Sister Nektaria of Calcutta: The “Mother Teresa” of Orthodoxy
by Kelly Fanarioti
The ideals of the Christian Orthodox faith–love and self-sacrifice—have been promoted the last 25 years in the heart of one of the toughest places on earth by a Greek nun from Korinthos: Nektaria Paradisi.
Through her missionary work in Calcutta, India, this 66-year-old woman has taken on the heavy load that would otherwise be unbearable: she runs five schools in villages where there are Orthodox churches and communities, five clinics in remote areas, 12 churches, daily cooked food to the disabled and elderly living in the streets, an Orphanage for girls, “Theotokos,” which hosts 98 girls, and an Orphanage of boys, “Agios Ignatios,” which hosts 50 boys.
It all started in 1993 when the Greek Orthodox Church, and Father Ignatios Senis and Sister Nektaria Paradisi, created the Philanthropic Organization of the Orthodox Church in Calcutta to help all those who were cut off from society: slums dwellers, the illiterate, the orphaned, and the sick. A few years ago, Father Ignatios was ordained Metropolitan of Madagascar, and so all the weight then fell on Sister Nektaria.
As she told NEO, when she first came to India she was forced to survive under extremely difficult conditions, without electricity or water. She initially started providing assistance to remote villages hours from any city and organized a breakfast room to serve homeless children who usually spent their nights in cemeteries. “There was much poverty: starving children and teenage mothers with babies in the arms. Τhese images were an everyday phenomenon that I could not overlook. They were not all Christian, but that did not matter. We do not ask whether someone is an Orthodox, Muslim, or Hindu. He is a human being who suffers. Jesus Christ was crucified for all, regardless of religion,” she says.
The images of the defenseless girls were perhaps the ones that shocked her most and led her to the founding of the first orphanage in 1997. She bought a tract of land in an area outside Calcutta that was more affordable, and within two years she had accepted the first girls, who now have grown up and raised families of their own. “By the time I stepped foot here, I wanted to help those homeless girls who were often raped by drunken men in the area. I cannot not save all of India, but I wanted to help somehow.”
In the women’s orphanage there is an English school with teachers who Sister Nektaria pays herself through donations. “Here in India if young girls are not educated, they have no future. Their weapon is education: otherwise, they cannot stand on their feet.”
One tragic loss for her last year was the disappearance of two underage girls, Ropali and Sonali, who were under her protection since they had been young, because their mother had died and their father had disappeared. “It was Sunday, we were drinking our tea, when their father suddenly came and asked me to take them for a day at home. Their mom had a small piece of land, which he and his relatives claimed, and he wanted the children to present them as legitimate heirs. I let him take them on condition that he return them the next day because they had school. But the days passed and the children did not reappear. I learned from their relatives that one of them had been sold in marriage to an elderly person for a fee. He had sold his daughter. I never found out what was the other girl’s fate.”
According to Sister Nektaria, the role of women in Calcutta is still lowly and degraded. From the window of her cell, she sees women every day loaded down with sacks while their men ride the donkeys. There have been several occasions when these women have tried to take refuge in the female orphanage or mission to escape from their abusive husbands. “Recently, a worker asked me not to give her the money she is entitled to, but to keep it, because her husband would take it all from her,” she says, pointing out that there is a local mafia in the area. “You should not be afraid of them, because if they sense fear, they will take advantage of you. They want to have control over everything: they give me orders. But you need to defy them with courage.”
Her daily regimen is very strict: she wakes up at two-thirty in the morning and responds to emails from all over the world. At six she goes to school to prepare the children for lessons, which start at eight. “By 11 at night I’m at bed,” she says. “There are times when I even forget to eat. But the smiles of the orphans are my strength.”
Currently, Sister Nektaria is going through a particularly rewarding period because of the fulfillment of her dream of building a school accredited with the Ministry of Education where students can conduct PanHellenic examinations for their admission to the University. ”Who says that miracles do not happen,” she says with a smile. “My miracle was to build this school based solely on the donations and tremendous support of the Greeks from every corner of the globe and now the official opening of the school will take place on May 4th.”