Born and raised in a remote village in India’s Tamil Nadu, Sister Lilly Reetha Alphonse’s path to becoming a nun was, in her words, “filled with twists and turns”.
As the youngest of three children in a family of hardworking farmers, her childhood dream was simple yet ambitious – she wanted to become a teacher. It was a profession that promised financial stability and would allow her to support her parents who worked long hours in the fields.
“That’s all I wanted to do since I was a little girl – help my parents out,” says Sr Lilly , a 36-year-old Passionist nun whose vocation brought her to Adelaide last year.
Although she attended church on Sundays and took part in catechism, becoming a nun wasn’t part of her plan at all. Her life was deeply rooted in the daily chores of a farm, including caring for sheep and cows, fetching water for the animals and taking them out to graze.
“I loved my life in my little village in South India and moving out of the country wasn’t even a thought,” she recalls.
Her devotion to Our Lady mirrored her mother’s unwavering faith. When it came to facing life’s challenges, Sr Lilly always turned to Mary for guidance and help.
“I called upon Mother Mary even to seek the return of my wayward sheep when they strayed too far away,” she laughs. “And Mary always listened; she brought the sheep back home always.”
After primary school, Sr Lilly came to a crossroads. The concept of becoming a nun was foreign to her and she initially rejected the idea. Even when vocation promoters approached her, she hesitated. It was a simple act of lighting a candle at Mary’s grotto, at her mother’s suggestion, that marked the beginning of her spiritual journey.
“In my life, everything is a design of God,” says Sr Lilly, recalling a powerful homily she heard in
“The priest said ‘whatever happens in your life, say thank you, Jesus’. I held on to that very seriously as a young girl.”
The Sisters from the Passionist Order noticed her, recognised something special, and invited her to consider a life dedicated to service.
A bright student with excellent grades, particularly in maths, she was assigned for higher studies by the congregation.
“There were not many sisters who were qualified to teach maths at our local school but I was informed I’d be pursuing a nursing degree instead. Once again, God had chosen the path for me. I simply followed.”
After completing her nursing education in India, she began caring for patients in the cardiac and emergency ward of a 650-bed hospital in Kerala. Her role extended beyond medical care; she provided emotional support to patients facing life-altering procedures, offering reassurance and comfort.
“I met people with pain day in and day out, and I felt their pain was my pain. It made me realise I’m so blessed and that health is more important than anything else.”
Her journey led her to a government-aided program where she cared for orphaned children aged under five.
“There were babies as young as one day old who were brought to us,” she says.
“Some of them were abandoned, some orphaned. From giving them first aid to picking a name for them and taking care of their nutrition and development needs – we did everything.
“Those children taught me what it was to love someone without any conditions.”
Her mission was to provide these children with a loving home until they were adopted or moved into homes for older children.
Sr Lilly’s experience with the children deepened her appreciation for her parents whom she sees as the greatest blessings in her life.
With a strong foundation in her faith, she embarked on a new chapter in Australia and arrived in Adelaide with a dream to “spread the love of Christ through my work, no matter what I do”.
Life in Australia has been a significant change for Sr Lilly. She says every day is an adventure filled with wonder, beauty and, most of all, independence.
“The first thing my fellow Sisters told me when I arrived here is ‘learn to be independent’. This was so different from what we are used to back home in India where nuns are expected to be a certain way,” she explains.
“Society doesn’t look at you as one of them; they place you on a pedestal, thereby forcing you to be unlike the rest. There is a lot of scrutiny and restrictions on where you can go or what you are allowed to do.”
One of her biggest joys so far has been taking driving lessons and she can’t wait to start driving on her own.
Sr Lilly has also appreciated experiencing nature and visiting the Royal Show which gave her a “glimpse of all things Adelaide under one roof”.
Sr Lilly recently began working three days a week as chaplain to the Lyell McEwin and Modbury Hospital and two days a week at Cardijn College.