Marija Sreš, the Missionary Who Became an Indian Writer: Toward New Trends in Researching Women Missionaries
This paper delves into the life story of the missionary and award-winning writer Marija Sreš, opening up new avenues of engaging the subject of female migrations. Its primary concern is to highlight the combined religious and secular calling in the life journey and literary output of this Sister, who often transcended designated gender roles. Her story is read against the wider context of the Catholic International of the 1970s. Religion is seen to inspire her social commitment, offering her both social legitimation for female action and agency as well as the possibilities for self-realization (also through writing).
KEYWORDS: Marija Sreš, missionary literature, female missionary migration, Catholic International, India
The paper analyzes the life story and migrant journey of the Slovenian missionary Maria Sreš (b. 1943), who went to India as a member of Las Misionares de Cristo Jesús in 1971. She spent four decades working among the women of the Dungri Garasiya Bhil tribe in north Gujarat, setting up various schemes intended to bring economic independence and self-worth amongst the adivasi women. Sreš also obtained a degree in Gujarati literature and became a writer in the Gujarati language. Her first collection of short stories Girasma ek Dungri (To Survive and to Prevail, 1994), which describes the hardships and exploitation of Sabarkantha women, received a major literary award from Gujarat Sahitya Akademi. Sreš went on to write six more books, receiving further awards. In 2008, the Indian government did not extend her missionary visa. She was forced to return to her native Slovenia, where she now lives and continues to write, outside the convent.
Sreš’s life story presents us with a unique case study of a Slovenian missionary sister turned award-winning Indian writer. Invested equally in a religious and a secular calling, her life journey challenges the still-prevalent categories in academic approaches to Christian missionaries. Her distinct position of in-betweenness as a European woman in India hailing from socialist Yugoslavia, as opposed to strong ex-imperialist centers, makes the colonial-instrumentalist thesis in her case obsolete. Instead, the paper engages relevant concepts from migration studies, whereby migration is seen as a field of complex interactions conjoining material and immaterial factors, and in which migrants are seen to traverse that field as conscious actors. The more recent scholarship that views women missionaries as active agents of societal change who can position themselves as women in the Church is also seen to be more appropriate in her case, not the least because Sreš took up grass-roots initiatives and became a published author. Her life story is further read against the wider context of the Catholic International of the 1970s to show how women missionaries started to occupy a more prominent place in the secular world, also influenced by the revolutionary 1960s.
Religion is indeed seen to inspire Sreš’s social commitment, her experimental work with the Sabarkantha women, offering her both social legitimation for female action as well as the possibilities for self-realization (also through writing). Finally, the paper invites further research showcasing feminist missionary narratives of questioning and self-discovery, which must have always existed as an under-acknowledged counterpart to missionary triumphalism.