Sister Mary Louise Cutinha (1933-2017)
Having entered the Franciscan Servants of Mary in 1953, Sister Mary Louise Cutinha served long years as a Franciscan in the rule of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis. She eventually followed Father Bede and joined the Camaldolese congregation in 1994. She did her monastic formation with the FSM sisters (est. 1852) in Blois, France, just south of Paris where she trained as a nurse and served for ten years. When she returned to India in the mid-1960s, she was put in charge of the FSM novitiate at Salem, Tamil Nadu. It was here that she discovered an element of spiritual dissatisfaction in her monastic life. But unable to identify the problem, a breakthrough came only when an English monk-priest, unknown to her then, came to give a day of reflection at the novitiate. Later, speaking of this day when she met Father Bede Griffiths, she exclaimed, “I felt an energy, like that of a gazelle passing through me”.
She was then sent to Switzerland for a two-year course on spirituality and there read something Father Monchanin had written about Shantivanam. Once back in India, she contacted Father Bede and in 1975, visited Shantivanam. She came again for a follow-up visit but when the agreed-upon time expired, she found herself unable to take leave of the forest Ashram she had already come to love. Thus, instead of returning to the relatively comfortable life of the FSM sisters in Bangalore, she chose a life of poverty on the banks of the Kaveri. Fr. Bede blessed her simple kutir made from Shantivanam earth on Easter Sunday in the Eucalyptus grove adjacent to the Ashram. In the months that followed, she gathered firewood from the surrounding forest and brought water from the river to cook her modest meals. Friends that came from France to visit were astounded at the severity of her meager living conditions. When the river broke bank in 1977 and her mud-hut was completely inundated, Father Bede turned up with a torch at 5am in the morning. Word reached well-wishers in France that she had fallen on hard times and offers were made to purchase the land to establish a small Ashram with proper living quarters. On 10th October, 1977, Father Bede laid the foundation stone, and on 26th March, 1978, Ananda Ashram was formally established.
Mary Louise cleared the brush and removed non-productive mango trees, planted coconut palms and banana trees, and registered and fenced the new parcel of land. The endowment from France allowed her to build a cowshed, more substantial living quarters and simple huts for visitors. A budding retreat ministry brought visitors from Europe and elsewhere. Together with the modest income her 8.5-acre plantation generated, she engaged in social outreach among local villagers. She hired those desperate for work out of concern for their well-being. The material aid she rendered was greatly enhanced by a loving heart and the personal concern she showed those who sought her help including the many pilgrims who came from around the world in search of a deeper encounter with their faith.
Her retreat ministry and outreach thrived for nearly four decades until the spring of 2012 when she suffered a heart attack. Cardiologists in Trichy said the condition (myocardial infarction) was serious and that beyond bedrest, no viable treatment protocol could be recommended. After several months of rest, at the end of 2012 she resumed some of her former duties. In April 2016, however, she suffered another medical setback and was bedridden.
The final year of her life was spent principally in her quarters under the care of Sister Neethi, Sister Mercy and Sister Sanjeevani where she received occasional visitors. On Friday, 10th March, Sister Marie Louise, affectionately called by all who knew her ‘Amma’, became very weak. On 11th March, when her close friend Fr. X. D. Selvaraj celebrated Mass in her room together with Sr. Neethi and Sr. Mercy, Amma received communion and managed to swallow a few drops of water. But this was the last she ate or drank. The next day, on Sunday, 12th March around 8.45 pm, she peacefully breathed her last.
The funeral mass took place in the chapel at Shantivanam on Tuesday, 14th March with most Rev. Anthony Devotta, Bishop of Trichy presiding and Fr. Selvaraj giving the homily. Br. Martin offered an introduction and Sr. Neethi presented the eulogy. Gathered were 150 friends, monastic sisters and brothers and family members. Her remains were interred at a site in Ananda Ashram, just opposite the entrance to the chapel at Shativanam.
Born Carmin Cecelia to a devout Catholic family in Mangalore, Karnataka on 12th July, 1933, Sister Mary Louise was the third of four children. She is survived by her younger brother, Edward Cutinha, and is mourned by the many who came to know and love her over the years of her long monastic career.
[The foregoing is based on the eulogy delivered by Sr. Neethi (and other sharings from the funeral Mass) on 14th March, 2017 as well as on anecdotes from community members, family and friends; compiled and edited by Michael Highburger]
Black/white photo taken by New York photographer James Nicholls, Jan 2009