In the Footsteps of St. Thomas: Where It All Began

Day 9, 7 March 2012

Since our visits today involve quite a bit of travel, we headed out early and proceeded north to the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Irinjalakuda, the home diocese of our own M.L. Thomas, regional director of the India office and one of my traveling companions.

We arrived at Pratheeksha Bhavan, an institution for mentally challenged children and adults. The facility is directed by Sister Paulcy, C.S.C., and the Sisters of Charity. This was an exciting visit, as the sisters have put together an amazing variety of programs to educate specially challenged individuals with vocational training and occupational and physical therapy — all done in an environment of loving patience and kindness.

The residents are joined each day by an additional group of many other special needs children and adults who joyfully arrive from neighboring areas to have a day of learning and activities.

I was particularly taken with the quality of the vocational and occupational therapies and activities. Sister Paulcy has formed partnerships with business enterprises, government agencies and individuals — all of which provide an outlet for the work done by these very energetic special needs children and adults. Their pride in learning and crafting is obvious. CNEWA has been a part of this wonderful outreach, and the gratitude of the sisters was reiterated many times over. Thanks to all of you in our CNEWA family.

From here we proceeded to visit with the bishop of Irinjalakuda, Mar Pauly Kammookkadan. He is a very affable man and only two years into his term as bishop here. We had a lovely chat with him, followed by a very filling lunch (even though the bishop apologized that since it was Lent, the meals are “meager.”) I learned so much about this very historic eparchy, truly the “cradle of the faith in India,” as he explained, since it was in this area that St. Thomas first landed by boat and began his missionary work with the people of this faraway land now known as India.

When you visit southwestern India, so many eparchies and parishes lay claim to the doubting apostle, but this is real history and this eparchy of the Syro-Malabars merits the legitimate designation of being the first to receive the faith brought by St. Thomas. This is really exciting to me, as I consider this pastoral visit to be a walk in the missionary footsteps of St. Thomas.

The bishop introduced us to his entire chancery staff, who joined us for lunch. They are a delightful group of dedicated priests and sisters and they seem to have a wonderful rapport with their beloved bishop. The bishop was profuse in his thanks to all of the CNEWA family for our prayers and financial support.

Next stop was a visit to a small home for severely challenged adults, both mentally and physically. This facility is operated by the Nirmala Dasi Sisters. Before arriving, we had to be “rescued,” as we had gotten lost. Father Peter, the chaplain, came on his motor bike to find us and then led us to this rather hard-to-find location.

The work done by the sisters is heroic, just as we had discovered yesterday in another institution run by this same congregation. Some of the patients/residents have been there for years and rely totally for all their needs on the compassionate care given by the sisters. Assisting the sisters, at least for a two-week period, were nine novices from a different congregation who were participating in this “field experience” in preparation for making their vows. Other religious congregations of men and women also send their novices, aspirants and postulants for short-term immersion in this most special ministry. What a learning experience it must be.

We met one resident, 44 years old, whose body is grotesquely disfigured and contorted. God has given him an incredible ability to draw. With great difficulty and some modest assistance, he positions himself to hang on the bedrail in such a way that he can take a pencil in his gnarled hand and draw with a creativity and detail that you would not believe. In fact, one of his most celebrated pieces is a portrait of the bishop, the original of which hangs on the wall in the bishop’s office. I was shown a copy of this and other artwork. You cannot believe how gifted he is and how comfortable he is in his affliction. He has even been featured on television.

We also visited with some residents who are unable to communicate at all — no sounds, no sight, no hand or body motion, no response — but all loved beyond measure by these dear sisters. I said a prayer for all of them, a prayer of thanks for reminding me that God never wants to abandon anyone, even the most defenseless.

We next had a very brief visit to Palayur Church, venerated as the place where St. Thomas first arrived in a canal by boat and, as the story goes, had his first three families of converts, all of the Brahmin caste — the highest one in the ancient kingdom. There is now a parish here — more like a pilgrimage site — by a remnant of the canal and a pond that, legend has it, represents a miracle brought about by St. Thomas, when he prayed and water came forth from the ground. This visit, though brief, heightened my sense of walking in the missionary steps of St. Thomas.

Our final visit of the day, and it was absolutely a delight, was to St. Joseph Orphanage in Brhamakulam. This large facility houses about two hundred girls, who attend classes across the street in a school directed by the same congregation of sisters, the F.C.C. Sisters (Franciscan Clarist Congregation of Sisters).

What an enthusiastic welcome upon arrival here! All the girls were bedecked in their St. Joseph uniforms and formed a huge honor guard for Thomas Varghese, M.L. Thomas and me. Their excitement was contagious.

In a tightly packed meeting room, we received hearty welcomes from Sister Maria Sudha, the director, and from Sister Scarlet, the provincial superior, with all the girls checking out my every move. They were mesmerized by my eyes, my gestures and my speech patterns, and responded to my every word with such overwhelming enthusiasm. I felt like a rock star with these lovely girls.

They treated us to some very polished entertainment, which included biblical playlets, songs and dances. We gave each of them some candy after their performance and our remarks. All of the girls approached me with the biggest smiles imaginable. Some even reached out to touch my face, especially my cheek, as their expression of affection.

Following all of this, we proceed to the dining hall, where all the girls were lined up with their metal plates and cups, waiting for me to enter and to give a blessing. I said a special prayer for all of them, as they are presently in the midst of their standardized exams.

The sisters took us outside through a field with some cows, some chickens and other farm animals to show us a rather high-tech filtration system, subsidized by CNEWA, which allows them to re-use wastewater. It is very eco-friendly and cost-effective in conserving water, which is a most valuable commodity in India. I was very happy that CNEWA has been instrumental in helping them to address this need and to preserve the environment, as well.

We had one more final goodbye to all of the girls who were again standing in line to see us off. What beautiful smiles for this farewell.

I remembered all of you at many junctures today. As I am winding down this pastoral visit very soon, I can’t help but be thankful for all the blessings I have received from the loving individuals I have met. Even though you are physically far from here, you have been very close to me and to our many special family members here in India. Many of you have adopted children here through your sponsorship, but the truth is that they have adopted you and love you very much.

God bless you and God bless the poor of India.

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