Sister operates a printing press in one of Trichur’s Social Welfare Centers. (photo: The Diocese of Trichur)
Basket-making and other handcrafts enable many women of all ages to earn a living. (photo: The Diocese of Trichur)
Nearly every parish runs a sewing school. Each woman is given a sewing machine when she completes training. (photo: The Diocese of Trichur)
Women learn handloom spinning. (photo: The Diocese of Trichur)
Job opportunities await young men trained in composing and printing. (photo: The Diocese of Trichur)
Eight years ago, Bishop Joseph Kundukulam was appointed head of the largest Catholic diocese in India, the diocese of Trichur in the small coastal state of Kerala. Bishop Kundukulam has worked so hard and so devotedly to help the needy people of his diocese that today they refer to him affectionately as the Father of the Poor.
Kerala, located on the Malabar coast in southwestern India, is smaller in size than the state of New Jersey but contains a population of 25 million. Thirty percent of the inhabitants are Catholic, giving Kerala the largest Catholic population in the country. Saint Thomas the Apostle is said to have been the first to preach Christianity in the region in the first century, and most of Keralas Catholics follow the tradition that is attributed to him. Thanks to the efforts of Catholic clergy and religious, Kerala also has the most literate population in India, but the unemployment rate is high and many of the people are very poor. Their poverty was exploited by the Communist party in order to win elections, and India became the first country in the world to vote a Communist government into office. This political event came as a shock to the Catholic hierarchy, who learned a lesson from it: if they did not reach out to help the poor and the disadvantaged they would lose them.
Bishop Kundukulam was aware of this even when he was a young priest, and he has devoted his entire priestly career to caring for the poor and fighting for the disadvantaged. He has a special concern for the needs of orphans and the handicapped, and at one time ran two orphanages which sheltered more than a thousand children. After he had assumed leadership of the diocese of Trichur, Bishop Kundukulam found that with his larger territory came larger problems: violation of human rights, exploitation of laborers, unemployment and poor housing.
The bishops first project was to build houses for the poor. He asked all the parishes of the diocese to bear a share of the burden, and with their help about 25,000 houses have been built. More are being planned. With the housing situation improving, Bishop Kundukulam tackled the problem of unemployment, which is particularly severe among young men and women. Again the bishop turned to his parishes, asking each to start some kind of project in order to give jobs to those needing them. The result was the founding of many Social Welfare Centers where hundreds of poor people have secured employment. The bishop himself participated in this plan: his predecessor had bequeathed 200,000 rupees ($24,000) to him in his will, and Bishop Kundukulam used the money to start a factory which gave jobs to 700 people. For one family, having a breadwinner working at the factory made the difference between poverty and survival.
As the number of employed people in his diocese grew, the bishop recognized the need for a trade union. He founded The Catholic Labor Association, which flourished under his patronage and spread to the other dioceses of Kerala. It has become a force to be reckoned with alongside the powerful trade unions controlled by the Communists.
Knowing that the youths of his diocese want to contribute their talents just as their elders do, Bishop Kundukulam organized them under the banner of the Catholic Union of Trichur (CUT). The young members of CUT help to execute the social programs of the bishop. Each parish also has a unit of the Saint Vincent De Paul Society, which takes an active part in carrying out the works of mercy in the diocese. Among these are 32 orphanages, eight homes for the aged, and 16 hospitals and 30 dispensaries which render free medical care to the ailing poor.
Bishop Kundukulams latest project is one of vital importance for the lowincome agricultural laborers who make up most of his flock. Many of these people live in small mud huts which are roofed with grass or palm leaves. But the constant floods and tornados of Kerala are a Damoclean sword to these people, ever threatening the destruction of their homes. The bishops plan is to construct wood-and-tile roofing for these houses. The committee appointed to study the problem has released some definite facts and figures: 10,000 houses need new roofs, and each roof will cost 1,500 rupees ($200). Every home owner must meet one-third of the expense; he can collect it from his Small Savings Plan (another of the bishops programs) in his own parish. Bishop Kundukulam has launched a campaign to raise an additional third of the cost from the good people of Kerala. The local newspapers have given due publicity to this endeavor.
For the last third, Bishop Kundukulam is counting on the assistance of the generous people of the world. His diocese is not able to finance the project; a recent financial statement disclosed that it has only 200,000 rupees ($24,000) as liquid assets. But Bishop Kundukulam firmly believes that now, as before, he can rely upon the providence of God and the loving concern of people. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which has supported his work in the past, will continue to assist him as he brings help and hope to the people of Trichur.
Father Kizhoor came to the United States from his native Kerala to study at Iona College. He will soon return to the diocese of Trichur.