ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

St. Joseph’s ‘Orphans’

Indian families, and their daughters, look forward to a better life

Most of the girls at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Pulincunnoo, Kerala, are not orphans at all. They have parents and, in most cases, remain in touch with them. A few of the 32 girls at St. Joseph’s come from broken homes, but most come from poor, intact families. And it is the poverty of the parents, combined with knowing that St. Joseph’s offers their children a better future, that explains the girls’ presence in Pulincunnoo, a small town beside a small river in central Kerala.

The orphanage was built in 1973, next to a primary school and high school, all of which are run by the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel. The primary school, 100 years old, serves the area’s boys and girls, while the high school, built in 1975, is only for girls. The orphans attend classes with the girls and boys of Pulincunnoo.

“I was scared at first to come here,” said 9-year-old Nivia, who recently moved into the orphanage. “But now I prefer it here. I had friends back home [in Aleppy], but I have more here. And I have more opportunities to play and study.”

Sister Flower Mary, 61, runs the orphanage and enforces a strict schedule. The girls rise at 5 a.m., attend liturgy at 6:15 and study until breakfast at 8:30. From 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. they attend school, with a one-hour lunch break. After school, the girls play until 5:30, then study for two hours before prayer and dinner. Afterward, it is another hour of study. Bedtime is at 10 p.m.The girls are ambitious. Neethu, a 15-year-old basketball player, hopes to become a sister, following in the footsteps of Sister Flower Mary. Sister Ancid Maria, 15, was enrolled at St. Joseph’s when she was 3 and entered the community’s novitiate earlier this year.

“From a very early time, I knew I wanted to do social work and help out,” she said. “And I thought the best way to do that would be to become a sister like my teachers.”

“Some of the girls go on to get jobs and many get married,“ Sister Flower Mary said. “We’ve also had three girls become sisters.“That the orphanage caters exclusively to girls is not accidental; in India, there are more “orphaned” girls than boys. In her book, “Orphans, Women and Poverty: The Women’s Movement in India,” Brown University professor Lina Fruzzetti blames the dowry system for female abandonment – rearing girls is more expensive.

Though made illegal in 1961, the dowry system remains in practice – much like the caste system, which was also officially banned. Under the dowry system, a bride’s family is expected to pay money or give property to the groom’s family (payment details are negotiated by the families). In areas such as Kerala, which has the highest unemployment rate (about 50 percent) of any Indian state, dowries can be especially burdensome.

Brides whose families cannot pay a sufficient dowry face more than the breakup of a marriage. Husbands have been known to abuse their wives in such situations, even killing them. Each year, there are about 5,000 reported dowry deaths in the country, according to India’s National Crimes Bureau. The actual figure is probably five times that high, said Himendra Thakur, a founding member of the International Society Against Dowry and Bride Burning in India. The husbands who commit the crimes are rarely punished, he added.

The sisters help with the dowry payments for St. Joseph’s orphans, Sister Flower Mary said. Major benefactors include CNEWA, which provides an annual subsidy to St. Joseph’s, and local individuals and groups. The state government also provides about $3 per child per month to the orphanage.

Once the girls graduate from high school, they “graduate” from the orphanage, but that does not mean they are left to their own devices. Some get married, some get jobs and some return home to their families. But the sisters also run an after-school program for young women, helping them to acquire additional skills so they can get jobs.

Today, 56 women attend the program, which is located in the same five-acre compound as the orphanage and schools. Anju, 20, spent two years at the orphanage and another two in the after-school program. She recently completed nursing school and is looking for a job working with children. Anju is one of several Hindus in the program (most of St. Joseph’s girls are Christian), and is free to excuse herself during Christian services.

Though she is married and has three children, Usha, 36, also comes to St. Joseph’s for training. She is learning to bake. “I wanted to be able to do something else to help out the family, and I’m lucky to have this opportunity,” she said.

While it is true that nearly all the “orphans” at St. Joseph’s have parents, the opportunities available to them at the orphanage and affiliated schools offer the young women better lives, the sisters said. “Otherwise there would be even less opportunities for the girls,” said Sister Priscilla Anna. Through the schooling at the orphanage and the after-school program, the sisters believe they are breaking a cycle.

“Our goal is to see all our girls with a good job and/or a good husband,” Sister Priscilla Anna said. “That way, when they have children, they will be able to present them with better opportunities than their parents offered them.”

But for all its classes and study periods, St. Joseph’s Orphanage is hardly a brain-stuffing sweatshop. The girls have plenty occasions for fun, and even the classes are likely to be interrupted by a fit of giggles. On feast days, the girls choreograph elaborate dances, which they perform in their school uniforms and bare feet in the orphanage’s common room. There is also occasion to sing, play sports and gossip. The girls also tend to their pets – tiny turtles that have made their home in the orphanage’s garden.

“Nearly all the girls are scared when they first get here, which is only natural,” said Sister Flower Mary. “But they soon make friends. We try to make this transition period as easy as possible for them by making sure the new girls are well-attended to.

“In many cases, the friends they make here will be with them for the rest of their lives,” Sister Flower Mary continued. “And they will always be a part of my life. Just because they move away and get a job or get married doesn’t mean I don’t stay in touch with them. We are all one big family.”

Paul Wachter is Assistant Editor of ONE magazine.

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