The Nun Who Was Banished for Learning to Drive
Sister Lucy Kalapura spoke out against a bishop accused of rape. Then the Catholic Church expelled her … for driving, they said.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she is challenging the church.
Every time Sister Lucy Kalapura attempts to start her “automatic” Maruti Suzuki, it screeches to a halt. Wry amusement covers her face as she pulls out the key — the face of Jesus Christ dangles from the keychain — and gets out of the driver’s seat. “To think the car would give up on me when I have to fight the toughest fight of my life because of it. Funny, right?” quips the 53-year-old nun from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation of the Catholic Church of Kerala.
A year after Kalapura rose to prominence as one of the main faces of the protests by nuns in India demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal — he is accused of raping a nun from the Punjab-based Missionaries of Jesus — her congregation dismissed her for “learning to drive a car, taking a loan to buy a car and publishing a collection of poems,” according to a letter it sent her.
The approval for her expulsion came from Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, based out of Vatican City, and the Rev. Giambattista Diquattro, the Vatican’s representative in New Delhi.
But the petite Kalapura, who has a smile that never leaves her face, is not the kind to give up so easily — not on her car or what she claims is “a 100 percent injustice” meted out to her.
It is a gendered decision; the Catholic Church still is in the 16th century.
Sister Lucy Kalapura
Born to a Catholic family in Kasargod district in Kerala, Kalapura started training to be a nun as a teenager because her mother wanted her to become one. She chose the Mananthavady congregation, she says, “because I saw more poverty in the area and wanted to help people out.”
The cause of Kalapura’s rupture with the church was Mulakkal, the then bishop of Jalandhar in Punjab, who was arrested by the Kerala police last September after a nun alleged he repeatedly raped her between 2014 and 2016 in Kerala. Mulakkal is out on bail, with the case pending. Shortly before his arrest, the Catholic Church had relieved Mulakkal of pastoral responsibilities, upon his request. Mulakkal is still with the Jalandhar parish, and wields a lot of power, according to reports by Indian media. (Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, a clergyman who had given a statement against Mulakkal to police, was later found dead at a church. The case remains under investigation.)
In January, Kalapura says, she received a letter from the church asking why she had spoken out against Mulakkal and aired her views in “non-Christian” publications. She was expelled after justifying her actions. “It is a gendered decision; the Catholic Church still is in the 16th century — a patriarchal world. I am being thrown out on the basis of such petty allegations and Franco still continues to be part of his parish. It’s unfair,” she says, stating that she refuses to call Mulakkal “Bishop” as the title doesn’t suit him.
“Basically, the Catholic Church doesn’t want a dissenting voice in their midst,” Kalapura tells me, fixing her curly black hair as the town gives way to the undulating hills deep in rural Kerala.
When the superior of Kalapura’s convent asked her 84-year-old mother to come take Kalapura and her belongings away, the nun refused to leave. She was then confined inside the convent by senior nuns, according to a police report filed by Kalapura. Soon after, Father Noble Thomas Parackal and five nuns of the congregation shared closed-circuit TV footage of Kalapura entering the convent with two men to show the world her “disobedience.” (Kalapura says the men were journalists asking about her dismissal.)
She’s fighting it out in the courts, she says, to pave the way for other nuns to speak their minds. It isn’t the first time Kalapura has challenged the church. A few years ago, she was “ostracized” for asking if she could wear lay clothes instead of the habit, citing health reasons stemming from Kerala’s brutal heat. “Even my teenage students understood the problems; the church did not,” says Kalapura, who has been teaching math at a government-aided diocese-run school for the past 23 years.
Now, instead of a habit she sports a black-and-white salwar kameez. “They’ve expelled me, no?” Kalapura says, laughing. She is becoming a cause: A large rally in Kerala on her behalf is scheduled for Thursday.
Helping Kalapura frame her every legal move is John NJ, a retired school principal in his 80s and a member of a Catholic association in Kerala. Kalapura fondly calls him “brother.” The living room walls of his bungalow in Kolagapaara Kavala are adorned with pictures of Jesus Christ, and there’s a Bible on the coffee table. “Unlike in Europe, the congregations here are not free from the clutches of the priests, who are framing whatever rule they want to,” NJ says. “No one is allowed to question them. Everyone is just supposed to pray, pay and obey!”
This could change if a 2009 act to regulate Christianity in the state is finally implemented, which NJ says will force the Catholic Church to conform to Kerala’s laws. “If Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims have their set of religious state laws, why shouldn’t we?” he asks.
Professor Pius Malekandathil of the Center for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, a Catholic himself, disagrees, saying that congregations’ rules are applied consistently. As for Kalapura’s case, Malekandathil admits he hasn’t followed it closely; nonetheless he argues that her dismissal doesn’t have anything to do with the rape case because she was one of several nuns to attend a protest march — and no others were expelled.
“She had been warned several times for breaking [the] rules of the congregation; but, from what I hear, she had not listened to them,” Malekandathil says. He claims that driving is permitted for nuns across India (the congregation did not respond to repeated requests for comment). “The main problem, in my opinion, was that she bought a car. There is no space for individual wealth at a religious congregation,” he adds.
Back on the road, on a steep climb to a church close to her parish, Kalapura’s eyes moisten even as her laughter continues to echo. “God teaches us to love, to ensure evangelization,” she says. “Tell me I have failed to do any of those, I’ll quietly step aside. But no, I will not let hatred and jealousy win even if I get killed.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Sister Lucy Kalapura
- What’s the last book you read? I’m reading the Bible again. Every time, there is something new to learn from it.
- What do you worry about? I have no worry.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Seeing people smile and smiling myself.
- Who’s your hero? I am my own hero.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to ensure that I am able to make people aware that we are all one; religion, caste, creed, politics, wealth — none of that matters.
Read more: This YouTubing nun helps Russian Orthodoxy stay relevant.