Every morning, there's a little magic on display in a bylane of Bandra (West). Ragged, filthy homeless people gather outside a small room, file in one by one, and emerge fresh, clean, smiling - often well-fed too, and in a fresh set of clothes.
Offering them this haven is a
60-year-old nun, Sister Christobel Fonseca.
"Most people choose to educate the homeless or teach them saleable skills," she says. "I decided to offer them something they won't get elsewhere - the joy of being clean and wearing clean clothes."
For Sr Christobel, it all began in 1992, when the nun - then part of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity - was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors gave her five years to live. "It was a very difficult period," she says, still on her feet 22 years later.
While she was being treated at a hospital in Mumbai that year, Mother Teresa visited her and gave her a red rose. "That visit was like a miracle for me," says Sr Christobel. "I soon went into remission."
Sr Christobel continued to serve with Missionaries of Charity for another six years. "I had joined at age 22, determined to devote my life to helping others," she says.
Then, a few months after Mother Teresa's death, Sr Christobel came across a maggot-ridden leper outside a church in the suburb of Vile Parle.
"I was disturbed by his condition. It made me think about how I would have felt, in my time of sickness, if I had had no one to care for me," she says.
On that day, Sr Christobel decided to leave the Missiona-ries of Charity, where she had served for 25 years, and set up her own congregation of nuns, dedicated to directly offering the ailing urban homeless some human comfort in the form of a bath, a shave, a haircut, a hot cup of tea and a fresh set of clothes whenever possible.
Thinking back to Mother's rose and how it had helped her, Sr Christobel called her non-profit organisation Mother Teresa's Roses.
For the first few months after she launched the non-profit in 1998, Sr Christobel worked on the street outside Bhabha hospital. Then a local municipal official offered to help and allotted her a small room near the hospital, which she has divided into a kitchen and a washroom.
By 2002, donations of money and clothes began trickling in steadily, and the nun started the Sister Christobel Trust.
Over the years, eight other nuns have joined Mother Teresa's Roses - all former members of the Missionaries of Charity. When the number of members reaches 25, the church will officially declare it a congregation, a type of religious order.
Meanwhile, the group, aided by a steady stream of volunteers, now serves 1,500 homeless people each month.
"We also scour the streets for homeless people and ask if they want to come in for a clean-up, fresh clothes and some hot khichdi," says Sr Christobel, adding that she always wears a red rose pinned to her habit when working at the tiny centre - to symbolise her inspiration, and her love of direct service.
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