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The heavenly prize Helen Mahoney finds in India

Helen Mahoney

Changed life: Helen Mahoney. Photo: Emilie Ng.

HE prayed he wouldn’t get Daisy.

Inside Mithra, a rehabilitation centre for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities from India’s poorest quarters, a line of young Catholic schoolboys await the names of who they are to feed that day.

The boys, 15 years old, are on an immersion trip to see the mission that Brisbane-born Sr Mary Theodore started in 1977.

One of the boys prays he won’t have to feed Daisy, a long-term resident who is dependent on 24-hour care from the nuns and “not particularly pleasant to look at”.

He prays harder and harder until he reaches the front of the line.

“Daisy,” he hears.

He grips the plate of food so tightly he can feel the bruises starting to form.

Walking up to Daisy, he loses all his strength.

“Why me?” he asks himself, closing his eyes.

No sooner did he close them that he thought why it bothered him so much, why he made it such a big deal.

Without giving it a further thought, he grabs a mound of food and pushes it into Daisy’s mouth.

When he opens his eyes, the most beautiful smile awaits him.

Daisy was the only person he wanted to feed for the rest of the trip.

When Helen Mahoney heard this story last year, she had goosebumps on her arms.

The niece of Sr Mary Theodore, Helen has accompanied many people to the confronting centre in Chennai, India, including principals, adult pilgrims and high school students.

The 15-year-old boys were a standout.

“That really is what it’s about,” Helen, a board member for Edmund Rice Australia, said.

“If we can give more young people that experience, it’s a tell-tale in their life forever.”

Sr Mary Theodore

God’s worker: Sr Mary Theodore holds a child in Chennai, India.

The daughter of two migrant Lebanese parents, Helen has been involved with Mithra since her habit-wearing aunt first started the mission.

Helen was entrusted with all the financial responsibility for Mithra.

“I’d do all the work here (in Brisbane),” she said.

“Sr Mary Theodore would always just ring me, probably once a week, once a fortnight, and the first thing she’d say to me is, ‘Have you got any money for me?’

“I said, ‘Every time you ring the only thing you ask me about is money’.

“And she said, ‘Yes, well, how are you?’”

Helen and her aunt have several things in common.

Both adored their large Lebanese family, both are home-grown Aussies, and both have been named members of the Order of Australia – Sr Mary Theodore in 1991 and Helen Mahoney just last week – for her service to children.

“I had just come back from India, and a letter was waiting for me,” Helen said.

But unlike her aunt, it took Helen nearly 35 years to be convinced that India was a special place.

“It was the last place on my bucket list,” Helen, who has lived all over the world with her husband Peter and sons, said.

In 2011, all that changed when Sr Mary Theodore kept pushing for a visit from her niece.

Realising her aunt wanted more than just help with Mithra, Helen persuaded a cousin to make the big trip to see Sr Mary Theodore.

“And she was really unwell,” Helen said.

“She just wanted family, someone she could rely on who could do the things she wanted done in Australian time, not Indian time.”

The suffocating crowds and sweltering heat was too much to bear.

That night, Helen’s cousin pricked up from her bed and cautioned: “We’ve got nine more days of this”.

“The next day we got up and we did a whole lot of things and then, same thing, got into bed that night, she was reading and she dropped the book and said, ‘Eight more days – I’m counting’,” Helen said.

On the third day, Helen and her cousin raced around to help Sr Mary Theodore find a religious order to take over Mithra, in the event she died.

Helen waited with bated breath for her cousin’s third warning.

“She dropped the book and she looked across at me and she had almost tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘I don’t want to go home’,” Helen said.

“I don’t know what it is, whether it bites you or what it was, but I have been back every year (since), sometimes twice a year.

“It’s my oasis.”

Helen Mahoney and Sr Mary Theodore

Indian visit: Helen Mahoney in Chennai under a photo of the beloved Sr Mary Theodore.

Helen returned to India in 2012 to bury her aunt, and saw just how much the poor loved her.

“When she died I was living overseas and her doctor rang me and said it was time I came, so I flew straight over and she lasted about a day and then we prepared the funeral, and I had never seen anything like it in my life,” she said.

“They brought the body the night before into the school in a refrigerated container and people just came all night saying the Rosary for 12 hours while she was there.

“We quite never knew a lot of this at home.”

On paper, Sr Mary Theodore seems a lot like Mother Teresa, as they were both foreigners who ended up losing themselves to serve the poor in India.

Even the locals have the idea of sainthood on their minds.

“About a year after she died a letter had arrived for my aunt, but instead of ‘Sr’ it had ‘St’,” Helen said.

“She’s yet to show a miracle, although I suppose there’s a miracle out there we don’t know about, I’m sure.”

But Helen has a clear idea of her aunt’s reaction to being called a saint.

“She would not want to be a saint,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure I’d say that she’d say, ‘Forget the sainthood, just tell me that Mithra will survive’.”

And it is surviving, with the Servite Sisters of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady pitching in just before Sr Mary Theodore died.

“Without them we wouldn’t have Mithra, I keep telling them,” Helen said.

The struggles Mithra faces as an independent rehabilitation centre for children and young adults, the only one in Southern India, are still dire.

“It’s a struggle every day,” Helen said.

“We’re at the stage where most every meal is donated, 365 days a year, three meals a day.

“The local people there, even Australians here, they will give money for a meal on, say, their husband’s birthday, so I let Sister know, send the money through to her, and the children will pray for that person on that day at lunchtime.”

Past visitors also have been generous, with one man returning to plant a sustainable vegetable garden and orchard so the nuns didn’t have to buy food.

Another group returned with an idea to start an Australian-based charity that would send donations directly to Mithra, which launched late last year.

But there is always more to be done.

Therapists are needed to work with the children, as well as an occupational therapist and a full-time speech therapist.

Donations are also needed to open the first Sr Mary Theodore Health Centre, which will provide all health services to the young residents.

Sr Mary Theodore and Pope John Paul II

Saintly visit: Sr Mary Theodore receives a visit from St John Paul II in the Mithra home.

Written by: Emilie Ng

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