Bangladesh's lay nuns find fulfillment in service

Denied the chance to become nuns, this group of women never gave up on their dream to serve
Bangladesh's lay nuns find fulfillment in service

Three members of the lay Catholic group Believers in Christ at their chapel in downtown Dhaka on Oct. 4. Like religious nuns, the women lead lives of seclusion, spirituality and charity. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)

Unlike most young girls in Bangladesh, Sabita Ignatia Gomes never dreamed of getting married and starting a family after completing her education.

“Worldly affairs didn’t attract me. I wanted to dedicate my life to the welfare of humanity, for people in need,” Gomes, 77, a Catholic, told ucanews.

The eldest of eight children, she finished her secondary education in the 1970s and started a career as a teacher in various church-run schools.

After years away from taking classes herself, she resumed education and completed a bachelor's degree and dreamed of becoming a nun so that she could commit to the service of “people of God” for the rest of her life.

To pursue her dream, she and a few others like her got in touch with several religious orders in Bangladesh — but things didn’t go to plan.  

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In the 1980s, a female religious order took several women like Gomes to the Philippines for their religious formation but they returned home within months after “conflicts of interests” developed between them and their superior.

Downhearted, the women wondered what to do next; then, an American missionary priest came forward to support them.

In 1985, American Holy Cross missionary Father Frank Quinlivan founded a community he called Believers in Christ. It was a secular institute of lay Catholic women, also known as consecrated virgins, involved in the service of the Church and the poor, who had taken vows of celibacy, poverty and spirituality.

A special kind of cross

Today, Gomes is the coordinator of the community, based in Dhaka. It has just five members in the Bangladeshi capital but several other volunteers spread out across the country.

It is only the second such secular institute for laywomen in Bangladesh after Friends of Words, whose 13 members are engaged mostly in a secluded life of prayer, spiritual formation in religious houses and publication of prayer and catechism books and periodicals.

The women in Sabita’s group — four schoolteachers and a nurse — live together in a church-owned building in the West Tejturi Bazar area of central Dhaka, where they lead a life of seclusion, spirituality and charity.

They are often referred to as “lay nuns” but they don’t wear specific dress, instead preferring to wear sarees like ordinary Bangladeshi women. They do, however, wear a special kind of cross.

“Because we wear simple clothes, we have better access to all communities, Christian and non-Christian,” said Gomes. “People get to know from our work that we are Christian, and they love us and respect us for that.”

These lay nuns run a school for children form the slums, make pastoral visits to Catholic families, organize prayer services for Catholic families in need, assist the poor, provide medical treatment for those in need and offer spiritual formation to altar boys and girls.

Asha Rozario, 70, was also thwarted in her dream to become a nun.

“I was the second of seven children and I was confused whether I should enter family life or take care of my younger brothers and sisters,” she recalled. “My younger sister became a Luigina sister but I wasn’t able to. I wanted to become a teacher but they were seeking candidates for medical nursing.”

Later, she heard about Sabita’s group and joined them instead.

“I was a bit shy because I had only studied up to grade 12 and others had graduated from college,” she said. “Our founder and spiritual director [Father Frank] told me that prayer was also a service, so you can do whatever you can too. I decided to become cook for the community.”

The realization that her life could still be useful for people in need thrilled her. “I didn’t get much education but I can put a smile on poor children’s faces by offering them basic education and providing them with school essentials, including books, pencils and pens,” she said. “This small act of kindness has given me immense joy and I feel I have lived a worthy life.”

Sabita Ignatia Gomes, 77, coordinator of Believers in Christ, has dedicated her life to the welfare of humanity and people in need. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews)

An uncertain future

Both Sabita and Asha wonder what will happen to their group when all its current members have passed away.     

Dhaka Archdiocese has offered the group the use of a building where they can live and conduct their activities but they don’t receive regular donations to continue their service.

“We have not succeeded in adding more skills to our group and we cannot extend our activities to other areas because of a lack of funds and members. Sometimes, we also worry about who will look after us when we get old,” Gomes admitted.

“Yet, we believe that God’s work will continue despite all challenges, and God will take care of us in time of our difficulties.”

The Church recognizes the service of these “consecrated virgins” and will assist them to overcome their challenges, said Holy Cross Father Anol Terence D’Costa, secretary of the Clergy and Religion Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.

“These lay women work independently for the Church and we appreciate them,” the priest said. “Usually, religious and secular orders take their own initiatives to attract vocations and raise funds. However, in case of need, we can assist them to ensure they can continue their service in future.”

Christians, most of them Catholics, account for less than half of one percent — or about 600,000 people — in the Muslim-majority country of more than 160 million.

Despite being a tiny minority, Christians are highly regarded by non-Christians for their remarkable service in education, healthcare, charity work and assistance for the poor.

According to the 2017 Catholic Directory of Bangladesh, there are 35 local and international religious congregations of men and women in the country as well as two secular orders of consecrated virgins: Believers in Christ and Friends of Words.

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