In the Footsteps of St. Thomas: Riches Among the Poor

Day 5, 3 March 2012

Today was a full day of pastoral visits. Some were very poignant and all were important in terms of our being present with the poor.

We began very early in the morning and arrived in the hill country of the Eparchy of Kanjirappally, which numbers some 204,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics. At the eparchial pastoral center, we were welcomed by Father Matthew Paikat, the vicar general, who also conveyed the best wishes of the bishop, who was out of the country.

After a delightful breakfast with Father Matthew and several other officials, we headed out, led by the vicar general, who insisted I ride with him. This afforded me an opportunity to learn about this eparchy and its many outreaches to the poor. Father Matthew highlighted how CNEWA has been a most significant supporter since the eparchy was founded in 1977.

About an hour later we arrived at the flourishing mountainside parish of St. Thomas, in Kanamala. What an amazing reception: A marching band of beautiful special needs youngsters and young adults, several hundred children, their parents and the elders of the parish, all lined up in a receiving line. There were many huge Indian umbrellas held by the women and hoisted high while twirling them to welcome the three of us. Thomas Varghese, M.L. Thomas and I were swept away by this welcome.

They led us to the beat of the marching band to the church, where we entered to say a prayer, and then on to the humble parish hall, which was packed. The welcoming continued in the form of remarks from Father Matthew, who spoke on behalf of the bishop and expressed profound thanks to CNEWA for the many facets of assistance given to this parish. Then the pastor gave a very emotional welcome to us and also highlighted the many expressions of solidarity from CNEWA from the parish’s beginning. Then came some young people who did some amazing dancing: a combination of intricate classical Indian dances and a little bit of Bollywood. They put their heart and soul into the performance.

Besides construction projects and renovations at the parish proper, CNEWA has been instrumental in helping the people of this parish to improve the quality of life by assisting in the building of substantial houses and water holding tanks. The area is very mountainous. Normally the rains come with great force and cause annual flooding, mudslides and loss of soil. With the water tanks, they now can break out of the cycle of being inundated by floods or suffering from drought.

After a most moving and loving visit with the parishioners at the church hall, we headed out with the pastor to a much more remote area of the parish. We saw firsthand the dynamic difference a new durable house can make for the poor and how having a controlled supply of water gives the cycle of life new meaning. We had some very steep climbs to arrive at these sites, but the recipients of our charity were beaming to show us their new homes and their water catchment systems. Thanks to you for giving them this new dignity through your kind donations over the years! CNEWA has funded over 40 such water tanks just in 2011 alone. Over the years, hundreds of families have benefitted from CNEWA’s water tanks in this part of India. (To learn more, click here.)

A note about these wonderful people: About a hundred years ago, this group of people — already fiercely loyal to the Syro-Malabar Church — arrived in this heavily-forested mountainous terrain. They brought with them skills in farming and settled in what others thought was impenetrable terrain. They also brought with them their faith, even before priests and sisters could accompany them. The community has done reasonably well, sustained by their faith and their talents, even in difficult times.

From this cherished parish visit, we headed to St. Joseph Orphanage in Kannimala, directed by the Sisters of Charity. This is a relatively small orphanage with about 50 girls, but the environment is loving, thanks to the leadership of Sister Shiny C.S.C., and the others sisters working with her. I was overwhelmed with the cleanliness of this facility. They should get an award! The sisters stress with the girls the importance of cleanliness and good order. You would have been amazed at how neat they kept their dormitories, the eating facilities and the laundry area (the girls do their own laundry).

We enjoyed a brief dancing program presented by some of the girls, who had the poise of young ladies. The girls listened to Thomas Varghese and M.L. Thomas, who shared some beautiful thoughts with them, especially how their sponsors love them very much. Thomas even referred to those of you sponsors as their “aunties” and “uncles.” I was very proud of both of them, as team members of our CNEWA family. The children all send you their love and promised their prayers for you, their aunties and uncles.

From the orphanage we headed to the town of Palai, which is famous for the incredible number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life that have come one parish there. Over 145 priests have been ordained from this parish and many bishops have grown up here, of whom I have met a number.

But the purpose of this visit was to experience the very large Palai Girls Town, run by the Snehagiri Missionary Sisters, a community founded in 1969 that already counts 500 professed sisters.

Guess what kind of welcoming reception greeted us as we entered the rather large compound: A large, beautifully bedecked marching band made up of about 35 girls who live at this orphanage. They led us into a large and immaculately clean auditorium where we were given the ceremonial bouquet of flowers. A special treat of this visit was to meet the founder of the congregation, Father Abraham, and the sisters’ superior general, Mother Virmala. Father Abraham is 98 years old and is still sharp in mind, albeit limited in mobility. What an honor to be in his presence!

The girls also presented some absolutely professional-grade dancing entertainment. They were dressed in classical Indian garb, displaying intricate moves, and were well disciplined in their every move. The superior told me they have won a number of competitions. There are about 175 girls at this institution and CNEWA has been a major donor in support of the wonderful programs offered to the girls. In many of these “orphanages,” the girls are not necessarily orphans in the traditional sense, but are nonetheless in need of some type of support. Some have lost a parent; others have parents who cannot care for them. Some have been abandoned; others have parents too involved with caring for the ills of another family member.

We were tired after much travel, some emotionally-packed visits with the poor, high energy events in a thriving mountain parish and joy-filled experiences with God’s little ones.

After a dinner with some of our Vincentian hosts, we returned to the Provincial House for a good night of sleep. CNEWA and its extended family are blessed to be remembered by the poor in India. The children will remember you in their night prayers tonight and countless others will pray for you daily. You are all loved and before I turn out the lights (or perhaps the familiar power outage will do it for me), I, too, promise to remember you in my prayers.

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