By Stephan Uttom Rozario and Rock Ronald Rozario
Beneath the smoky Garo hills and green forests, a small white crucifix splashed by dewdrops dazzles in soft sunlight on a late January morning in the remote village of Madhabpur in northeast Bangladesh.
The crucifix beholds the memory of Sister Sueva, a nun from the Missionaries of Charity (MC) congregation founded by St. Teresa of Kolkata.
Nicknamed Neelpori (blue fairy) because of her prolific dancing and acting in her schooldays, Sister Sueva was killed by rebels in Sierra Leone in 1999 during a civil war in the West African country.
“She once said she joined the MC congregation because she loved the poor and destitute. She also liked the distinctive white cotton sari with blue borders the nuns wear,” Nidra Chanchala Asacra, 45, younger sister of the slain nun, told ucanews.com.
“She had a short but great life and we believe she is with God with her blue-bordered sari soaked in the blood of a martyr. We miss her every day and sometimes I see her in my dreams.”
Sister Sueva and her colleagues looked after a center for disabled children in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. They were also serving the poor and war victims with food, clothes and medicines before the rebels asked her and her fellow nuns to stop their service. The nuns refused.
The young rebels held five nuns hostage for more than two weeks. One unruly rebel shot dead two nuns including Sister Sueva on Jan. 22, 1999. Two days later, they released the other three.
The blue fairy of Madhabpur died at the age of 43.
She was buried in Sierra Leone with her Kenyan colleague. MC sisters in Bangladesh later managed to take some soil from her grave and hand it to her family.
A remarkable journey
Sister Sueva was born on Jan. 6, 1956, to a non-Christian family belonging to Bangladesh’s indigenous Garo group, an ethnic mongoloid tribe. The fifth of seven children, she was named Sujila Susana Asacra.
The family followed Sangsarek, a traditional Garo religion close to nature worship.
From grades four to eight, she studied at the Catholic Church-run St. Joseph’s Primary School in Ranikhong in Netrokona district, covered by the predominantly Garo diocese of Mymensingh.
“We went to school together and we were fond of music and drama. Together we also participated in carol singing. She was a lovely girl, easily mixed with everyone and cared for the welfare of everyone around her,” brother Shachindra Asacra, 75, told ucanews.com.
Four years in the school changed Sujila’s life forever. She was attracted to Christianity and requested her father to allow her to become a Catholic. Initially, her father was disappointed but later allowed his most lovable daughter to do what she was yearning for.
Sujila became a Catholic in 1968 at the age of 12. Her siblings soon followed in her footsteps but her parents continued practicing their old religion.
In 1980, she joined the MC congregation. She took her first vows at MC headquarters in Kolkata, India, in 1984 and her final vows in Rome on May 24, 1989.
Years before she was killed, her whole family including her father became Catholic, thanks to Sister Sueva’s inspiration.
Sujila was an average student. She failed to pass her secondary school finals despite two attempts and her poor English was criticized by teachers.
Yet she defied all the odds to become a dedicated missionary and worked in the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Japan, Israel, Yugoslavia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.
She wanted to visit Bangladesh again in 2000 but her untimely death prevented that trip.
“My sister accomplished good works in the name of Jesus and died a martyr’s death. I believe she is in heaven now and the church needs to take the initiative to make her known to people and to start the process so that she can be a saint one day,” the nun’s brother said.
A forgotten martyr
With her death, Sister Sueva became the first Bangladeshi Catholic to be martyred in a foreign land.
Her sudden death saddened Christians and non-Christians alike. For months, her life, works and martyrdom were featured in local and national publications, both secular and religious.
In 2000, Mymensingh Diocese organized a large commemoration program to pay tribute to the slain nun on the first anniversary of her death.
The same year, an Italian priest from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) published a biography of Sister Sueva. It became hugely popular and the publisher had to quickly order a second edition to meet demand.
Since then, the anniversary of Sister Sueva’s death on Jan. 22 has passed in silence with no formal commemoration or publication. Her family arranges for Mass at her home where villagers gather to pay their respects.
Father Arturo Speciale, another PIME priest, funded setting up the crucifix at Sister Sueva’s family home in 2014. Ranikhong Church named a parish hall after the nun.
The Catholic Church in Bangladesh has two great personalities in line for canonization — Holy Cross Archbishop T.A. Ganguly of Dhaka and Canadian Holy Cross Brother Flavian Laplante of Chittagong. They have been declared “Servants of God” in their respective dioceses, the primary stage that could lead to canonization.
Meanwhile, Sister Sueva remains largely forgotten.
“This is really disappointing,” prominent Garo writer and researcher Subhash Jengcham told ucanews.com
“She is the first martyr from the Garo community, but the local church and the community have not done anything significant to pay respect to her, to preserve her memories and to publicize her life and works. Maybe she could become a saint one day, but someone has to take the initiative.”
Nidra Asacra described the local church’s lack of interest in her sister as “unacceptable and mysterious.”
“It seems the church has forgotten her, while she could be presented as a model for young people today and it could embolden their life of faith. We don’t know why the church has neglected our sister for nearly 20 years now,” she said.
She said the family wants a sculpture of Sister Sueva erected at the family home so that people can pray there.
“Lots of people come to visit the small crucifix, offer us candles and request us to pray to her with various intentions. They come back later and tell us their wishes have been fulfilled. This place needs be developed so that it can accommodate more people,” she added.
However, Father Plinson Mankin, parish priest of Ranikhong Church, said the family’s demand is not logical.
“Sister Sueva left the family for God and the church, so any monument in her memory should be in the church so that more people can visit it and know about her,” he told ucanews.com.
The priest admitted the nun deserves greater publicity. “We will hold talks at parish and diocesan level to work out a plan for what we can do about the nun,” he said.
Father Niren Norbert Mrong, chancellor of Mymensingh Diocese, also said the nun deserves recognition.
“It is sad that we have failed to take the initiative to recognize her in the past years. In the next pastoral assembly, we will discuss it and come out with a plan to make Sister Sueva known to people and do everything to pay respect to her,” he told ucanews.com.