Sister Mary Frances de Chantal in her room at the Our Lady Queen of the Missions School, Park Circus. Picture by Sanat Kr Sinha
She refuses to use a walking stick because “sticks are for old people”. Osteoporosis has limited her mobility but not her daily routine of getting up at 4.30am and taking her seat at the chapel by 6am. She can no longer make her famous scones but still ensures that no guest goes back without a bite.
Sister Mary Frances de Chantal, Mamma to everyone at the Our Lady Queen of the Missions School in Park Circus, turns a spirited 100 on Saturday, watching the world go by from her favourite spot on the first-floor balcony.
“You must have these,” she told Metro last week, handing out a plateful of cookies from Nahoum’s.
A few years ago, she would have insisted on rustling up a meal herself, said principal Sister Joicy, one of the many whose lives Sister Frances has touched.
Born in Kerala, Sister Frances joined Our Lady of the Missions Congregation in 1932 and, at age 18, went to the Scholastica Convent in Chittagong. In 1956, she shifted to Haflong in Assam, from where she came to Calcutta in 1967.
Sister Frances never taught. The kitchen was her responsibility, a job she turned into a labour of love. “She would bake the best cakes we ever had. Her scones, lemon tarts and chicken pie were divine,” reminisced Sister Helen, the school superior.
In her younger days, Sister Frances would not only cook but also set the table. “She is very particular about how and where the cutlery and crockery are placed. If one spoon were out of place, the nuns would have had it,” Sister Helen said.
Sister Frances’s favourite recipes are all preserved in a small notebook that she would go back to whenever she needed to cook something special for a guest. Sister Helen remembers Mamma last making lemon tarts in 2012, when a nun from Rome was visiting.
“She feels very happy when people eat well. She doesn’t like fussy or picky eaters,” Sister Joicy said.
For Father Kurian Emprayil, principal of St. Lawrence High School, Mamma has been “my mother” since they first met in 1988. “I would go to the Park Circus school for mass and she accepted me as her son. She would serve us what we called the Queen’s Breakfast,” he said.
Sister Frances retired in the Nineties but continues to be an integral part of the Park Circus school, recognised and adored by students past and present.
One of her favourite activities now is to lean on the grille of the first-floor balcony, holding her rosary and waving at the students practising dance or doing physical training.
Former students remember her as a busybee constantly going up and down the winding wrought-iron staircase that leads to the kitchen, an area out of bounds for them.
“We would see from our classroom Sister Frances following the vegetable vendor as he carried his tokri up the stairs. I grew closer to Sister when I became president of the alumni association. She was one of the more familiar faces of our time,” said 59-year-old Muneera Currim of the 1970 batch.
Currim, a businesswoman, reconnected with Sister Frances a couple of years ago. “Sister made espresso for us herself,” she recalled.
Currim, who had taken along her daughter and grandchild, is among many former students and teachers known to visit Sister Frances often to seek her blessings, especially if they are facing some difficulty in life.
Sister Frances herself steps out occasionally, never mind the aching bones. “People return tired from an outing but she seems to become more energetic,” Sister Joicy said.
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