to say “Yes”, now or never, so I said my “Yes” and walked into the unknown. Today, when I look back, those two years were the happiest years of my life, something I would never exchange with anything else. We lived amidst the people, incarnated into their life, dressed like them… ate their food. We were four and we lived on a stipend of Rs 1000/- given to us by the diocese. This was our decision….it was preparing me to face life to discover my inner strength and to trust in God’s Providence. We attended to the following ministry:
Work among the rural poor of Madhya Pradesh from 1987 to 1991. I worked among the tribals (Gonds) in Chindwara district of Madhya Pradesh workingfor their rights and education; organized the youth and enabled them to benefit from government schemes; organized women for their rights to be able to take their rightful place in society.
After two years I was recalled, I came back on one condition that I would regain my health…so I kept true to that Inner Voice but I remained disturbed till in 199, as I moved out from school never to go back…My mission field became clear to me over the years.
Magnet: What is the mission you undertook from 1991?
Sr Dorothy: Worked with the urban poor of Delhi at Sanjay Amar Colony, Delhi, organizing the urban poor for their rights from 1991 to1997. Also worked with Caritas India as part of the animating team from 1991 to 1993. From 1994 to 1997, I was convener of Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace for Delhi region.
Magnet: Were you supported by your Congregation and province?
Sr Dorothy: Yes. I had decided that I would need to be open to life and respond with the same passion; open to the stirrings of the Spirit’s Movement and listening to the Inner Voice. I adopted dialogue and discernment as a way of life as promulgated in our Congregational documents. Being in Patna and away from the Presentation Family, I needed a mentor to make sure that what I was moving into was God’s design for me. I have been fortunate to have had good mentors – Fr Abraham Puthumana SJ, Fr TK John SJ, Fr Tom Kocherry CSSR, Sr Amala SND and Bro Varghese Thecknath SG, who inspired me and enabled me to be faithful to God’s call.
Magnet: Did you have any priority in rendering your service?
Sr Dorothy: The women who live on the margins have always been my reference point and have contributed greatly to shaping the woman I am. In working with women, I invited them to look at some of their practices which have enslaved them and from where they arise. This challenged me to look at the practices we also have in Religious Life. In particular, I began to understand the vows in the light of the communities with whom I am engaged. It is not so much a negation of what should not be but rather how we should be free to be at the service of the people with whom we are engaged.
Magnet: Do you mean to say that in the process of liberating other women you got liberated from your own comfort zone?
Sr Dorothy: True, as Mahatma Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to see in others.’ The whole perspective of looking at my religious consecration got changed. I am fortunate to belong to a very progressive congregation and our congregational documents gave me the mandate to move ahead. I am very grateful for the Trust the congregation had in me and for permitting me to respond to that Inner Voice.
Magnet: What was your new mission with new meaning?
Sr Dorothy: I worked in Patna among the rural and urban poor from 1997 to 2018. The work included the following:
- Full time in the social sector organizing the urban and rural poor of Patna for the Right to Shelter, Right to Food and Right to Livelihood. In 1997, I began work in the rural sector in Maner Block with twenty-five non-formal centers for children.
- In 2000 I worked for a year with UNICEF-Patna to do research on commercial sex workers.
- From 2002 to 2004, I worked with ACTION AID Patna as coordinator of Mahila Adhikar Morcha and later on urban initiatives.
- In 2001, I began a school in Islamganj in the Kita Chauthar panchayat. Now we have a primary school in a concrete building from LKG to Class V. This school caters to children from the far-flung villages, like Haldi Chapra, Saat Anna, Hulasi Tola, Dudhila, Islamganj.
- Got a society registered in 2003 under the name of Jan Kalyan Gramin Vikas Samiti, which has given us the credibility and a public face for our work.
- We have been engaged with the Urban poor of Patna in eight Municipal Wards of the Patna Municipal Corporation and have been educating and organizing the urban poor for the implementation of the JNNURM scheme for housing of the urban poor in Patna.
Magnet: Do you feel that your leap among the poor was recognized by your congregation?
Sr Dorothy: I was elected as a delegate for the 2001 Congregational Chapter in Ireland and one of the decisions was “Single Living” for the sake of Mission. I took this up with the leadership and, to my good fortune, I was on the leadership team. We got the permission of the archbishop of Patna, who stated that I could live alone and he was open even to have some women be part of this endeavour.
In 2006, at the next Congregational Chapter, the mandate was for forming communities among the poor. This was again in my favour. Though I lived singly, I formed communities with people wherever I went, in the slum with the people, in the office with my team, in the neighborhood with religious communities. So, I was never lonely, never felt alone, and always experienced the power and companionship of God, who was calling me to walk new paths.
Magnet: Do you feel that in walking into the unknown path your heart responds to the promptings of the spirit?
Sr Dorothy: The Catholic Social Teachings of the Church have inspired me and enabled me to walk the path that was gradually unfolding to me each day. The life of Nano Nagle, our Foundress, and her parting message, “Spend yourselves for the poor” have been the reason for me to continue to speak and act with and for the marginalized.
Magnet: Do you see any other challenges or hurdles that you come across in your mission?
Sr Dorothy: One of the biggest challenges for me was the face of patriarchy, be it Caritas India, the Regional Pastoral Centre, Patna, Action Aid Patna, etc. Enough is enough. I thought that the time had come to me to come out of all these and start my own organization. So we are into “Aashray Abhiyan” – campaigning for shelter Rights: Right to Livelihood, Right to Food. Our work is with “Service Providers”—construction workers, domestic help, vendors, sweepers, rickshaw pullers, homeless communities. We have been educating them about their rights, organizing them to demand their rights, and campaigning for their rights. This will lead us to freedom.
One of the many blessings I enjoy is a very dedicated team of young and middle-aged people, women and men, of all faiths—a pluralistic community. We have taken up the cause of the poor and have adopted all democratic processes—sit-in dharnas, rallies, press conferences, people’s parliament. This way we have earned the trust and belief of the communities.
I promote Gandhi’s saying: Be the change you want to be.
My life is the life of a pilgrim, a journey….which keeps unfolding each day…The God of my journeys is with me and will never let me down….
Magnet: Thank you, Sr Dorothy, for sharing your journey of faith and trust in God’s Providence and the strength of the poor.
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Sr Celine Vas BS