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 morning of 2015 in the
convent starts with not a bowl of cereal but a full plate of Indian
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
“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
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
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,”
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
“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
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.
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,”
A Christmas-themed potholder covers the
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
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.”
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
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
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.”
On this Christmas afternoon, the nuns
walk over to St. Anthony Nursing Home, where they work as certified
This work is an important part of the
mission that brought them to Carroll.
“We came to help,” Vattamattathil
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,
“Whey they come to know we are nuns,
they know we’re offering love and affection — that we care,”
The nuns develop a bond with the
“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
“Christmas and Easter are special
days for us sisters, but if there is a need, we are ready to go,”
Remembering the icy
streets from that morning, they’re careful not to slip as they head
out into the cold.