Published as Karthavinte Naamathil in Malayalam in 2019 and translated into English by Nandakumar K, In the Name of the Lord is the first person account of Sister Lucy Kalapura, often referred to as “the rebel nun of Kerala”, expelled from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation on charges of repeated violations of the laws of poverty and obedience. The story it tells is not new.

Corruption within hallowed institutions and the brutal take down of those who stand up to it, is a recurrent theme in our religio-political history. Lucy Kalapura writes from within the system, building up a picture of oppression and authoritarianism within the Church, highlighting patterns of abuse. Her frequent conflicts with authority came to a head when she joined protests against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, accused of having raped a nun and subsequently arrested in 2018.

A story that must be heard

Sister Lucy’s vocal support of the protesting nuns, her appearances on television and her social media posts became the battleground over which the drama of her expulsion was played out. This book is a short memoir, bolstered with letters of complaint, applications and denials, other correspondence concerning her duties and the final letter of expulsion, all lending veracity to her claims and exposing the deep rot that plagues the system.

In his ‘Translator’s Note’, Nandakumar K writes, “[T]here are stories that must be told and must be heard. Hers is one of them.” Sister Lucy’s story belongs not just to her, but to all those other nuns who, like her, have been subject to patriarchal control within the institutions they have devoted their lives to. Her story is a witness account of gender-based oppression in the Church. Recognising the control exercised by parish priests over nuns, she writes of how nuns reconcile themselves to “an unholy and immoral life of bondage.”

Their social life is under strict control and there is very limited movement allowed in the world outside the cloister. They have no right or role in policy decisions and are to find satisfaction in their roles of subservience. Nuns are not allowed to give benediction and Sister Lucy’s attempt to do the same was seen as an invasion into priests’ territory and therefore, unacceptable.

She also writes of the neglect of the female body, where the nuns’ bodies are nothing more than inconveniences. Lack of access to appropriate menstrual hygiene products is just one of the daily humiliations that nuns are subject to. No monetary rights exist. Kalapura rightly interprets this as the devaluation of women, as she ruminates over the nature of power and authority and asserts, boldly, that the Church needs another Reformation, one in which progressive steps actually reach their logical conclusions.

Kalapura details the horrors of sexual abuse within educational and religious institutions, particularly when the two intersect. She writes of having witnessed the abuse of older students by the vicar in her secondary school. On sharing the same with her mother, she was told to never mention it to anyone else. The cloak of silence that shrouds sexual abuse is obvious in this and other instances that she narrates. She makes note of a vicar keen on feminine company, whether that of nuns or of choir girls.

In this account, as in others, sexual abuse emerges as a frighteningly common pattern. She also makes note of instances when she was molested by priests. There is a particularly harrowing narrative in the text about a nun who was sexually abused, was unable to cope with pregnancy, and was sent home to suffer shame and humiliation while the priest who had abused her continued with his parish duties.

She mentions the case of Father Robin Vadakkumchery who raped a minor and whose abdication from his post was sought by parishioners. The incident that catapulted Sister Lucy into infamy was, of course, her joining of the “Save our Sister” campaign against Bishop Franco. While a number of nuns of her own order, in what is a clear exposition of internalised patriarchy, were upset with her, she writes that she was enraged by the approach taken by the Church towards the complainant, a helpless and defenceless woman who had first been assaulted and was subsequently being subject to a smear campaign.

A step towards redressal

The Bishop, in an entirely unsurprising finale, was acquitted and reinstated in 2022 by a Kerala court. The book establishes at the very beginning that Lucy Kalapura chose the cloistered life as a way of serving others. However, some of her anecdotes skate perilously close to holier-than-thou territory, when, for instance, she writes of the great joy she experienced from having helped a girl from a poor family, as a young child herself. She was devoid of selfishness, in her own words, and could not even say bad things about people as an academic exercise: “My only wish was to do good to others. My heart pined for the site of happiness in others’ eyes.”

There are many such instances in the text that point to her innate predilection for charity and it can seem a little exaggerated, even self-aggrandising, but she explains it as the outcome of her immersion in religion and the teachings of Christianity: “I realised that the bliss that one experiences while showing mercy to a fellow being would take one closer to God.” The narrative also gets tedious when she details instances of other nuns within the cloister growing increasingly jealous of her or regularly ganging up on her and reducing her to a “persona non grata”.

However, counterbalancing this is the list of acts of persecution directed towards her. She was not allowed to attend her father’s funeral. Her projects were never approved, even when they were meant for charity. She was subject to systemic isolation and the expulsion when it finally happened, was blamed on the great crimes of learning to drive and buying a car, publishing a book, making television appearances and posts on social media, and wearing a salwar-kameez instead of a habit.

Lucy Kalapura, in her many years of service to the Church, was often labelled a rule breaker, insubordinate, and a troublemaker but her tremendous contributions to the Church, even more than her service, have been exactly all the same attributes that have won her these labels – her dogged determination to question, and her refusal to give up, even in the face of absolute opposition. The support she has garnered, online and in real life, is indicative of the value she has added to public discourse on abuse and power. In a patriarchal culture that protects men and their crimes, Lucy Kalapura’s exposé and its calling out of “invisible patriarchy” is a much-needed step towards redressal, however far into the future it might be.

In the Name of the Lord: A Nun’s Tell-All, Sister Lucy Kalapura, translated from the Malayalam by Nandakumar K, HarperCollins.