Q & A with Sr. Fabiola Fabbri, bringing love to orphans in southern India

by Philip Mathew

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For more than 60 orphans in a southern Indian city, Italian Sr. Fabiola Fabbri has become "Amma" ("Mother"). The nun from Florence gave these children security and shelter at Ashwasa Bhavan (Home of Comfort), or AB, in Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala.

The 47-year-old member of Apostolic Sisters of Consolata has become an Indian citizen so she can live in the country permanently and care for the less-privileged and homeless children.

Fabbri spoke to Global Sisters Report in mid-October about her life and mission in India.

GSR: What made you to come to India to live and work here?

Fabbri: Our congregation's founder, Quintilla Soligo, once said, 'I didn't become a sister to become a simple nurse, but to offer myself for the poorest of the poor and the neglected ones.' This statement, along with my childhood inspiration, St. Mother Teresa, has nourished my dreams to dedicate myself for the least and the little ones in society. When the congregation opened a new mission house in Kerala, I requested permission to work there with another Italian sister, Sister Paola. We got the Indian visa in 1996 for six months. Since then, I have lived in India, which I consider as my new own country. I became an Indian citizen in 2013 and renounced my Italian citizenship.

Can you tell us about your congregation?

It was founded in 1946, after the Second World War. Mother Quintilla started her new mission in an orphanage in Florence. Soon, some other girls joined, and a new religious community was formed. This community had the traits of a family, with Mother Mary as the model.

Adoration and service to the poor are the foundations of our life. Fraternity among the people to feel the pain of the common people and to become a witness of consolation and mercy is our motto. The dream was: 'Be like the mustard seed, which spread and grew to become a tree, which gives shelter to the birds in the air.'

What were you before you became a nun?

I was born in Florence, Italy, in 1969. My family includes father, mother and three older brothers. The family taught me love and to adjust to the different and sudden changes that happen in an ordinary daily life, and sharing the small sacrifices and joys of a simple family.

My mother is still an example of prayer and humble faith. Her loving care, dedication, detachment from any spotlight and attention influenced me. She was a silent woman who used to sing for her children but with a big heart for the neighbors in difficulty or the other family members.

My father was the authority of the family and the only earning member. With him around, we always felt safe and secure. My brothers were my first playmates and heroes to look upon with admiration and devotion. One of them was my first confidant. I shared with him when I decided to join a convent and become a sister. He was shocked because he knew how much I liked social life, company of friends, going out and having fun with them. In the beginning, he did not believe what I told him. He thought the idea was the result of some fantasy that I got from some books I read or some imagination.

What made you opt for a religious life?

The idea to become a religious sister came when I was a child. Later, I forgot about it and dreamt about having a big family. I even lined up all my dolls and teddy bears for my future children. I wanted to join the university to study Italian literature but experienced an inner struggle. It was as if I was searching my own way, my personal narrow road to be myself, to love, to meet others.

I watched a short movie about Mother Teresa. I read some good books, which a deacon had given me. I started to meet regularly with a spiritual father, who exhorted me to keep a diary of my feelings, my dreams and emotions.

Like in the game where we need to join many different-numbered points from 1 onward to get the outlines of a picture, I began to see with more clarity many pieces of my life, a puzzle with a definite shape. I saw in Jesus the only answer to my questions, my thirst, my loneliness, my weakness, my dreams, and my life itself. I longed for his touch, his presence, his tenderness, and I discovered that I could find him in my prayer as well as in my attention to others. I wished a life of simplicity and dedication to the poor and the unloved. I joined the Apostolic Sisters of Consolata because I was attracted by its daily adoration as well as the service to the abandoned older people in Florence.

Why prompted you to start Ashwasa Bhavan?

I spent my first 10 years in Kerala, walking around Kochi. I discovered the slums and the huts where poor families lived. We started a small program of sponsorship by families in Italy for children from families that I visited regularly. During these visits, the local community helped me to learn Malayalam [the official language of Kerala].

In 2005, I suddenly fell ill. A terrible headache was followed by a total numbness of almost all the senses (speech, sight, touch, mobility). I was admitted to the local hospital. After many days of tests and research, I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. It was an unforgettable experience of weakness, loneliness and isolation from the outside world.

But God had other plans for me. I recovered almost totally from the illness. I felt that a new gift of life was given back to me and as an opportunity to offer myself radically to God and to the poor. I asked Mother General and the other sisters the permission to start a home for the destitute children. God found a place for us in the Beach Road, where lots fisherpeople live in small huts.

In 2005, Ashwasa Bhavan started with children from the neighborhood and the government relief settlement for street people. I could live 24 hours with my children, love, serve and be with them. I planned the house not as a rigid institution, but as a family with no separation between the sisters and staff who run it and the kids.

How many children are there? Please tell us about a working day.

The AB family has been growing faster than I expected. Babies, boys and girls, and teenagers join us through the government channels. We couldn't separate siblings, and we tried to find a proper place and space for each one. Now we run three institutions — Foundling Home (0-5 years), Girls' Home (6-18 years) and Boys' Home (6-18) in a nearby house with a family who lives with them as our staff. There are 65 children total.

The small kids stay with me. They get up at 5:30 a.m., and they are my daily alarm. I prepare black tea and biscuits for the younger ones and call others to get ready for Mass in our parish. After breakfast at 8 o'clock, children prepare for school. There is screaming and running with bags, lunchboxes, ribbons, books, shoes, socks. After they go, our house becomes quiet until the toddlers start crying for milk and attention.

Children come back from school at 3:30 p.m., take snacks at 4 p.m., and go for games. At 5, they start special coaching in studies. After a bath at 6:30 p.m., one group goes to chapel for the evening prayer, followed by dinner. The teenagers pray a little later, and after the supper, they have small duties. At 9:30, after some studies, they go to sleep.

Around 25 women staff and a driver are working with us. With their commitment and support, the center is run smoothly.

What is the social and economic background of the children?

Most children are from streets. They come from unsafe life backgrounds and situations like prostitution, single mothers, broken families, mental illness and poverty.

How do you raise funds to run the AB?

Our congregation through our local trust provides our basic needs — the staff salary, the children's school fees and medicines. A very small portion of the expenses is supported by local contributions and well-wishers. The parish and the diocese morally support us. Often on Sunday and other holidays, like Christmas, members of parish groups and organizations visit the children and spend some time with them, offering a meal or some toiletry items. It's a wonderful occasion of sharing mutual knowledge and thoughts.

Where do you find your energy for this mission?

St. Mother Teresa helped me dream to be with the poor. I adore and serve at the feet of the crucified Jesus through the little ones. My congregation supports us. We are witness of the providence of God in our daily life. Whenever we are in need, he provides for us in a way we could not even imagine. The Virgin Mary is the model of our life, a woman of chastity and the mother of the children God entrusted to us.

What are the challenges in running the AB? How do you overcome it?

AB is a big family. Like in every family, there are some problems, quarreling, suffering, as well as joy, fun, love and mutual support.

Each child is a mystery. Our children are embroidered with threads of loneliness and thirst for love, fear and hope, joy and rage. Only time and endless dedication can heal their inner wounds. Then they will able to look back and forward with real love and understanding.

Every day, I dare to say every moment, there is a challenge, a hidden fight to survive the ghosts of the past. Then a sudden smile, a warm kiss, a smile of joy gives us a narrow access to their hearts.

Any future plans for the AB?

As the family is growing, we plan to have a separate house for the oldest teenagers to give them more space, time and personal attention. We are in the process of finding a proper and affordable place for them and for the sisters who shall live with them.

My plan is to find a home for the boys who are currently living in a temporary house given by the diocese for three years. The present dwelling place is small and inadequate for 15 boys.

Do you feel homesick and lonely?

I can never be lonely living among 65 children, 25 staff and four sisters. Most of the time, I really feel the loving presence of my Lord near me. Discouraged? Many times I have felt discouraged. I have felt I have failed in most of the things I have done. I have been misunderstood by superiors and sisters. And more and more, I have been disappointed by my own character, like my sudden anger, my inability to cope with some situations. But all these are the signs that only God is working through us and with us.

[Philip Mathew is a journalist based in Bangalore, southern India. This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a news portal that focuses on religious and social issues.]