Dr Jessie Benedict Tellis-Nayak: Woman of Substance

October 19, 2021

“Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm,” states Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was certainly a deep rooted desire and enthusiasm to uplift the downtrodden women that makes Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak, a trailblazer in the history of the women’s emancipation from the clutches of patriarchy particularly in India.

A woman of deep faith and fidelity, a woman of substance and simplicity, a woman of courage and conviction, Dr Jessie Benedict Tellis-Nayak was an international social worker with a mission and vision!

Dr Jessie had the grit and determination to stand up for women, put the fight in them to be educated, liberated and set free, free from the clutches of subjugation. This great woman activist worked to bring about a transformation in society by taking severe risks in helping women to make important decisions and face the outcome.

2001 - Alumini Association Award - St Agnes College, Mangaluru

Exchange program - 'Women India - Women the Netherlands' - 10-29 May 1992

Honorary Degree - 1984 - December 3rd - Doctor of Law by St Francis Cavier University Nova Scotia, Canada

Member - Annual Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council 'COR UNUM' Vatican, Rome 1978

October 1979 - with John Paul II

1969 - Grihini Training in India - Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.

Honorary Degree - 2001 - Alumni Association - The Catholic University America

With one of her best friends - Elizabeth Dekker

Lounge of Newman Hall

A woman of simple living and noble thinking, she was motivated by a humanitarian philosophy to rescue women from domination and defeat. She respected the lowliest and helped build relationship and rapport with different sections of society for a genuine cause. Dr Jessie developed community leaders and inspired them to keep their own personal ambitions at bay, while helping them identify their strength and calling. She empowered them to unionise themselves to obtain justice. Thus Dr Jessie found fulfilment her life of struggle for the sake of others.

Born on 21st March 1925, to the late Francis Xavier Tellis and Late Thecla née D’Souza, she was one among the many children of a middle class family with numerous responsibilities at home. She made adversity her advantage: she grew up daring and diligent at home and beyond!

After her education at St. Agnes College and at Holy Cross College, Trichinopoly, Jessie did her Bachelor’s of Teaching at St Ann’s College, Mangaluru. She started her career at St Agnes College in the department of Biology in 1954 working her way up through the posts of Demonstrator, Lecturer and the Head of the Department. For eight years, she enriched the lives of students with her teaching of Botany, Zoology and Human Physiology and her directorship of the Student Social Service League. The aim was to give students an exposure to the life of the poor in slums and rural areas. She also worked with the Muslim community leaders to establish the Crescent Welfare Centre at Bunder, Mangaluru.

She furthered her education and acquired a Master’s in Social Work in 1959 from the Catholic University of America, School of Social Work, Washington DC with community organization as her specialisation. Jessie then went on to do her doctoral studies from the same university. The fieldwork placements and jobs in a wide variety of setting made her gain the much needed professional experiences. Dr Jessie worked as group worker, community organizer, research consultant and finally, assistant director in various community development projects in Washington DC and thereafter, worked as senior counsellor in New York for several years. During those years she visited Paris, Netherlands, England, Japan and Philippines to garner knowledge in social work.

Jessie had pursued professional education in the USA to work in India which had tremendous social, economic, health problems and challenges. The USA offered her lucrative jobs but her heart was set on her India. Back in India in 1965, Dr Jessie Tellis -Nayak took up lectureship at the School of Social Work, Roshni Nilaya, Mangaluru. She encouraged the staff and students to contribute towards Roshni Samaj, a social work journal which she edited and published. After six months she quit the job to get work experience in Indian settings because she felt she could not do justice to her students.

From May 1965 to April 1981, she served the Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi, a pioneer national institution of the Jesuits. Thereafter she worked as Assistant Director of the Chotanagpur Project and from there her service extended to Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and the North East. Her considerable initiative and leadership skills led her to found ‘Vikas Maitri’, an organization composed of tribal and other leaders from different churches. Vikas Maitri was deeply involved in various types of developmental programmes by an all-tribal team of professionals due to the foundation laid by her. She found very few women active in development bodies, especially at the planning and decision-making levels. The importance of enabling women to discover their potential, provide them with opportunities, moral support and the skills needed for development work dawned on her. Thus emerged her decision to concentrate her efforts on the development of women.

In 1975, she was appointed the first Director of the ISI Project for Women's Development. Training, consultancy, and publications were the three planks of the strategy she adopted. The Grihini Training Programme became known throughout India through her articles and three different books on the subject. When an interesting new programme or ideas came her way, she shared the information with others through letters, articles, and publication. Thus, she translated into action the feminist slogan, ‘Information is power’. Her service in the area of community organization and girl and women's welfare was accompanied by the writing, editing and publishing of 16 books besides several research articles. The significant among these include: ‘An Analysis of Community Organization Practice’ in 1966; ‘Action Research’, a research study on the Chota Nagpur project, and "Community Organization in India" which featured in the Encyclopaedia of Social Work in India. In 1982 Dr Jessie resigned from the ISI and returned to her home state Karnataka with the intention of continuing her work. Her search ultimately led her to form a core-team of active committed women who aim at networking with other women. The focus was to be on education for awareness on the women’s situation. While in Mangalore she provided field work opportunities and supervised M.S.W. students from School of Social Work, Roshni Nilaya for six years.

Dr Jessie Tellis helped to create the family trust: Justin Maundy Tellis Memorial Trust which provided educational and financial aid to private and Government primary schools.

Dr Tellis’s venture, WINA (Women’s Institute for New Awakening) impacted the cities of Bengaluru, Mangaluru and Mumbai. Its primary goal was to increase the awareness of women and girls to their situation and to improve it. WINA offered consultation on women’s issues, promoted Feminist Theology, networked with Women’s groups, established libraries for women in particular and brought out WINA Vani, a newsletter to disseminate ideas related to women and girls. Her professional writing and publishing too is extremely noteworthy:

Grihini Training in India
Initiatives in Development
Non Formal Education for Women
Indian Women: Then and Now
Women in the Church and in Society
There are books written together with other writers like Stella Faria, Corrine Scot, Anna Alexander and Merlyn Britto. They are: The Emerging Christian Woman,
On Legal Bondage, Woman in Church and in Society,
Indian Women Forge Ahead, Biblical Women to name a few.

As member of the Advisory committee of the magazine, “In God’s Image” (since its inception) in 1982, edited by Rev Sun Ai Park, Jessie devoted much time for reading on feminist theology. As a group WINA pioneered in producing articles in this field. This was affiliated to AWRC - Asian Women's Resource Centre for Theology and culture. Her articles on the role of women in the Church and society show her questioning the very structure and teachings of the patriarchal, hierarchical Church and demands justice for women. To her faith in Christ and service to humanity are two sides of the same coin. Thus Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak, as pioneer professional Christian woman, writer and publisher became more visible on the national and international scene.

In recognition of her work, she was selected as a delegate to the Asian Conference on ‘The Church and the Development’ in Tokyo in 1970. She participated in meetings at Rome, at a Colloquim in Belgium, in a Women’s Conference at Nairobi, was a resource person at a workshop for rural women at Manila, Philippines, at Bali, Indonesia and in Thailand.

Her influence spread far and wide. A woman of diverse achievements, Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak has received several awards, honors, and forms of recognition for her work and yeoman service.

The first was her appointment as member of the Pontifical Council, Cor Unum, by Pope Paul VI himself. In this capacity she attended its Annual Plenary Assembly in the Vatican City in November 1977, June 1978, November 1978 and October 1979 and each time she presented a new book that she herself had authored. She was privileged of having special audience with Pope Paul IV, Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. She was even received by Robert Kennedy at the White House. She was granted an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Law, by the St. Frances Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada on 3 December 1984, for “championing the cause of women in her country”. She was pleased to receive an Honorary Degree - Doctor of Divinity - at the seventh convocation of the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and Church Administration on 24 July 1993 in Madras, India. Further, the Alumni Association of the Catholic University of America presented her with 'The Alumni Achievement Award for Social Services', on 27 October 2001 in Washington DC. St Agnes College and the Agnesian Alumnae Association honoured her for being an outstanding Educationist, Writer and Social Worker in 2003 and again conferred on her the title "Agnesian Lifetime Achiever" on 23 July 2017. All these recognitions came to her for championing the cause of women in India and Abroad.

We place on record Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak's commitment, service, leadership, and devotion to the cause of social development, in India and abroad; her dedication to the upliftment of girls and women, a field of endeavor close to her heart; her erudition and experience painstakingly acquired and selflessly employed in the service of others; her effective penmanship; her devotion to the Church.

The words from Proverbs apply readily to the life and work of Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak. "She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue." (Proverbs 31: 20, 26)

Dr Jessie was a simple, humble, humane and magnanimous person. She has endeared herself to people of all walks of life, of every caste, creed, race, religion and nationality. She continues to live in the hearts of all the poor, downtrodden, less privileged people specially the women and girl children for whom she spent all her life with selfless love and service.

A life well lived and work done with enthusiasm and selfless service lives on I’m reminded of the lines from the Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“Lives of great men all remind us;
We can make our lives sublime
And departing leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time”.

Long live Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak!






By Sr Jeswina
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Comment on this article

  • Prof Dr. Zita Lobo, Mangalore/UAE

    Fri, Oct 22 2021

    Thanks Dr. Sr, Jeswina for the brief but brilliant biography of a great woman of substance. A truly empowered woman who left a trail of enlightened women who came in her contact. Had the fortune of meeting her once along with Prof Merlyn Brito. A truly inspiring woman who touched lives. May her soul rest in peace.

  • John Monteiro, Bondel, Mangaluru

    Wed, Oct 20 2021

    A well-deserved and authentic profile. I had followed her work over the decades.. My earlier brush with her work and your recounting has now motivated me to do something for the parish and school where I and my family benifited.

  • Merlyn Brito, Orlando

    Wed, Oct 20 2021

    A tribute to a trail blazer who never rested on her laurels but remained steadfast in her desire to make this world a better and more equitable place for all especailly women. May her spirit live on in all of us.

  • Mohana Jadhav, Pune, Maharashtra

    Wed, Oct 20 2021

    Thanks for the wonderful article on Dr Jessie Tellis Nayak. A salute to the selfless and commendable contribution to the community at large. She had certainly been a great inspiration to whoever she came in contact with. Her demise is a great loss not only to the family but the entire human community. Hers was a life well lived!!!

  • Roshni, Mangalore/Bangalore

    Wed, Oct 20 2021

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to my sister Dr (miss) Jessie B Tellis Nayak. She was indeed a great sister and a big support to me throughout my life, a great guided to my children. She touched many many hearts, Thank you Jessbai for being there for me. And to many others. Will miss you very very much. Rest in peace

  • Sonal, Bangalore

    Tue, Oct 19 2021

    Wonderful article on a truly remarkable personality. Thank you

  • Manohar, Udupi

    Tue, Oct 19 2021

    Thanks for the article.........A true Gem of unselfish service unto others........

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