18/20 October: Our Ladys Convent High School for Girls

Posted: 24 October 2017

If your idea of a nun is a gentle, timid soul who spends her days in quiet meditation think again. And if you have an image of a figure clad in black and white then you couldn’t be further from the truth. At least the truth as in the shape of Sister Lizzy Chakkalakkal from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and who is principal at Our Lady’s Convent High School for Girls.

     Sister Lizzy is, not to put too fine a point on it, a force of nature. When faced with a mountain of problems she doesn’t sing about climbing that mountain. She doesn’t even try to climb it, she just picks up the hem of her colourful sari and bulldozes her way through. 

     I met Sister Lizzy when I went to do some work with the girls at Our Lady’s. As I waited in her office drinking sweet masala tea, I looked as the many trophies won by the school under her guidance and leadership and as I took note of the number of community projects she had inaugurated I began to get a sense of what kind of person this lady was. And I was terrified. I was ten again and waiting outside the headmaster’s office on account of some minor misdemeanour. And as we know when you are ten and waiting to see the headmaster there is no such thing as a minor misdemeanour.

     Suddenly, to my left, there was a blur of bright orange and there, sitting across the desk from me, was a small, slight, bespectacled lady looking as much like a nun as Julie Andrews dressed in curtains. 

     ‘So, Mister Bill, you are a very famous musician.’ It was a clearly a statement, not a question.
     ‘Well hardly,’ I stammered. ‘In fact not at all.’
     ‘No, no, no. You are very famous. I have read your web site. We are very pleased that you have made time to come and visit us at Our Lady’s.’
     ‘Honestly,’ I began, fearing that perhaps there was another ‘Bill Adair’ they were expecting. The real ‘Bill Adair’, maybe, ‘I am not famous. I……..’
     ‘Come,’ said Sister Lizzy, ‘ I will show you the class.’ It was fairly evident that as far as Our Lady’s Convent was concerned I was the famous Bill Adair and you cant really argue with a force of nature.

     I worked with some of the girls at Our Lady’s for two days and it was amazing. It has all been amazing. The children here in all the schools I have visited are so eager to learn and to take part it just lifts your spirit. And nowhere more so than Our Lady’s.

     On my last day at the school Sister Lizzy asked if I could arrive in time for the morning assembly. The school doesn’t have an assembly hall so it is held around the quadrangle with the girls gathered on balconies around the space. Hundreds of them cheering as I walked into the quad. They made me feel like a rock star and I just loved it. I sang ‘Glory of Love’ for the school and then a small group made up from some of the girls I had worked with sang what had come to be known as ‘Ally Bally’. It is at time like these that you realise that you are being given much, much more than you could ever give. 

     Later in her office Sister Lizzie told me about some of the other work she and her order are involved in.
     ‘Many families here have no homes. Poor families, widows, children, they all need a place to call home. That is a fundamental human right.’
     ‘And can you help in some way?’ I asked.
     ‘Oh yes,’ replied this humble little woman with a mischievous smile on her face. 
     ‘What do you do for them?’
     ‘We build them a house. At present we have completed 70 family homes in Kochi.’
     The enormity of what she had just told me took a while to sink in but she went on to explain in a very matter of fact way.
   ‘You just build them a house? You make it sound so easy.’

   ‘It’s not as big a deal as you think. We set up the House Challenge Project and we generate sponsorship from local business people and individuals to pay for a house to be built, then we give it to someone who needs it. Children need to be safe and to have a roof over their heads.’
     ‘And who do they pay rent to?’ I asked.
     ‘No one. The house is theirs. They pay for electricity and water but the house belongs to them.’
     ‘That is truly amazing,’ I said.
     ‘Not really. Anyone can do it if you have the support of people who are willing to share without expecting anything in return.’
     Sister Lizzy then showed me some of the houses they had built and they were beautiful. She went on to tell me that only the very best materials were used without any kind of compromise on quality.
     ‘These are poor people. They cannot afford maintenance and renovation. And they should have the best.’
     Apart from her constant knocking on doors to get support for the project, the last house was built with a single donation from a retired banker, Sister Lizzy, the other nuns, her staff and some of the older girls all take part in what they call the Birthday Fund where they donate the money which would be spent on celebrations or presents. Force of nature doesn’t even come close to describing this little woman.

     Her school currently has 2800 attending and the school is in desperate need to update and replace 30 computers and a printer in the school’s IT suite.
     ‘It’s in God’s hands,’ she says, ‘ and he will provide us with what we need. I have seen him working in the school many times. In the young girl who needed a sponsor for her higher studies; in the builder who called to donate cement we needed for the construction of a house which almost failed because of a shortage; in the group of young people who came to offer their services, working in any way they could. God is always here. Maybe that is why you are here. Maybe he sent you to us.’ I couldn’t be sure but I am pretty certain that she winked at me. 
     I am a big foggy about that kind of thing but I am in no doubt at all that as long as Sister Lizzy and her team are at Our Lady’s Convent High School, things will happen, work will get done and not just for the school, but for the whole of that community.

   Later on I did some more work with about 40 of the girls and we recorded and videoed a few songs which was terrific. I am constantly amazed at the way the children here just embrace singing. I thought such an enthusiastic choir deserved a name and so I asked the girls to suggest some. Quite a few names were proposed before we all eventually decided on ‘Angel Voices of Peace’. Perfect. Look out for their video on my Facebook page.



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