by Joan Shack
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series of articles on the life of Sister Christine.
The seed was sown that notable summer of 1895 at Thousand Island Park, upstate New York. Thinking aloud, as he was prone to do, Swami Vivekananda discussed with Christine his hopes, concerns, and ways to implement the women’s work in India. Through education, with religion at its core, he believed the problems of women in India could be solved. Through education of this type, women imbued with higher aspirations, more cultured, and possessing a broader outlook on life would rise up. The uplifting of society rested with the women and they alone would solve their own problems: this was his firm belief.
With the passing of her mother, Christine’s family responsibilities came to a close. She reached Calcutta early in 1902, only to face Vivekananda’s passing a few months later. In March 1903, she joined Sister Nivedita in running the girls’ school in Calcutta (Kolkata), thus beginning the work entrusted to her by Vivekananda. The school started by Sister Nivedita with Holy Mother Sarada Devi’s blessing a few years earlier was operating intermittently, as Nivedita’s attention became focused on writing and lecturing. Thus Christine’s arrival brought the necessary stabilizing influence. Her background as a teacher in the Detroit public school system, combined with her self-sacrificing and resolute, but gentle nature, made her well suited to the task of giving expression to Swamiji’s vision.
Christine inaugurated the women’s education project under the guidance of Swami Saradananda when the need to serve young married women and widows was recognized. Her hope was to specialize “the women’s work in the direction of industries for women.” The first class was held in one room of the House of the Sisters (17 Bosepara Lane) in November 1903. Classes were held in the afternoon during the women’s free time from household duties. Christine sought to translate into action the philosophy of education conceived by Vivekananda. To him, education in its truest sense is a manifestation of the perfection within, of one’s divinity. In her reminiscences of him, Christine wrote: “The old methods of education in the West concern themselves only with the mind, its training, its discipline…Man is not mind only….Why not build up a new education based upon the true nature of man?” More specifically, she noted: “While all Western knowledge, including science, must be given a place, Indian ideals and Indian traditions must always be held sacred. Education will come by the assimilation of the greatest ideas of the East and the West.”
Within the norms of the Hindu society at that time it was unthinkable for Hindu ladies to leave their homes or to study with foreigners. The efforts by Nivedita and Christine to assimilate into the cultural milieu, together with their sincere dedication to serve, made potential objections immaterial. Attendance at the women’s school increased rapidly. The house next door at 16 Bosepara Lane was rented to accommodate the growing numbers.
Nivedita wrote: “The whole work for Indian women was taken up and organized by Sister Christine, and to her and her faithfulness and initiative alone it owes all its success.” Christine was the steady, behind-the scenes worker, silently serving. Her loving concern for others and ability to speak fluent Bengali endeared her to the students and other teachers. Over the years, more and more responsibility for the daily running of the school fell to Christine. Nivedita’s numerous speaking engagements, writing projects, and involvement in the Indian Independence Movement consumed her time. When the latter returned to the West in 1907, Christine took complete charge of the education project, assisted by Sister Sudhira.
Christine’s loyalty and devotion to her guru had led her to India to undertake the cause of women’s education. Her total commitment to his vision enabled her to surmount all cultural and physical difficulties she encountered. Vivekananda had realized that Great Freedom beyond. “For us who witnessed his struggle, no words were necessary,” she wrote of Vivekananda. “Without any teaching whatever, our eyes were opened,…‘So that is what it means,’ we thought, ‘I am beyond the body with its disabilities, beyond the mind with its limitations.’” In an article published in the Vedanta Kesari entitled “What India Has Meant to Me,” she refers to India’s external beauty, the romance of its ancient civilization, and notable sites of historic importance. Nothing could compare, however, to India’s most precious treasure, which she considered “beyond price.” Unequivocally, she stated:
…the teaching of the Atman, the revelation of the glory and divinity of man, the knowledge of his heritage through which he knows himself to be immortal, to be one whom death and sorrow cannot touch without beginning and without end, before whose magnitude the suns and moons and stars and all their systems appear like drops in the ocean, before whose glory universes crumble into nothingness and space and time vanish.