An Indian nun visits Vashon, trying her hand at restaurant work

Helen Puwein takes a break from her work at The Hardware Store. - Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo
Helen Puwein takes a break from her work at The Hardware Store.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/Staff Photo

Islanders may have noticed a tiny Indian nun on Vashon last week, working, as strange as it may seem, at The Hardware Store Restaurant.

The habit-clad woman, Helen Puwein, was a visitor on Vashon, a guest of Island artist Pam Ingalls, who was repaying Puwein’s hospitality. Last year, Ingalls journeyed to northeastern India on a painting trip and stayed at Puwein’s convent in the northeastern state of Meghalaya, a place named for the Sanskrit phrase for “Abode of the Clouds.”

For Ingalls, it was one more stop on a world painting tour; she has also traveled to paint communities in Jamaica, Guatemala, New York City and Alaska. But she said she fell in love with Meghalaya, a place of waterfalls, caves and forests. “I felt as if I had stepped into another millennium,” she said.

So when she heard Puwein was planning to visit the Northwest on a speaking tour, Ingalls jumped at the chance to host her and show her the charms of Vashon. The introduction began in a big way, when Puwein attended the Feb. 12 performance of The Church of Great Rain and was welcomed to the Island from the stage by the cast of the show.

Puwein is in the United States to offer her perspective as an educator and one of the forces behind a new community college in the city of Shillong, India. As part of her tour, she was invited to speak at the Green River Community College, Pacific Lutheran University and the Rotary Club of Parkland-Spanaway.

But while she was in the United States, she also wanted some practical experience working in a bustling restaurant — something she thought would be helpful to her as she develops her college’s courses in the hospitality industry.

So she asked Ingalls to help her find a job, and Ingalls reached out to Melinda Sontgerath, owner of The Hardware Store — a place Ingalls regularly exhibits her paintings.

Last week, after Puwein finished a shift chopping vegetables in the restaurant’s kitchen, she sat down to tell her story — describing a life that suggested she might be a bit overqualified as a kitchen aide.

At age 40, she has been a Catholic nun for almost 20 years, belonging to the teaching order of Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco. A member of the state’s predominant ethnic group, the Khasi tribe, she has a master’s degree in social work from Chennai University and has worked in a community development program in rural areas since 2005.

Currently, she coordinates a micro-credit program that loans money to rural women to start their own businesses and is in charge of Bellefonte Community College — a one-room school in Shillong. And if all that isn’t enough, she is also currently a doctoral candidate in social work from Visa Bharati University Kolkata.

She’s also a fierce advocate for the women and children of Meghalaya — a mountainous state sandwiched between Bangladesh and the better-known Indian state of Assam.

The state, she said, suffers from a lack of roads, something that has added to its extremely high infant mortality rate in its remote villages. Poor education is also a huge problem, she said; almost all of the students who attend her community college have dropped out of other schools. And although Meghalaya boasts the distinction of being one of the wettest places on earth, with one city having on average 470 inches of rain a year, Puwein said the state lacks sanitation and water storage infrastructure.

Meghalaya is also one of the few places in the world that is a matrilineal society, where women inherit all family property, and surprisingly, the state’s population is predominately Catholic.

Puwein said she hopes her upcoming speeches will enlighten audiences about a part of the planet they might have never heard of before.

“I want to raise awareness about my experience and place in the world,” she said. “I wish that people could help. My whole preoccupation is to help young people get jobs.”


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