In 1877, four CSMV Sisters set off from Liverpool to travel by ship to India, answering a call from the Bishop of what is now Mumbai to help him in Poona (now Pune). Over the next 100 years many Sisters answered the call to serve God among the people of Pune, founding schools and caring for the sick and vulnerable, particularly women and young girls. Their work is carried on today by local Christians through the Society of St Mary the Virgin in India (SSMVI) which we continue to support and pray for. That initial voyage lasted a month, but today a flight from London to Mumbai takes only 9 hours. This was the journey undertaken by Sister Stella, accompanied by Alastair Hunter (Chair of CSMV trustees), when they visited Pune in November 2019.
The legacy left by the CSMV Sisters is still very evident in Pune, not just in the buildings and institutions which the Sisters created, but also in the warm affection in which they are held and their influence on many of those now leading SSMVI. The convent building where the Sisters lived remains at the heart of the main SSMVI site at Panch Howd in Pune. Surrounding it are four institutions:
- Epiphany School with over 700 children aged from 4 to 16. Teaching is in English which is becoming increasingly popular among parents, even those who don’t speak English themselves, because they recognise that it will open up new opportunities for their children.
- St Michael’s Hostel which provides residential care for over 150 girls at risk. Many of the girls are orphans while others are affected by HIV-Aids or are the children of mothers suffering in prostitution or are from troubled or extremely poor families.
- St Hilda’s School educates over 500 girls, including those from St Michael’s Hostel. The children are taught mostly in the local Marathi language, with maths and science taught to the older girls in English.
- St John’s Home cares for a group of mostly elderly women as well as offering day care facilities for a small number of children.
At Lonavala, in the hills between Pune and Mumbai, is another school, on the site where the CSMV Sisters had a bungalow where they could rest from time to time. Now known as St Mary’s Convent – Shanti Sadan School, this school has 240 students and is hoping to grow following the appointment of a new principal. Since our last visit in 2017, the roofs have been replaced on a number of the buildings, helping to keep out the very heavy rains which affect the area at certain times of the year.
All these institutions are doing remarkable work with some of the most disadvantaged children in the surrounding areas, as well as with elderly women of very limited means. We saw this at first hand during our visit in November. And what a warm welcome we received. The children love to dance, and they put on a show for us when we visited each of the schools and St Michael’s Hostel. We were also lucky to be there for Epiphany School’s Annual Day. This is a real celebration of achievement. As well as the distribution of all sorts of prizes, the students put on a drama and dance show which tackled challenging issues such as damage to the environment, corruption in public life, and the dowry system and violence against women. It was inspiring to see the effort and passion of the young people.
There is little or no government support of SSMVI’s schools and other institutions. Parents and families give what they can towards the education and care which is provided, but many of them are extremely poor. The trustees of SSMVI are doing a remarkable job in raising money from local businesses and well-wishers, but lack of funds is holding back some of the investment that is badly needed to maintain and improve both the buildings and the quality of care and education. During the course of 2020, we will be exploring with the SSMVI trustees ways in which CSMV may be able to support some new initiatives and developments.
Individuals and churches can also support the really important work of SSMVI in Pune. Please pray for all those involved and for the children and residents in the schools and care facilities. You can give money by completing a donation form from our website. All the money you give will be passed on to help fund SSMVI’s work. What’s more, we will match every donation made – so each £1 you give will mean £2 going directly to benefit children and the elderly in Pune. During 2020, we will also be launching a sponsorship scheme so that individuals and churches in the UK can support the care and education of a particular child, receiving regular reports on how they are and their progress in school. To find out more, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.