The Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians, the first indigenous Congregation in North East India was founded on October 24, 1942, at Guwahati Assam by His Excellency Stephen Ferrando, SDB, the then Bishop of Shillong. By naming the Congregation after Mary Help of Christians, Bishop Ferrando erected a living monument in her honour in North East India. The Congregation became an Institute of Pontifical Right on 21 March 1977 during the Pontificate of Paul VI and in 1986, Don E. Vigano, sdb the Rector Major gave the Congregation official recognition as a member of the Salesian Family.
The Founder entrusted the government of the budding Congregation initially to the Salesian Sisters (FMA). In 1968, when Mother Nellie Nunes FMA was withdrawn, Sr. Magdaline Surin MSMHC who was the Vicar General of the Congregation guided the Congregation until the appointment of Sr. Mary Rose Thapa, as the first MSMHC Mother General, in 1970.
It was against overwhelming odds and difficult circumstances that the Congregation came into existence. The outbreak of World War II brought untold suffering to people everywhere, and North East India, being a border area, was subject to even greater hardships. The immediate consequences of the war, like the displacement of peoples, the influx of the refugees especially from Burma, the uncared or little cared for victims of war, poverty and misery, made the life of the people in the region pathetic. The massive ignorance and squalid hygienic conditions of the rural womenfolk called for genuine care and concern. In the hundreds and thousands of villages of Assam there were so many women and children who had to be instructed. Bishop Ferrando could not withstand the sad plight of the people of the region who were deprived of spiritual as well as material assistance. He could not think of leaving them to be doomed forever. So the idea arose that a Congregation of sisters who would visit villages, enter homes and huts and take care of the sick, gather children and stay in village, not for a few hours, but for weeks continuously.
He also realized that the future of the mission in the region depended on local vocations. Bishop Ferrando’s vision for the nurturing of local vocations found its most concrete expression in the founding of religious Congregation for women: Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (MSMHC). The Encyclical letter of Pope Pius XI appealing to the Bishops to create new religious communities was an incentive for Bishop Ferrando to transmit his vision and ideas especially his daring apostolic and missionary heart to a group of young girls.
In 1942 the first indigenous Congregation in North East India began to take its initial steps along its path of destiny. At that time there were eight girls in St. Mary’s Convent Guwahati, keen to offer themselves as apostles in the mission field. On 24 October 1942, Bishop Ferrando started the new Congregation with these eight girls as the first postulants who entered the novitiate that day. The novice mistress was Sr. Severina Schiapparelli FMA. On 8 December 1944 the seven novices, Agnes Surin, Blandina Tirkey, Elizabeth Kujur, Madgali Dhanwar, Mary Surin, Tulia Dumbria and Veronica Kujur dedicated themselves to the Lord. Bishop Ferrando presided over the ceremony of the religious profession of these first seven Sisters of MSMHC.
The Lord blessed the humble beginning with rapid growth and rich missionary harvest. Its unpretentious origins, growth in obscurity and hardship, and the immeasurable trust and faith of the Founder who believed in the power of the Almighty are monumental testimonies of God’s unbounded love and inscrutable ways. The fledging Congregation’s growth to maturity was interspersed with experiences, both positive and negative. With the passing of time they became growth-experiences helping to strengthen the conviction and deepen the commitment of the members.
The Founder entrusted the government of the budding Congregation initially to the Salesian Sisters (FMA). Sr. Luigina Saletta FMA was appointed the first Mother General of the young Congregation on 2 February 1955. In 1968, when Mother Nellie Nunes FMA was withdrawn, Sr. Magdaline Surin MSMHC who was the Vicar General of the Congregation guided the Congregation until the appointment of Sr. Mary Rose Thapa, the first MSMHC Mother General, in 1970. She held the office for three consecutive terms from 1970- 1988. Fr. Attilio Colussi SDB was the first spiritual director of the Congregation (1942 – 1965) and Fr. Noel Joseph Kenny SDB was the second spiritual director (1965 – 1995).
The Congregation became an Institute of Pontifical Right on 21 March 1977 during the Pontificate of Paul VI. Don E. Vigano, sdb the Rector Major, gave the Congregation official recognition as a member of the Salesian Family in 1986.
In the fourth General Chapter held in 1988 Sr. Elizabeth Packumala was elected the Second Mother General of the Congregation. She led the congregation from 1988 - 1999. The Chapter brought about changes in the administration of the Congregation and the Congregation was divided into provinces.
The Sixth General Chapter which was held in January 2000, elected Sr. Mary Thadavanal as the new Superior General of the Congregation. The Seventh General Chapter held in January 2006 re-elected her for the second tenure as the Superior General of the Congregation.
Fr. Attillio Colussi
God raises particularly gifted collaborators to work by the side of persons with a special mission. Fr. Atillio Colussi, the first spiritual director of the Congregation, was closely linked with the Congregation’s establishment and subsequent growth. The founder entrusted the young candidates to the care of Fr. Colussi knowing well that he would do justice to the task. Fr. Colussi was aware of the responsibility placed on him since Bishop Ferrando had to look after his flock scattered over a vast region and could not attend to the details of formation of the young candidates. With single-minded devotion, Fr. Atillio Colussi helped the founder to achieve the goals. His sincere and dedicated work of formation of the candidates bore visible fruits in the lives of the pioneers of the Congregation. One of the lasting monuments of his love for the Missionary Sisters is the Constitutions that he drafted, carefully capturing in them the missionary dimension of the Institute.
Bishop Ferrando often referred to Fr.Colussi as ‘the Father Pestarino of the Congregation’. Fr. Luciano Colussi sdb, describes him as ‘a Priest with a great heart’. “It was my joy and my responsibility before God, to help these young girls to realize their call to be missionaries,” Fr. Colussi recounted in later years. In the unavoidable absence of the founder who was busy in his missionary travels, the young members of the Congregation discovered a father in Fr. Atillio Colussi, to whom they could confide all their joys and griefs, their successes and failures. Even after his transfer to Calcutta, he was full of solicitude for the Missionary Sisters and kept himself informed about them and spoke of them to others as ‘my Sisters.’ Whenever the Sisters visited him at Calcutta he would show them same affection which he had for the pioneers of the Congregation. With his characteristic gaiety and cheerfulness, he deemed it a pleasure to be at their service. The Sisters, in their turn, lovingly treasured in their hearts his example and teaching.
An exemplary priest and Religious, Fr. Colussi was a zealous missionary and a lover of the poor. His simplicity and sincerity impressed people and attracted them to the person of Christ whom he proclaimed. He died on 2 November 1988, at the age of 81. The Missionary Sisters pay a rich tribute of love and gratitude to this valiant missionary whose guidance, interest and hard labour have contributed to fashioning the edifice of their memorable past.
Fr. Noel Joseph Kenny
When the Mother House and the Novitiate of the Missionary Sisters was transferred from Barpeta Road to Shillong in 1965, the founder desired to entrust the spiritual animation of the Congregation to a priest whose life was deeply embedded in spiritual values. Finding in Fr. N.J. Kenny, a rich reservoir of spiritual wealth, Bishop Ferrando appointed him chaplain of St. Margaret ’s Convent, Peachlands, on 20 February 1965. Right from the start, Fr. Kenny gave himself whole-heartedly to the task of directing and moulding the congregation and thus enriching the spiritual life of its members.
The past three decades have witnessed Fr. Kenny’s dedication and selfless services to the Missionary Sisters. He has made great sacrifices in updating the Constitutions of the Congregation in the light of the Decrees of Vatican II. He also prepared a commentary on the Constitutions and brought out a book entitled, A Way of Perfection. It was born out of his ardent love for the Congregation and his genuine interest in the sanctification of each of its members. He was instrumental in drafting the prayers contained in the prayer book of the Sisters, The Practices of Piety. The Congregation was privileged to have the inspiring presence of Fr. Kenny at all its General Chapters. He guided the deliberations of the Chapters and helped in formulating practical directives.
Fr. Kenny spared no pains in making himself available for regular classes on catechism, spirituality and religious life. One could find him joyfully going about his duties, administering the Sacraments, preaching, teaching, blessing, advising, encouraging and guiding both Superiors and Sisters alike. Like the wise builder in the Gospel, he laboured to lay the foundation of the spiritual life of the Sisters. His own religious life was a shining example for each of the Sisters to follow. His fidelity to duty, coupled with his deep interior life was radiated by his serene and jovial composure.
The sudden demise of Fr. Kenny on 8 November 1955, shocked and profoundly grieved the Sisters. They were totally unprepared to accept such an eventuality as Fr. Kenny was active even at the age of 85. He often mentioned that his mission in life gave him great fulfilment and ample reward. During his 30 years of service to the Missionary Sisters as their Spiritual director, he took fatherly pride in their overall growth and development. His commitment to God and to the people was an expression of a sense of fulfilment in the service of his Master. His sense of humour, simplicity of life, friendly and loving ways and his deep spiritual life have been a source of inspiration to all.
Sr. Mary Rose Thapa
Sr. Mary Rose Thapa was appointed to the office of the Mother General to be the first Mother General of the Congregation on 4 February 1970. The First General Chapter was held from 3 July 1972 at St. Margaret’s Convent, Shillong, with the special purpose of updating the Constitutions in accordance with the instructions given by the Holy See and also to adapt the apostolate of the Congregation according to the signs of the times. Thirty-four capitulars participated in the Chapter with Mgr. Orestes Marengo SDB, as the moderator of the Chapter and Fr. N.J. Kenny, the Spiritual director of the Congregation as the delegate of the Archbishop of Shillong. The Mother General convoked the Second General Chapter of the Congregation by her circular No. 13, dated 17 June 1975. There were two principal purpose of the Chapter. First, to elect the Mother General and the members of her council. Second, to make the needed amendments to the Constitutions before they were submitted to the ecclesiastical authority for formal and definitive approval. Sr. Elizabeth Packumala was the moderator of the Chapter. There were thirty-seven members. The Chapter lasted for a week. During the Chapter Sr. Mary Rose Thapa was elected for the second time as Mother General. Sr. Elizabeth Packumala was elected as Vicar General. The Chapter formed six Commissions for the study of various themes pertaining to the spirit and charism of the Congregation.
The Third General Chapter was held from 4 January to 15 January 1982. Sr. Mary Rose Thapa was elected Mother General for the third term. The main purpose of the Chapter was to study the suggested amendments to the Constitutions and Regulations. Don E. Vigano, the Rector Major, gave the Congregation official recognition as a member of the Salesian Family in 1986. The dream of the Missionary Sisters was fulfilled on 3 December 1987 when the mortal remains of the Founder were transferred from Italy to Shillong. The wish of Bishop Ferrando himself, to be buried in India was also fulfilled on this day. On the visit of Fr. Tarcisius Resto, the then Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Shillong to Genova, Bishop Ferrando’s concluding message was: “I want my bones to be buried in Khasi-Jaintia hills.” A solemn requiem Mass was celebrated in the Cathedral of Shillong on 12 December. The mortal remains were then taken in procession to St. Margaret’s Convent Chapel (Shillong) and interred in a tomb artistically designed by Fr. L.B. Anthony SDB.
Sr. Elizabeth Packumala
In the fourth General Chapter held in 1988 Sr. Elizabeth Packumala was elected the Second Mother General of the Congregation. The Chapter brought about changes in the administration of the Congregation. The Congregation was divided into three provinces, viz., Tinsukia, Tezpur and Shillong. The years between 1994-2000 were a period of revival and renewed activity in the Congregation. The qualitative and quantitative growth of the Congregation has brought greater vitality to the Catholic Church in North-east and to people in general.
The Fifth General Chapter of the Missionary Sisters was held in January 1994 in the new Generalate at Guwahati. It was the first after the erection of the three provinces. The Chapter re-elected Sr. Elizabeth Pakumala to the post of Mother General for a second term.
Sr. Mary Thadavanal