KARUNAGAPPALLY, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - The discovery of a nun's corpse in India represents the latest in a string of suspicious deaths from convents.
The dead body of Sr. Mable Joseph was found on April 16 in the well of a convent at Kureepuzha, near the town of Karunagappally in the Kollam district of Kerala.
The 42-year-old Sr. Joseph reportedly left a note in her room saying she was committing suicide because she was unable to bear the pain of her physical ailments. It also said her body would be in the well. Police suspected it was a suicide.
She was a member of the Pious Workers of St. Joseph, an Italian congregation that manages Maria Agnes English Medium School in Kureepuzha.
Sister Joseph's body was discovered when sisters of the convent went looking for her after she did not attend morning prayers.
A case of unnatural death was filed by the convent sisters. Police said they are conducting an investigation, and the autopsy report will be published.
However, local media and social media reports are linking the incident to suspected sexual violations and murders over the past few decades. Indeed, within the time span, more than 20 nuns have been found dead in India under mysterious circumstances.
The body of 45-year-old Sr. Jaseena Thomas, a member of the Missionary Congregation of the Daughters of St. Thomas, was found Feb. 14 in a pond in the Vazhakkala area of Ernakulam district. During lunch, other members of the convent noticed that Sr. Thomas had gone missing. The convent authorities said Sr. Thomas was suffering from depression. She had been taking medication for a decade-long mental illness. Church officials said it was suicide, but local people say it was murder.
In Karnataka, in southwest India, 28-year-old Sr. Mary Sendra Vianney, a member of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Convent, was found dead on Dec. 4, 2019. Her dismembered body was discovered on railroad tracks near the town of Hubli. Police investigated the death as either a suicide or foul play.
Another incident occurred on Sept. 9, 2018 at Pathanapuram in the Kollam district of Kerala, when 54-year-old Sr. Susan Mathew, who had been a teacher and member of the Mount Tabor Convent under the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, was found dead. Her body, bearing deep cuts on her wrists, was found floating inside the convent well. Police said her case was an unnatural death but that it was unclear whether it was a murder or suicide. Mathew had been under treatment for a long illness, police said.
On March 27, 1992, Sr. Abhaya was found dead in a water well in St. Pius X Convent in Kottayam of Kerala. At first, police reported it was a suicide. But Sr. Abhaya's father, Ikkarakunnel Thomas, waged a 24-year-long legal battle to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his daughter. Further investigations were launched following suspicions voiced by family and campaigners. The effort paid off when an Indian priest and nun were jailed for her murder. BBC News reported Fr. Thomas Kottoor and Sr. Sephy killed the nun in 1992 and destroyed evidence after Sr. Abhaya came across them engaged in illicit sexual activity.
While suspicious deaths of Catholic nuns have occurred with alarming frequency, too often, Church authorities in India haven't pushed for a police investigation. Instead, they have filed "unnatural death" inquiries. As a result, police haven't pursued the kind of investigations that could lead to murder convictions.
On the other hand, India is a male-dominated country, a country in which nuns fear speaking against priests and bishops out of fear of becoming sexual victims.
A nun from Kerala who doesn't want to publish her name explained to Church Militant:
Nuns work under supervision of bishops. So if any nun becomes a victim of any priest or bishop, they don't want to disclose it. Although sometimes sexually persecuted nuns share [their stories] with their congregation superior, most of time the superior and bishops try to fix it by discussion instead of taking legal action.
"Therefore, nuns wouldn't open their mouths if they were sexually abused by priests or bishops," she added.
She also indicated that if priest scandals came to light, acceptance of the Church by the faithful would decline. So Church authorities want to hide such incidents, she noted.
Many faithful have suggested convents in India should remove their water wells by filling them with mud and planting trees to prevent this seemingly reoccurring method of suicide. Thomas Sebastian, a Catholic of India, remarked that all convent wells should be removed.
But he also clarified:
I thought it is better to close down the convents altogether. Our society needs to rethink its relevance today. The Franco Mulakkal incident [an incident involving a bishop raping a nun] has shown they [nuns] are a source for not only cheap labor but also cheap or free sex for the hierarchy in the Church.
Mary Joseph, a college student of Kerala, affirms nuns should be treated appropriately by priests and bishops.
"I think many young girls enter in formation house because their families are needy," said the student. "They come for education and shelter but fail to discover their religious vocation, and this is how they become mentally sick and attempt to kill themselves."
She added that all nuns should be respected and not treated like "slaves," especially by priests and bishops.