Letter writing is something that sets apart the convent-educated and those public-schooled, believes Akshay Rao, 31, an old boy of St Joseph’s Bangalore. “No public school passout will know which side to put the address or date,” he says.
But for every two people with a rosy memory of their convent school days, there’s one who hated it. “The nuns were bitchy to me,” says Ipshita Saini, 28, a Mumbai-based producer who went to the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Shimla. In class seven, she was criticised for her embroidery pattern. Saini still hasn’t been able to live down the wrath of “a frustrated woman in a habit”.
There’s news for both Sharma and Saini. The old order — good or bad — changeth. In fact, much has already changed. A larger number of missionary schools today are being run by non-missionaries — the laity is taking over the diminishing clergy.
Sister Anne of the Holy Innocent School, a co-education convent in Coonoor, confirms this. “Fewer people are joining our vocation,” she says softly. Loreto Convent in Delhi, for instance, has just two retired nuns on its premises.
“People are more materialistic. We live in a consumerist society. There aren’t many for self-sacrifice,” offers Sister Anne. Father George Gispert-Sauch, 79, validates the charge. The Jesuit priest says, “We assume that only half of those who join the order will become priests.” He should know — this Sanskrit master has been teaching priests for decades at the Vidyajyoti Theological College in Delhi.
Though his own order has bucked the trend and has grown in India, Gispert-Sauch can see the writing on the wall. “Success has become more important than service. Then there can be spiritual fatigue. Yes, a boy can also fall in love with a girl,” he explains.
The big shift started way back in the 1950s, when the government started refusing visas to foreign missionaries.
“Matters took a turn after the 1956 report,” says Gispert-Sauch, referring to the report of the Committee on Christian Missionary Activities that told the Madhya Pradesh government that some Christian missionaries were using ‘illegal’ methods such as money-lending to convert tribals. Under pressure from a militant Jana Sangh, the state pushed the report to national prominence. The inflow of missionaries was stanched. Gispert-Sauch, who came from Spain in 1949, has been refused citizenship three times. Coupled with ‘spiritual fatigue’, it has led to a point where, as Sister Anne puts it, “the call centres have taken over”.
Father Alphonse of the Delhi Archdiocese offers a sociological reason: lack of “new blood”. “Christians now only have one or two kids. Very few parents want to see their boy turn priest.” None of the 400 families in his parish has expressed a desire to let their children into church service — a view corroborated across India.
Result: Missions incomplete
Does the dwindling number of people in habit — foreigners or Indians — affect the quality of education? Dhruv Nath, 51, who studied at St Xavier’s School in Ahmedabad, says, “More inter-faith teachers is a great phenomenon, but the teaching style has changed. For instance, you don’t pay attention to pronunciation anymore. If you’re in Delhi, you end up sounding like a thet Dilliwala (typical Delhiite).”
Many of those who taught the finer points were non-English themselves. “Those from abroad had to prove themselves in a foreign land. So they strove harder,” says Gispert-Sauch, whose first language is Catalan.
What lay people lack is perhaps the unremitting focus on value-based education — the reason many parents sent their children to convents. But then, if the debate is between higher marks and a well-rounded human being, we know where we stand, don’t we?
With inputs from Amitava Banerjee, Ruchira Hoon, Paramita Ghosh, Sumegha Gulati and Amitava Sanyal
(Some names have been changed on request)