Olga Valladares (Article from Midday and the Afternoon Despatch & Courier)

Facets of the history of Bandra and the city across the Mahim Causeway are reflected in the story of the Daughters of the Cross in this part of the world.

Major calamities, minor needs and special trends are all mirrored in the nature of the work undertaken by this order of nuns which was established in Belgium by two sisters, 130 years ago.

By the name, Daughters of the Cross, they may not be easily recognisable, but by their works are they known to the city at large. To generations of Bombaymen they are familiar figures at St. Joseph’s Convent, Bandra; St. Elizabeth’s Nursing Home, Nepean Sea Road, St. Joseph’s Foundling Home, Byculla, or St. Catherine’s Home, Andheri.

The scene is set in December 20, 1958, when four nuns all Germans – Sisters Walburge, Amanda, Octavienne and Clarissa, arrived in Bombay at the invitation of Bishop Steins, and took charge of what was known as the “Native orphanage” or St. Vincent’s Home in Byculla. This institution was described as “a poor hut  in the Father’s compound. It sheltered some 20 people and a few children.” The purpose of starting this home had been to provide employment for women by taking in laundry. This scheme however, did not prove to be feasible, so the sisters switched to teaching them sewing and knitting instead.

The next year, the nuns transferred their activities to Bandra, to a small house in the “Village” which is not specified but which could be an ancient one. Parthawar, which is no longer in existence. Within a few day, cholera broke out taking several of the women and the children. The day-school had to be closed and the nuns moved to a small room in the compound of St. Peter’s Church on Hill Road.

Later, they moved to a small house close to St. Peter’s Church. “on the right side of the high road to Bombay. The road – Hill Road which was built in 1884, led straight to the Ghodbunder Road – the high road to Bombay.

Seven nuns formed the community living in one room. But in this house there were many “manisons” divided as it was by curtains into the dormitory, refectory, oratory, parlour, community room and infirmary. The zinc roofs leaked in the rain, and in the summer, magnified the scorching heat.

The women and children of the St. Joseph’s Institution as it was called in the early days, were lodged on the ground floor of the house. A small day-school was started in the village. Initially, the girls were taught needlework, and “the monotony of school hours was enlivened by their singing in Marathi.”

Attendance at the day school was irregular as parents were not too happy about sparing their children from the fields – rice and vegetables and coconut groves (some of which went to feed the city of Bombay). The orphanage, however, grew, swelled by each new disaster. Famine and epidemics contributed their quota. Children were brought by mothers who could not look after them: by widowed fathers who could not cope: or they were just abandoned.

There were children who had been abducted from their homes upcountry, and had been brought to the city to be put to a life of beggary. Rescued, they were put in the care of nuns.

Each famine made its own contribution to the home. Those were sad groups of little ones who came. They had to be fed, washed and deloused. Often they had to be housed separately till they learnt the ways of the new world. “These children young as they were,” says a report of that date, “had been used to pick up herbs and different plants to make their food, called badjee.” The year 1877 brought a particularly bad famine. The government organised rescue camps for the hordes that poured into the city, starved and very often ill. The sisters volunteered their services and travelled “twenty minutes by train daily to help out at these settlements.”

Though slave trade in Bombay was forbidden by a proclamation on February 26, 1805, it was apparently in existence even till a hundred years later, for the Bombay City Gazeteer (printed a hundred years later) lists among other duties of the water police, “watches for the import and export of slaves.”

The name, Eliza Jane, may ring a bell among those whose grandmothers of St. Joseph’s students. Eliza Jane was an African orphan. Her story went back to 1877, to a hut in Africa. She was abducted when playing in front of her mother’s hut, and dragged on foot through forests, till they came to a place where a number of other children had been congregated. There were also some women with babies. The whole lot were sold to another man who shipped them to “another country”. Very often, they changed hands. Eliza Jane or Phyda as she was then known, had four master even before she boarded the slave ship which was scheduled for Muscat. The live cargo was concealed among the shipment of coconuts. Their meals consisted of a few dates or a piece of coconut.

Before the ship had gone very far, they were intercepted by an English vessel. The captives were released from the Arabs and taken to Aden. Many children died of smallpox. Those that survived were brought to Bombay. “As soon as the news was spread that a cargo of slaves had been captured, people went to see them and to select whom they would adopt.” The weaker and the ill found themselves with the nuns. Eliza Jane was one of these. She grew upt in the convent, “a very hardworking girl,” and a figure well-known to successive generations of St. Joseph’s Convent girls.

In the meanwhile, the good deeds of the sisters had proclaimed themselves. Sir Bartle Frere, the governor of Bombay, visited the convent twice in 1865 and the next year again and he expressed his satisfaction at the work being done by the community.

By 1868, the nuns had moved to the opposite side of the road, the site of the present St. Joseph’s Convent, into a one-storeyed house for which they paid a monthly rent of Rs. 80. They were surrounded by a low hedge which separated them from an adjoining grove and the outside world. But this world very often intruded on them in the form of snakes – there were stories of cobras, vipers, green tree snakes and even a boa! There were other problems too – like frequent fires, and robbers in the woodshed.

Death often knocked at their door, as epidemics were frequent. Small pox and cholera took their toll. And when plague made its annual visitation, the sisters awaited the daily arrival of their day scholars in dread of the infection they might bring to the boarders if they did come, and if they didn’t, that they themselves had succumbed to the disease.

An extract from a report for 1905 records it as having been a particularly bad year: “The beginning of the year was as usual a time of great anxiety because of the plague – the name of which is feared in all the Coasts. There is hardly a house which the fatal disease allows to escape. For three months there were several empty places in our classes and an hour hardly passed without hearing the sad death bells announcing that a soul had left this valley of tears. Seeing that the poor victims were dying like flies, it was thought best not to ring the funeral bells any more, because it put fear into the hearts of the living giving them all the symptoms of this terrible malady.”

Already in 1899, two sisters had been awarded the cross of honour by Queen Victoria in recognition of the services rendered during the plague of 1897 in the suburbs of Bombay.

Water was a chronic problem in this part of the world, and apparently very badly felt by the ever-increasing community….Bad enough to find its way into the report of 1900 which recorded that they had “no water for our animals and for bathing every day.” They drew water from a nearby well which was surrounded by a stone wall. Digging up the stones to build up their fence they found a clear spring underneath which gave them an abundant water supply.

As the city of Bombay grew and metamorphosed, the convent developed with it to serve its, needs, extending its area and its scope. In Bandra itself, two educational institutions were established, adjacent to each other. Another convent was established at the Mahim Woods or Dadar as we know it. A foundling home was set up in Oometcarry (Umerkhadi) which as later shifted to Byculla. The St. Catherine’s Home at Andheri took care of unwed mothers and their children. St. Elizabeth’s Nursing Home was founded in a beautiful old bungalow at Nepean Sea Road.