Italian nun’s mission to empower rural Bangladeshi women

Sister Philomena Alicandro might need to use a stick for walking but she is still full of life and enthusiasm despite her advanced age. Every day, after morning liturgy and breakfast, the Italian nun visits and oversees activities of the Women and Development Center in the premises of Queen Assumed into Heaven Church in Gopalpur in Natore district of northern Bangladesh. The church, covered by Rajshahi Diocese, has about 1,540 Catholics belonging to Bengali and ethnic minority groups. “When I first came here, I used to sit on jute sacks and offered sewing training for poor women who were housewives and had no source of earning an income for their families,” Sister Philomena from the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate (MSI) told UCA News in fluent Bangla, the national language. Her efforts inspired Italian missionary priest Father Angelo Canton from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) to build the center in 1989. Thousands of local women, Christian and non-Christian, received training from the center and changed their lives.

“From my childhood I wanted to sacrifice my life for poor people. As a nun I have found my mission in serving extremely poor and needy people in Bangladesh thanks to my religious order,” said Sister Philomena, who at 83 is the oldest among PIME nuns serving in Bangladesh. In normal times, the center employs about 70 poor rural women, both Bengali and indigenous, and produces various types of clothes for churches, handkerchiefs, school dresses for children and embroideries. Due to Covid-19, the center has scaled down production and has only 10 active women workers. Depending on work orders, these women can earn 3,000 to 5,000 taka (US$35-59) per month, while the income of the center is reinvested in production. “In the past women were looked down and oppressed in their families. I believed if I could help in their economic development, they could be free from abuse and earn respect,” the nun noted. Besides socioeconomic empowerment of women, the nun has taught in primary schools and offered catechism classes to Catholic children in every place she has been based in her more than five decades of Bangladesh mission.        A life serving the poor Sister Philomena Alicandro was born in Latina, Italy, on Jan. 28, 1937, the eldest of three daughters. She entered PIME and pronounced her first and final vows in 1961 and 1967 respectively. In 1966, she was sent to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to serve as a missionary in the north of the country. “When I came there was no institute to learn Bangla, so I learned it myself by mixing with people for years. The roads were pretty bad. I used to ride a motorcycle to visit women and train them in sewing in faraway villages,” Sister Philomena recalled.  The nun began her mission at Our Lady of Lourdes Church at Bonpara in Natore before moving to the PIME-run Leprosy Hospital in Dhanjuri in Dinajpur district. She was then based for years at Christ the Savior Church at Boldipukur in Rangpur district. While in the parish, she had the most dreadful experience in her missionary life. In 1971, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan through a nine-month bloody war that left about three million dead, about 300,000 women raped and some 10 million made refugees in India by Pakistan’s military and their local Islamist collaborators. Even during those violent days, the nun continued to visit women in villages and the military suspected she might be helping Bengali freedom fighters. “The military came to our house and wanted to arrest me. Local people rushed in and told them the truth that I was simply visiting women to train them in sewing. They were convinced and left,” the nun recalled. During the war, many Hindus and Muslims relied on priests and nuns to save their lives from military atrocities, and they sheltered in church compounds for months, she added. Since 1989, Sister Philomena has been serving people in Gopalpur through the center for women. She also pioneered a women’s society to encourage local women to be united and to save money for the future. In 2017, she and her women were greatly honored to prepare cassocks for the pontiff and priests for a grand public Mass in the capital Dhaka during Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh. “The pope wrote a personal letter to thank us,” the nun said.        Sister Philomena is happy that her efforts and the endeavors of many women activists and groups empowering women in the past have yielded fruit. “Due to lack of education and income, women used to be treated as slaves, which has largely changed, if not entirely. There is more work to do and I hope young nuns and activists will continue efforts to empower women,” she said. A pioneer in women’s development To many local women, Sister Philomena is a pioneer in women’s development and dignity, said Munguli Philomena Biswas, 50, an ethnic Paharia Catholic who has been involved with the center from the beginning. “Sister Philomena has been an umbrella for poor rural women like us. She has helped women to get rid of abuses in the family by earning money and respect. They have supported their family, educated their children and have a happy life,” Munguli, a mother of two, told UCA News. Many women learned the sewing trade here and found jobs in garment factories, she noted. “Due to Covid-19, orders have declined, but we hope things will change once the crisis is over,” she added. PIME nuns have been serving the country since 1953 and currently there are 66 nuns — 55 Bangladeshi and 11 foreigners. Meanwhile, Sister Philomena’s only regret is that she may not be able to breathe her last in Bangladesh as she wishes. “There is no old home for nuns in Bangladesh, so I might be asked to go back to Italy soon for old-age care services before death. I have placed my future in the hands of God,” the nun said.

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