When a section of society believes in so-called “destiny”, the Holy Bible exhorts us to believe in God’s intervention, be it in the history of Israel, a race, or people, society or an individual. This Divine intervention was so tangibly experienced when Shri Isa Dass, the then Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana, approached Sr. Violette through Fr. Hyacinth OFM(Cap), to start an English medium school in Ludhiana.
This upcoming Industrial Town had no dearth of English medium schools, but the Deputy Commissioner felt that the city was incomplete without a Convent School. A native of Karnal, he had seen the progress made by St Theresa’s Convent School in Karnal, and wanted the sisters of the same Congregation to undertake the venture at Ludhiana too.
Encouraged by the vistas opened for the spread of Bethany in the North, Mother Macrina, the Superior General, approached Msgr. Swarbrick, OFM (Cap), Perfect Apostolic of Jallandhar, who was too happy to welcome Bethany sisters and promised to give all the necessary help. The convent at Ludhiana bearing the name Sacred Heart was officially opened on 2 July 1965. A group of sisters comprising Sr Mirabelle, Sr. Gretta, Sr. Dorita, Sr. Dora and Sr. Evangeline, along with Miss Dotty a helper, started from Mangalore on 15 June 1965, and stayed on in Karnal till the end of June.
On 1 July 1965 at 3:30pm Sr Violette and Sr Dora reached Ludhiana by train from Karnal. Mother Macrina and Sr Agnella who were already in Ludhiana to meet the Deputy Commissioner, were waiting to receive them. They were met by the Secretary of the Ad hoc Committee and the acting Parish Priest Fr Hyacinth OFM(Cap). Sr Gretta, Sr Esuria and Sr Dorita, along with the housemaid Dotty had left Karnal by bus and reached Ludhiana at 4:00pm. Sr Violette, Sr Dora and Sr Esuria with the Deputy Commissioner and the other prominent citizens to arrange for the next day’s programme.
Sr Mirabelle and Sr Rosalie set off for Ludhiana on 1 July 1965 from Karnal in a truck loaded with household goods. The excitement of reaching Ludhiana, a new place, ran high as the goods were unloaded from the truck. Both Sr Mirabelle and Sr Rosalie supervised the activity. When everything was unloaded, Sr Rosalie was surprised to see the grinding stone still left behind in the truck. It was big and heavy and she wanted to get the unloading completed.
Seeing a young man standing nearby, she was a little impatient. Turning to him she said in Hindi, “Kya dekh rahe ho? Itna jawan hai! Jao unki madad karo.” (What are you watching? You are so young. Go and help them.) The young man got into action without saying a word and helped them get the grinding stone down. The rest of the day was spent setting up the house.
The next morning all the sisters were assembled in a little room for the Holy Eucharist. The priest got ready and came to the altar. The sisters could not believe their eyes! Sr Rosalie was too shocked to respond to the prayers made by the priest! How could a labourer, dressed in khaki the previous day, and was ordered to unload the heavy grinding stone, say the Mass? After the Mass, they all profusely apologized to Fr Thomas Puthenpura, (the acting priest in charge), ‘a coolie turned Priest’! At the same time, they felt relieved and comfortable to see Fr Thomas Puthenpura, who was mistaken for a coolie by Sr Rosalie, with the heart of a Priest!
The next day on 2 July 1965, the Perfect Apostolic with two other Priests of Jallandhar Diocese and a Seminarian arrived at 8:00 am for the opening of the convent. He blessed the chapel and offered the Holy Eucharist after which the convent and the school were blessed. After breakfast, he and the other priests returned to Jallandhar. A civic reception was held on the open grounds outside the convent that evening.
The Honourable DC Shri Isa Das took keen interest and made elaborate arrangements with the help of the Citizens’ Committee. Refreshments were served for the large gathering of people. Present for the function were also Mother Gemma, Sr Benilda and Sr Florence from Bathinda and Sr Gretta and Sr Esuria from Karnal. The guest sisters left immediately after the lunch. The curtain fell at 9:00 pm leaving all with happy memories.
As the Sisters had no house of their own, the Deputy Commissioner, with the help of the officials concerned, happily gave them an abandoned engineering college building, which had become the undisturbed domain of thousands of pigeons, for the Sisters’ residence and the school. After a thorough cleaning white washing of the building was got done by the officials, the school was officially opened on 2 July 1965 for the first four classes. The school was named after the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The sisters received moral and material support from the sisters at Karnal and Bathinda.
But even before the inauguration, about 50 people had gathered at the school that morning at 9:30 am, seeking admission for their children! Within two days more than 350 students were registered!
The sisters in a new place seemed to have been chased by a series of problems to test their faith and grit. In 1965, barely within 3 months of their coming to Ludhiana, the Indo-Pak War broke out. Sr Violette, in her letter to Mother Macrina on 12 September 1965, expressed the fear and difficulties the sisters faced due to the war. She wrote:
You and the Sisters must be reading about the air raids over these places. Do pray for us. I do not know if this letter will reach you, or if it does, whether we will be alive when it reaches you.
Since Tuesday there have been many attempts by the enemy to bomb Halwara Airport of Ludhiana. The nights are terrible. We have to spend them outside. Soon we may have to evacuate the place if there is no lull in the battle. Every night, every time there is an air raid, the whole building shakes and we have to get into the open.
To make matters worse we are troubled by the Pakistani paratroopers, who have come down in parachutes in several places of the Punjab. Just yesterday, about 50 to 60 of them were dropped by planes in Doraha- about 10 miles from Ludhiana. We are wondering what is going to happen. The school is closed for the present. We do not know whether we will be able to open it on Monday. Everything, including ourselves, is in God’s hands. We can neither sleep nor pray in the Chapel. The Deputy Commissioner is trying to find a smaller house for us until the crisis is over. Do ask the sisters to pray much that the war will stop and there will be peace in our country.”
We thank God, for soon the war ended and peace was restored. All our sisters, teachers, students and the parents were safe but were thoroughly shaken and shocked by the havoc caused by this war.
Sr Evangeline, one of the pioneers, recalling those initial days at Ludhiana says, “I was sent to Ludhiana as a first year junior and life was quite challenging in the beginning as we were housed in a dilapidated rented building. In the extreme climatic conditions, when having a single good sweater in winter and a fan in the sweltering heat was a luxury, I wonder how Sr Violette, who lived in an affluent country like the USA, could adjust to such situations in that building! I do not remember noticing in her even the least sign of dissatisfaction or complaints about the inconveniences.
It was perhaps in the second year that we undertook another apostolate of taking charge of a Home for Senior Citizens. I do not remember how and why we started it. The main person behind it was Mr. Pritam Singh Chhatwal. He must have been either the President or a member of the Red Cross Society there. He would visit the Convent often and help us in many ways right from the beginning. The one thing that I well remember about this apostolate is that, we went from shop to shop in Ludhiana town, asking for financial help for the old people of the Home for the Aged.”
Sr. Dorita, one of the pioneers of Sacred Heart Ludhiana, when requested, recalls her experiences:
“From the time I set my foot out of my home town Mangalore for North India on 25 June 1965, the promise of the Lord “I will never forget you, My people. I have carved you on the palm of My hand” became very experiential one for me. Having reached Ludhiana, a new place, we settled down in an old pigeon infested building. It was also a safe home for wasps and other creatures.
Life was quite tough and I felt challenged. It was at this time that I strongly felt tempted to join my family I had left behind. Here again the Lord said, “If you wish to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.”Strengthened, I decided to follow Him. The 1965 Indo-Pak war was another incident that left us all shell shocked. For the first time we witnessed the chaos, devastation and the loss to life and property that a war could bring! Thanks to God, peace was soon restored.
Though initially I found life difficult, as I was young, by and by I learnt to find God in every situation and work. We enjoyed living and working together, helping, encouraging and sharing. I grew there much richer spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and socially as well. I thank God all those sisters, students, parents and friends who made my life a beautiful one.”
As the fast growing school became overcrowded, a plot of land of 9.5 acres was procured at a reasonable rate from the Ludhiana Improvement Trust. The amount was to be paid in installments as per the agreement. On 3 January 1966, the Foundation Stone was laid by the Deputy Commissioner Shri Isa Dass and blessed by Fr Hyacinth. For lack of finances, the sisters borrowed money from the Patna Jesuits and constructed a wing of the school at Sarabha Nagar on the present site. After staying in Model Gram for about 1 and a half years, the sisters were finally able to occupy a part of the new school wing in December 1966.
Three months later, on 17 October, Sr Violette handed over the charge to Sr Oliva and left for Karnal. On 10 November Sr Oliva left for Mangalore, handing over the charge temporarily to Sr Esuria the Principal at Karnal, till December 1965. Sr Genevieve then took charge of the school till Sr Miriam took over the reins on 1 January 1969 and having completed her term of three years as the Superior and Principal, left for Mangalore. Sr Genevieve, who was the Superior for some years, was later chosen to lead the sisters of the region as the Regional Superior in 1970.
It was then the Sacred Heart institution had the privilege of having two builders of great competence. One was Sr Nora the local Superior and later the Regional Superior and Provincial Superior. The other was Sr Miriam the Principal and later Provincial Superior. Working hand in hand, while Sr Nora supervised the construction work of the K G Block and the convent building, Sr Miriam took charge of the school building. Working tirelessly and relentlessly for the progress of the school, Sr Miriam won much appreciation and admiration from the staff, students and parents at Ludhiana.
They experienced God’s powerful hand guiding and leading them in a new place, among new people, as they undertook the Herculean task. As Tobias in the book of Tobit, was helped by God through His Angel Raphael, so were they helped through a competent, honest and true friend, Engineer Mr DP Sharma, to get the construction work done of the school and convent buildings. He continues to serve the school with a spirit of dedication and selflessness to date. The institution will always remain indebted to him.
The first block of the school building, the foundation of which was laid on 3 January 1966, by the Deputy Commissioner Mr. Isa Dass and blessed by Fr Hyacinth OFM (Cap), was inaugurated in December 1966. Another block was inaugurated on 30 January 1972 by his Excellency the Governor of Punjab. The convent building which was meticulously planned and built was inaugurated on 25 March 1974 on the feast of the Annunciation by Rt Symporian Keeprath, the Bishop of Jallandhar Diocese.
Being in a new place, far away from their hometown, the sisters faced a financial crunch. To supplement the meager income of the sisters, at the suggestion of the Superiors, Sr Mirabelle undertook to run a small dairy farm and poultry. This was a source of income to the community. This project was later closed down.
Sr Miriam one of the architects of Sacred Heart institution and long time Principal, reminiscences as she looks back into the time and says:
Ludhiana awakens in me memories of pioneering nuns, of harsh realities, of hard work, of growth, of loving children and of kind and helpful people.
In June 1966, I returned to Bethany Mother House from the USA after my studies there. I was ready for a teaching assignment. Mother Macrina, the superior General of Bethany, transferred me to Sacred Heart Convent, Ludhiana.
My stay abroad had prepared me well for going to an unknown place. I left Mangalore on 13 July 1966 by train along with an elderly sister, Sr Monina, and reached Ludhiana on the 16th. Sr Genevieve and the Sisters of the community warmly welcomed us.
Since it was a working day, I started teaching that very day. I was assigned class III, the senior most class at that time. It was a challenge and a new experience for me to teach the tiny tots as until then I had taught only the senior classes – Classes IX, X and XI at St Mary’s High School in Kansas City, Missouri and Glennon High School in Kansas City, Kansas, for a year and a half. Teaching small children was a rewarding experience. After teaching the same class for two-and a-half years, I was appointed Principal of the school on 1 January 1969. Along with this responsibility, I took up a couple of subjects for classes VI and VII. I used to meet the pupils during the recess and after school hours. During the first three years my stay at Ludhiana, I managed to visit the home of each of my students. These meetings and visits enabled me to know and understand the pupils better.
Rev Fr Hyacinth, OFM, Cap., from the Christian Medical College area used to come to celebrate Mass at the chapel. At Sarabha Nagar, at the other end of the school campus, the residence for the chaplain was built. As Ludhiana had no Catholic Church, the Sunday Mass was offered in one of the classrooms, and people from the CMC area and other places used to come to our chapel. Every Sunday, the Sisters took turn and went by bus to Halwara Air Force Station Church for Mass and this practice continued over a number of years.
During the initial stage we faced a lot of financial hardships. People of Ludhiana at that time were not that well off. Our school fees were low. As the construction work of the new school building was going on, Mother Macrina managed to get a loan at 6% interest from Patna Jesuit Society, Patna, through Rev Fr Loesch, SJ, and we were able to repay the loan after several years. Besides, installments also had to be paid for the land purchased at a concessional rate from the Ludhiana Improvement Trust, Ludhiana.
In 1970, we started to construct the laboratories and the auditorium, as we had to have them ready before the CBSE Board could grant us affiliation. As our financial resources were inadequate, we had to raise the school fees. We requested the parents to pay the fees in advance for three, six, nine months or a year, as per their convenience. Many of them gladly contributed Rs 200/- towards the building fund. Thus, we were able to complete the Science and Auditorium Block by December 1971. Dr. DC Pavate, the Governor of Punjab inaugurated it on 30 January 1972. The CBSE Board granted us the affiliation and the first batch of the students appeared for Class XI Board Examination in March 1974.
During the times of conflict, people are carried away, especially if it relates to Pakistan. During the Indo-Pak war, I remember, once I went to the railway station at Ludhiana to see a sister off. I was wearing a black habit. On my way back to the convent, a mob of about 300 people gathered around, surrounding me. I was afraid and I prayed. Those were the anxious moments. Though I told them I was from the convent in Sarabha Nagar, and had gone to the station to see a sister off, they did not believe me; they looked at me skeptically. They were convinced I was a Pakistani spy. Fortunately, someone who knew me happened to be there and pacified the mob, telling them that I was a nun at the Sacred Heart Convent. They then let me go! That’s the kind of experience one never forgets!
One of my experiences at Ludhiana was the realization that we cannot label a child dull or less intelligent than others. I had admitted some students from the villages and some who had migrated, especially from East Africa and Thailand. In the beginning, these students found it difficult to learn English, but later on, they did well when they had gone and understanding teachers.
I had also experienced cooperation and goodwill from the parents, the teachers as well as the Sisters. I was able to carry on the work of administration of the school because of their understanding and collaboration.
After 12 years at the Sacred Heart Convent, I was transferred to Berhampur, Orrisa, to take charge of a high school and convent run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.”
The spacious, clean, airy, lush green campus with a grotto of our Lady and a manicured lawn on the front, flower gardens and imposing structures that we admire today, did not exist even in the wildest dreams of the sisters in the sixties. The dedicated services and hard labour put in by the Superiors and the sisters have borne abundant fruit. Sacred Heart Convent School was carefully nurtured by the gifted and committed Principals. facing turbulent weather and challenging situations, they left no stone unturned, to make the school what it is today. We admire their courage, grit and patience displayed as they shouldered the responsibilities.
Words fail to adequately thank Shri Isa Das for his contribution in establishment of Sacred Heart Institution. Bethany is deeply indebted to him.
Bethany id grateful to Msgr Alban Swarbrick the Perfect Apostolic of Jallandhar Diocese, Fr Hyacinth OFM (Cap) and the members of the Citizens ‘Committee especially Dr Randhir Singh and Mr. Pritam Singh Chhatwal for all their generous help, welcome and the support given o the sisters.
Sacred Heart institution will gratefully remember the difficulties and problems faced by the pioneers and all the other sisters, in their endeavour to establish God’s Kingdom of love and compassion. The outstanding contribution made by Sr Violette the Pioneer and Founder Principal, her unique share in establishing the institution, and giving it the required direction, though for a short while, is worth mentioning.