The nun

Sister Pushpam Gnanapragasam reflects on why Jaffna people describe themselves as “our people”, when the first French missionaries arrived in Jaffna and the role the nuns played during the last months of the war. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.

Join the discussion: 3 comments

  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    Through large wrought iron gates from Main Street just outside Jaffna town, I walked to the impressive buildings of the Convent of the Holy Family.    
    A young nun greeted me at the door. When I told her about the i am project, she seemed to know exactly who I should speak to. She returned with 85 year old Sister Pushpam Gnanapragasam, a tiny nun who had the warmest smile. 
    Articulate and engaging, we spoke beneath a painting of the founder of the French mission, Father Pierre Bienvenue Noaulles. She was an authority on his life and the history of the convent.

    Sister Pushpam talked to me about the first nuns from France who came as missionaries to Jaffna in the 1860s. Her English was impeccable and also it appeared her French: she had translated into English the letters of the French Holy Family missionaries between 1862 to 1886 in a private work kept in the convent library. I managed to convince the nun to read an excerpt from one of the letters home. Listening to Sister Pushpam took me back to another time, when these same rooms would have been filled with the voices of French nuns, trying to adapt to the heat and their new environment, and even trying out a little Tamil.

    Sister Pushpam said that her contemporaries would also have been interesting elders to talk to, but were now too frail to communicate. She had been in Rome during the worst years of the conflict in the 1990s and thought that their decline had a lot to do with the stresses of war. We finished our conversation with a compelling narrative recollecting the experiences of the younger nuns from the convent during last months of the war in 2009. She referred to them as “our nuns”, and I cheekily asked her what she meant by the phrase. Was there a difference? Her response was eloquent and honest.

    Later back in Colombo, I received a letter from Sister Pushpam. wrote, “You are actively working to create awareness and to bring about a renewed sense of community … May God, the source of all that is good, bless you and guide you always”. She enclosed a card with blessings for Diwalli, the Hindu festival of lights. Forget emails and new media, I was thrilled to get this handwritten letter in the post from Jaffna. Sister Pushpam’s words of encouragement made me realise even more how important sharing narratives from elders can be in contributing towards reconciliation.

  • ThanuT (Thanu T) says:

    A beautiful project with meaningful stories.

    @iam_project. #SriLanka #Diaspora #Tamil #Sinhalese

  • (@iam_project) (@iam_project) says:

    Nuns’ day of rest and reflection but Sister Pushpam made an exception to see me. Original story:


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