REV. SR. THEODORINE, F.C.
Sister Theodorine is probably the most colourful of our Congregation’s many ‘apostles’ of India. Her years here coincided with the hey-day of the British Raj. She arrived in Bandora in 1867 and, in her 32 years in India, Sr.Theodorine laid the foundation of one of the finest schools in India, St.Joseph’s Convent, Bandra.
Marie Caroline Mevis was born on February 18, 1832, in Tongres. She became attracted to the religious life chiefly through what she had witnessed of a very new religious order, the Daughters of the Cross, and at the age of 18 in 1850, she presented herself to them as a postulant. She took her first vows in 1852, was appointed Superior at the age of 20! and spent the next 10 years working with young delinquents.
To offer to go to India in those days was the ultimate in renunciation. Generally, the sisters who composed these small but frequent bands of volunteers for this difficult enterprise, did not expect to see their homeland again. The cemetery at Bandra testifies how brief the life span of these sisters who lie there.
Those who somehow survived the debilitating heat, dust, disease, epidemics as did Sister Theodorine, lived a veritable martyrdom. Yet a lively correspondence flourished between the sisters in India and those in Europe, especially the Mother House. Moreover, Sister Theodorine kept a remarkable Journal, handwritten in beautiful cursive style, now preserved on yellowing paper in the Provincial Archives in Bandra. We are planning to post these pages on the website, and we invite you to read of Sister Theodorine’s life and times as recounted by this remarkable lady herself. Amiable, benign, charming and simple, all sweetness and goodness, she had a devastating faith, for it devastated the rationalists who were and still are, often embarrassed by Heaven’s literal response to her prayers. The book is full of anecdotes on how St. Joseph was always around the corner.
This story illustrates the combination of visionary and practical realist that was Theodorine. She believed that God helps those who help themselves, so after praying, she usually looked for a solution. One day in June 1871, the provision room and the money box were empty. Theodorine borrowed rice and oil from the Jesuits across the street. It was Retreat time, and on the third day, two of the big girls called to the Sisters to come out of seclusion and take a look at the store room. It was overflowing. A cart has just delivered boxes of all kinds of provisions and the delivery man assured them that it had all been paid for. Later, Theodorine discovered that the good angel was a retired English Major.
She had a great sense of humour, was a superb musician, and like every missionary, loved adventure. In a wonderful chapter, “Perils in the Wilderness”, her 1874 trip across jungles to a small Christian settlement, Chyebassa in Bengal, is recounted. Bombay to Calcutta took 3 days, mostly by train. Calcutta to Midnapore by boat for 2 days when Theodorine almost drowned. Midnapore to Balasore by bullock cart.
Finally, the most dangerous part of the journey through the jungles by “palanquin”. She was hoisted by four bearers, accompanied by eight bodyguards carrying torches to ward off the tigers. In the 36 hour journey, she encountered wild animals and “thugees”. At one village, the magistrate was a Brahmin would not give food to a Christian. The quick-witted Theodorine said, “But I am also very high caste. In my culture, I belong to the caste of Queens. I am a Ranee!” (After all, she told herself, I am a Bride of Christ). The situation changed rapidly. The Brahmin sent for a white cow, had it milked before her, and all the villagers turned up waving palms to accord her a royal welcome.
The Bad Times …
Sr. Theodorine ministered, fed, clothed and educated India’s poorest, old, sick and orphaned. She nursed them through the Great Famine of 1877, when Death and Disease were constant companions.
Her last years in India were overshadowed by the greatest catastrophe she had ever witnessed, the Bubonic Plague, with its terrifying symptoms and agonizing in its swift closing stages. Bandra Village was attacked early in 1897 and the population fled their houses and lived in palm huts, while the dead were carried away in cartloads.
Lord Sandhurst, the Governor, appointed a committee headed by General Gatacre, to combat the Plague on a war footing. Theodorine’s Sisters nobly offered their services and were appointed to various hospitals. Their efforts were nothing short of heroic. Sister Elizabeth died of the Plague and was christened the “Martyr of Charity” all over India.
Newspapers vied in praising the Sisters who endangered themselves, most without medical training, since they had left their classrooms to go to the Plague hospitals. General Gatacre wrote extensively of the Sisters’ fortitude in his Report to the Government.
In June 1898, Sr. Theodorine was made Honorary Serving Sister, by Lord Sandhurst, presented with documents and badge from HRH, the Prince of Wales.
And the good times ….
There were good times too, like the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria in 1887. The Government gave the children of the Orphanage free rail tickets to Bombay in a special train. So the whole population of St. Joseph’s enjoyed themselves that day in the Grand Procession, fireworks, and they picnicked royally. The Municipal Authorities gave Sr. Theodorine Rs. 50 to buy sweets for the children and they closed the day spellbound by the beauty and brilliance of the illuminations.
Now it is evening ….
Ill health compelled Sr. Theodorine to return to Europe in 1899, after 32 years in India. Her heart was in India and paradoxically, she felt exiled in her own country. As her health improved, she was back as Superior in the delinquent home where she started her career.
In 1901, Sr. Theodorine celebrated her Golden Jubilee. Good wishes flowed in from every home in Bombay Province, but most precious of all were from her Orphans, past and present.
On 5th March 1911, she went to the Lord.
From Monsignor Baunard’s funeral oration –
“In this great heart burnt a fire, whose heat turning to energy, gave motion to everything – in herself, and in all around her.
It was the love of Jesus Christ, of souls, of the Church.
The Cross was the great lever which served to lift everything heavenwards. She worked and suffered with all her being and with joy, her eyes always fixed on eternal things.
She finished her apostolic life in silence, in prayer and thanksgiving …”
Theodorine was a charismatic figure; in her care for the old and dying, she is the 19th century counterpart of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
150 years after Theodorine arrived in India, her legacy has endured. Today St. Joseph’s Convent, Bandra, a truly democratic institution, provides value education to girl children from every strata of society. We reckon Theodorine would just chuckle with pride.