Writer Jose Kavi reports on the legacy of India’s “Father of the Poor” in the spring edition of ONE magazine. But he notes here that he approached the assignment with skepticism.
Each writing assignment for CNEWA makes me think about the many blessings God has given me and my family. The assignment to study the legacy of a Catholic archbishop in Kerala was no exception. However, this time Jose Jacob, the photojournalist who takes pictures for the articles, also said the experience was profound—and I had my own epiphany, as well.
I knew the late Archbishop Joseph Kundukulam had done lots of philanthropic works in Trichur, his archdiocese in southern India. Several of his priests and former seminarians often told of incidents where the genial prelate went out of his way to help the poor and marginalized. I had also heard that he was a great orator who spoke for hours without boring his listeners. However, let me admit I was not a fan. I could not support a protest he led in 1986 against a drama that allegedly ridiculed Christ and his teachings; the drama was eventually banned, but I believed the artists have the right to freedom of expression. Also, the archbishop’s reported association with some political leaders of Kerala also did not go down well with me.
So, it was with a critical mind I went to see various institutions the archbishop had established during his 27 years in Trichur. I didn’t expect that the three days I spent observing the institutions and people working there would make me a die hard admirer of Archbishop Kundukulam. The first eye-opener was the visitor’s room of the Society of Nirmala Dasi Sisters, a congregation the archbishop set up to manage his institution. The small room doubled as the office of the superior general and included a dining table for visitors. Simplicity was writ large on every corner of the place.
Sister Kochumary Kuttikatt accompanied us on our tour. The first place we visited, Pope John Paul Peace Home, bowled us over. Jose and Bineesh, our driver, later shared the same insight: we never expected some 150 people there suffering various types of handicaps to be so content. Some have been there for more than a quarter century and still had no complaints. With all our limbs in proper order, we felt like cripples because we complain about little inconveniences in life. Bineesh, a Hindu, said he had run out crying from the hall where he was talking to a youth, who could not move his limbs. The young man was more interested in Bineesh’s welfare than his problems. Jose said he had a tough time holding the camera steady because he was so overwhelmed by emotions.
The place was spotlessly clean, no smell and no dirt, something remarkable for such a place in India where filth and squalor are common in institutions like this.
Adding to my surprise was the behavior of the nuns and their coworkers attending to the patients. They knew the names and histories of all residents and responded with love and kindness. “We come to them after Mass in the morning and we never know how the time passes,” said one of the sisters.
We concluded our visit in a slum near the Trichur railway station where two of the sisters are spending their lives serving the poorest of the poor. The stench was overwhelming; the huts there have no septic tanks or running water. But the smell and dirt hardly bothered Sister Elsy and Vimala who were all smiles as they served tea for us seated on a cement platform inside their one-room convent. The platform, we learned, also served as their sleeping place at night. The sisters joked about how they had spent several damp nights there in the last rainy season, water seeping down the walls and filling their “cots.” “We walked around carrying our sleeping mats,” they said.
After leaving the slum, we could breathe normally only after we reached the main road, where the belching smoke from the vehicles smelled much better than the air the nuns and their companions breathed round the clock.
What makes those nuns continue to stay there? Love for Christ and the poor can help you overcome any difficulties in life. That is what Archbishop Kundukulam taught and what the sisters now experience.
And I have had my epiphany in Trichur.
Read more about Remembering India’s “Father of the Poor” in ONE magazine.