As children, Helen Mahoney, May Malouf and their cousins in Australia, heard about their “Special Aunty May” who lived in India even before they saw her.
Fondly known as “Mother”, 86-year old Sister Mary Theodre, founder of MITHRA, a centre for the differently-abled, passed away on December 7. But for those at the centre, this Australian-born nun’s presence is still tangible.
One of eight siblings in a large family, then 26-year-old Sister Mary left Australia and came to India in 1951, and later Mylapore, because as her niece Ms. Mahoney put it, “all she ever wanted to be was a nun”. Sister Mary, who joined the Franciscan Missionaries, decided to start MITHRA (Madras Institute to Habilitate Retarded Afflicted) in March 1977, to care for the differently-abled. “She did not return to Australia for almost 30 years after she left,” recalls Ms. Malouf.
“She had a special gift with the children at MITHRA, she brought out the best attributes in them,” says, Ms. Malouf adding, “She once narrated how the children refused to be put to bed until she arrived on a midnight flight.”
In a recording of Sister Mary played at the centre on Monday, she speaks emphatically about how she wants to help differently-abled children do “something beautiful”.
Brother Rob Callen, who has been bringing students from Australia to intern here for the past 25 years, recalls how the centre had simple buildings and roofs made of palm-leaves back then. The centre now has an occupational therapy unit, physiotherapy unit, a school, vocational training unit, hostel, a tailoring unit, and the Shrine of Divine Mercy.
V.C. Hemalatha, principal, St. Rose’s Special School, observes that several students who passed out of the school, are now employed at the institution itself and have been given vocational training. The school, which has a total strength of 175, has both day scholars as well as residential students.
“Sr. Mary was very involved in the running of the school and the performance of students. The teachers had to report to her on given days, and brief her about the running. When she was well, she would come everyday to school and interact with the students,” Ms. Hemalatha says. She remembers “Mother” as someone who was punctual, determined and affectionate.
On what lies ahead, Ms. Mahoney says that three Servite Sisters have been working with her aunt since January to advance her vision for this institution. One of them is Sister Rosamma. “Ever since I came, she was bed-ridden, but that did not deter her from being involved. She would always refer to students by their names, and inquire about the their progress,” says the sister.
Sr. Mary received awards such as the Medal of the Order of Australia and Asialink Dunlop Medal.
MITHRA was visited by Janette Howard, wife of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, says Ms. Mahoney. “We are expecting close to 1,000 pseople to attend the service,” she adds. The funeral service is on Tuesday morning at the Shrine in Anna Nagar.