The Servant of God FCC Sister Rani Maria will be beatified at Indore on the morning of November 4, 2017. Rani Maria spent her life for the liberation of the poor and the marginalized Tribal people, especially the women, of Udainagar in Madhya Pradesh. Her activities were a thorn in the flesh of money lenders, social exploiters and the propertied upper castes. They could not continue to exploit the Tribals as she was on the scene. Therefore, they decided to get rid of her.
They got a wonderful opportunity on February 25, 1995 when she was alone on her way from Udainagar to Indore in a private bus. She was going to Kerala. The gruesome incident took place as the bus climbed up Nachambore Hill, close to Indore. Her assassin, Samandhar Singh, inflicted 54 stab wounds on her body. Most passengers in the bus ran away the moment the attack began. None bothered to protect her.
The blood of martyrs is not shed in vain. They continue to nourish and season the activities of many more that come following in their steps. With her beatification, Blessed Rani Maria will be the first missionary martyr for the Church in north India. She continues to inspire many who are engaged in similar situations across India.
Childhood and Early Education
Rani Maria was born on January 29, 1954 in a small village called Pulluvazhi in Ernakulam district, Kerala. Her parents were Estappan Paily Vattalil and Eliswa Vattalil. They had seven children, two boys and five girls. Rani Maria was the second, eldest of the girls. She was baptized on February 5, 1954 in the Syrian Catholic parish church of Pulluvazhi and was given the name, Mariam. Her parents lovingly called her “Marykunju”, meaning “Little Mary”.
Marykunj was brought up by her God-fearing parents in Christian faith. According to her parents, little Mary was a child of faith, prayer, and simplicity and always showed a deep concern for the poor and the oppressed. Her mother says, “she was different from other children and exceptionally obedient.”
And her brother recalls: “She was a girl of few words; needed only very simple clothes and did not show any interest in wearing ornaments. She never did anything to hurt anyone. If something unpleasant happened she felt sorry about it.” Naturally, she longed to become a religious-missionary.
She began her primary education in the Government Lower Primary School at Pulluvazhi, and completed her High School studies from St. Joseph’s High School, Trippunitara, Kerala. Marykunju had given indications to her family about her plans to enter religious life. Her immediate relations and elder brother were against it. They had even requested their father not to give her permission. But he had replied, “If she insists what shall I do? If God so desires, how can we go against it?” Having overcome initial opposition, she joined the Franciscan Clarist Congregation at Kidangoor, Kerala on July 3, 1972.
During the formation she was inspired by the Lucan Gospel: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4, 18). As she meditated on this text, she longed to go to the missions where the Good News of the Lord was not yet heard. Her missionary dream was nurtured by the talks given by the visiting missionaries from north India. She made her first commitment on May 1, 1974 for the service of God and the poor and took the name, Rani Maria. Her final commitment was on May 22, 1980.
Her dream to be in the missions was fulfilled when her Superiors sent her to Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh in 1975. She served the poor in the villages of Bijnor for seven years. Simultaneously she completed her graduation privately from the University of Bhopal and her Master’s in Sociology from the Riva University, Madhya Pradesh.
From Bijnor she was transferred in 1983 to Karunalayam at Odagadi in the diocese of Satna, Madhya Pradesh. Here too she served the poor and the marginalized for about nine years, of which three years as local superior for her community from 1989 to 1992.
Meanwhile, the rapid missionary expansion of Ernakulam FCC Province necessitated the formation of a Mission Region in 1988 in honor of Mary as `Amala’ with its headquarters in Bhopal. On September 8, 1991, Amala region was raised to a vice province and in 1995 made an independent province. Sr. Rani Maria opted for the new province.
Right from the beginning, she held leadership positions in the new province. She served Amala Province as the Provincial Social Service Consultant from 1991 to 1994 and was elected Provincial Councilor for Social Service in December 1994.
In her initial years in the Missions, she was active in giving formal and non-formal education for children. This slowly gave way to a much wider field of assisting the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. Gradually she became instrumental in the formation of Self-Help Groups, Mahila Mandal Seva Samitis, Balvadis, Non-Formal Education Centre, Adult Education Centres, Health-Education Programmes, Credit Unions, Village Committees, Animation Programmes, Leadership Programmes and in developing irrigation facilities with the assistance from the State Government and Banks.
In Udainagar, she was actively involved in the betterment of the Tribals, especially the women. By the time she landed there, she was an experienced missionary. On her arrival, she thoroughly studied the situation of the Tribals in the villages around Udainagar and found that they had fallen in the debt trap to tradesmen.
Further, the poor people were not aware of the grants that government had for their socio-economic development. She systematically began a conscientization program to make the Tribals aware of their rights, and injustice perpetrated on them. As a result, the poor of villages around Udainagar became active and gradually freed themselves from the bondage of their heartless money-lenders.
While carrying on social-developmental activities she did not neglect catechetical and evangelization activities. Further, she never forgot to maintain very close relationship with the person of Jesus. Her life was led by the Word of God and the Eucharist. She spent hours in the chapel seeking God’s guidance, strength and protection.
She encouraged her collaborators to seek inspiration from the Word of God. She would call together her collaborators in the chapel and read out a passage from the Bible and pray before they went out on their mission. Ordinarily, before she began her activities, she would start a bhajan and read a passage from the Gospel.
She was enthusiastic to call the name of Jesus and pray among the people of other faith. She encouraged her co-workers to proclaim the name of Jesus courageously. At the same time, she was tolerant of believers of other religions. Even when she spoke zealously about Christ, she maintained a harmonious relationship with people of other religions. In their turn, they respected and loved her. It is important to know that most of her collaborators, friends and beneficiaries were people of other faiths.
Life of Prayer
Since Rani Maria was socially active during the day, she spent often at night and early in the mornings in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Contemplative dimension was equally cultivated by her. Further, working among the rural folk, she wanted to be as close to their life-style as possible to express solidarity with them.
In fact, right from the beginning she led a simple life-style. She wanted to cultivate further simplicity of life by being a member of a rural contemplative community that her Congregation was envisaging in the nineties. She wanted to experiment with a simple life of prayer and contemplation in a rural set up following the Indian traditions. She had volunteered to be a member of such experimental community.
When we look at the photos of Rani Maria, one thing prominently noticed is her smile. She radiated joy and was a cheerful person. She was also a humorous person. Her smile won her many friends but her activities of freeing the poor from the clutches of their oppressors won several enemies. They accused her of being engaged in conversion. Their threats only made Rani Maria more enthusiastic and zealous.
The first opportunity her enemies got, they made use of it by attacking her with the help of a hired assassin, Samandhar Singh. As the news spread about her assassination, the entire Christian community in Indore and beyond, social activists and people of good-will in solidarity stood up to protest; and a large number of people participated in her funeral procession from Indore to Udainagar.
Since then, her tomb in Udainagar has become a symbol of love, service and sacrifice. It has become a place of prayer and pilgrimage. Many cherish her memory and use it as a powerful symbol of engaging themselves to liberate the oppressed. Through the courageous life and death, she has sown the seed of love, justice and brotherhood in many hearts.
Her death has inspired many more sisters to work for the poor. Her beatification will further inspire not only FCC sisters but many religious men and women to dedicate themselves zealously for the cause of the poor. There can be no better tribute to Blessed Rani Maria than this.(Published on 30th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 44)