Sisters (from left) Ruby Vattamattathil,  Elseena Pallithazhom and Santhy Thyil festively decorated their convent for Christmas in 2015.
Sisters (from left) Ruby Vattamattathil, Elseena Pallithazhom and Santhy Thyil festively decorated their convent for Christmas in 2015.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a five-part series that looks back at some notable holidays this past year through unfamiliar perspectives. The series concludes at Christmas.

8:30 a.m.

Christmas morning of 2015 in the convent starts with not a bowl of cereal but a full plate of Indian food.

Just a stone’s throw from Holy Spirit Parish is a long, low building — a convent that houses nuns who have left their homes in India and Africa to serve in Carroll.

They arrived years ago as part of an international “reverse mission” started by Father Jim McCormick, who served Holy Spirit Parish for years before his death in 2013.

The convent currently houses five nuns from Tanzania, in east Africa, and four from India: Sisters Ruby Vattamattathil, 54; Anila Edakamcheril, 51; Elseena Pallithazhom, 40; and Santhy Thyil, 40.

The two groups of nuns live separately in the convent but often work together.

On this particular Christmas, the African nuns have the day off, and some will venture outside of Carroll for other celebrations. But the Indian sisters have work this afternoon.

“You have to eat so, so fast, because Mass is in 10 minutes,” Pallithazhom urges the room at large.

Minutes later, their plates are clear.

———

Carroll’s Indian nuns are from Kerala, a state in South India. It’s always green, the women recall.

India is a Hindu country, but this region is largely Catholic.

The local dialect in Kerala is Malayalam, which the nuns often use during casual conversation in the convent. When they meet with sisters from other Indian states, though, they speak Hindi, and with Holy Spirit’s parishioners, for shared prayers and daily conversation, they always switch to gently accented English.

They provide a caring presence in Carroll and a listening ear during hectic times, said Father Tim Johnson, pastor at Holy Spirit Parish.

“People recognize that grace,” he said. “They’re just a compassionate group of individuals who care but also allow others to care for them and support them in different ways as well.”

And they provide a glimpse into the global church and the lives of people who live outside of Carroll’s and the United States’ borders, he added.

“They allow us to see the church at large within the world, rather than being so involved within our own life and community — to see an extension of the church, and how it exists beyond our own boundaries and within different cultures,” Johnson said.

———

9 a.m.

As the nuns make the short trek from the convent to Holy Spirit Parish, the icy sidewalks cause them to giggle and grab each other as their feet threaten to slip out from underneath them.

“Oh my God,” one utters as she nearly falls — and it easily could be a prayer.

The slippery hilarity softens into warm greetings as they approach the crowded church entrance. They embrace parishioners and wish them a Merry Christmas as they head inside together.

The sisters wear long, flowing Indian clothing for Mass, and a row away, the African nuns have arrived in traditional attire as well. All nine nuns wear white.

With hushed laughter, they swiftly exchange the books containing Bible readings and prayers, tracking down page numbers for those less familiar with the tomes.

Their presence, particularly as they wear the religious clothing of their country, is an important symbol for the parish’s members, Johnson says.

And on this day in particular, on Christmas, Mass sets the tone for the rest of the customs to follow.

———

At the convent, the nuns are a family.

“We are like blood sisters,” Vattamattathil said. “If we think, ‘She is from such-and-such family; she’s different,’ we can’t live together, we can’t work together, we can’t enjoy together. But if I feel you are my own sister, we can.”

Their close relationships allow them to draw out a sister who is missing her family or upset about something. Unsettled moods are never ignored — and it helps, she said.

Outside of the convent’s walls, the sisters at times are overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of Carroll’s residents, she added.

They share whatever they have to offer — fish they’ve caught or corn they’ve grown.

The smallest gesture can mean the world, such as when someone selling Vattamattathil a battery for her watch gave it to her for free.

“We love (Carroll),” she said. “The people are so good to us.”

The gestures, even from strangers, never fail to touch their hearts, Vattamattathil added.

“People we don’t know understand we’re sisters, and they offer,” she said.

———

10:15 a.m.

After they return to the warmth of the convent, some of the sisters switch from the formal white dresses they wore to Mass to traditional saris in soft colors as they prepare lunch. Others prefer practical shirt and pants.

They’ll all change into scrubs before they head to work this afternoon at St. Anthony Nursing Home.

An efficient culinary army, they file into the kitchen to prepare lunch.

Thyil is pretty, quiet and shy, while Pallithazhom chatters and laughs. The oldest of the group, Vattamattathil, is frank and well-spoken. On this day, Edakamcheril has gone into work early.

As the three sisters mince onions, juice oranges, crush spices with a mortar and pestle and deal with a mound of spinach, the kitchen becomes a haven of scents before the nuns move to the long table where they share meals.

They chat about world news over lunch, and at one point, the conversation turns to what’s on their plates, which are filled with traditional Indian food, including a bitter yogurt spooned from a jar that was sent over from India.

They eat a lot of pork and fish — not red meat, so much, because they want to watch their cholesterol.

“And rice is all sugar,” Pallithazhom says.

A Christmas-themed potholder covers the rose-patterned tablecloth.

Although they’ll spend half the day away at work, the convent is decked out for the holiday, with a Christmas tree next to the table, bright red bows adorning the living room windows and rows of Christmas cards from around Iowa and the world lining the dining room wall.

Elsewhere in the convent, the sisters’ bedrooms are simple — they don’t need much. One room has a small curry leaf plant that was brought over from India. Its green leaves often join turmeric and mustard seed in traditional recipes.

Lunch doesn’t last long, either.

———

One of the nuns’ Christmas traditions is a more sister-friendly version of Secret Santa they call “Secret Angel.” They coordinate with Indian nuns living in several other Iowa cities and select practical or personal gifts for each match.

The entire group, with nuns from Carroll, Sioux City, Fort Dodge and Milford, gets together around Christmastime each year. When they’re all together, their group numbers 16.

Vattamattathil places a hand on her heart as she recalls receiving a blanket depicting an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

“It was beautiful,” she says. “I didn’t use it, just kept it for happiness.”

On her last trip to India to visit her family, she gave the blanket to her brother. It gets cold there, and he lives alone, and she likes to think of him using it.

The Secret Angel tradition, which emphasizes praying for the person whose name is drawn, nevertheless takes a white-elephant turn at times.

The sisters burst into laughter as they recall some of their bawdier selections.

No matter the gift, the receiving sister has to show it to the rest of the room — even when it’s underpants or feminine hygiene products.

In the past, they’ve also gifted bitter-tasting food encased in chocolate wrappers, or small firecrackers, which are quickly ignited with a hidden lighter after the recipient unwraps them.

“Just small ones,” Vattamattathil asserts. “Just for fun.”

———

12:30 p.m.

With precise devotion, the sisters gather several times each day in the convent’s prayer room, including before they go to work.

They slip rosaries through their fingers, sometimes referencing prayer books and at other times praying for specific requests from parishioners and other people they have met. Their musical voices quietly fill the room.

The prayer books are in English, but the songbooks they use during their prayer times are written in Malayalam.

Dedicated prayer is a huge part of what they offer the residents of Carroll, Vattamattathil said. Anyone who asks the sisters to pray can be certain their needs, their problems, their fears will be remembered in this prayer room.

“Whatever we do, we never miss our prayer,” Vattamattathil says. “We believe that is our strength.”

———

For this group of nuns, this Christmas was particularly special because Mother Teresa of Calcutta had been declared a saint just months before.

“She was a wonderful lady,” Vattamattathil said. “She was like a mother for everyone.”

Not one among them wasn’t inspired by the influential nun who worked with the poor in Calcutta, India, in the mid-1900s. The distinction of saint came almost two decades after her death in 1997.

Vattamattathil recalls being particularly touched by a story about Mother Teresa begging at affluent businesses for money to help feed the poor children she served.

One store owner, angered by her request, spit on her.

She responded without anger — that was for me, but what will you give the children?

Chastened, the man became a regular supporter of her work.

Mother Teresa worked with the poor. The sick. The abandoned. The orphans. The ugly.

There’s a lot the sisters can learn from her, Vattamattathil said.

And this Christmas, the recognition of her work by the church renewed her message.

“We were very much inspired,” Vattamattathil said. “We will always share that.”

———

2 p.m.

On this Christmas afternoon, the nuns walk over to St. Anthony Nursing Home, where they work as certified nursing assistants.

This work is an important part of the mission that brought them to Carroll.

“We came to help,” Vattamattathil says.

They provide practical assistance for residents who need help dressing, getting to the bathroom, eating, cleaning up or getting in and out of bed.

But they also provide company, a listening ear and love — and that’s just as important, Vattamattathil adds.

“Whey they come to know we are nuns, they know we’re offering love and affection — that we care,” she says.

The nuns develop a bond with the residents.

“When we look at a lady, we look at her like she’s our own mother,” Vattamattathil says. “When we look at a man, we feel like he’s our own dad. Then the energy comes from within, and we never feel tired.

“That will come from the heart when we see them as our own.”

It’s Christmas, but the nuns don’t mind that they’re headed to work.

After all, this is why they came to Carroll.

“Christmas and Easter are special days for us sisters, but if there is a need, we are ready to go,” Vattamattathil says.

Remembering the icy streets from that morning, they’re careful not to slip as they head out into the cold.