Members of the St. Anne’s family. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Residents of the Christina Center pick rice from the center’s rice fields. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Residents of St. Savio’s Home. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A student at St. Savio’s copies the day’s lessons onto his writing tablet. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Ten-year-old Sanjit burst into a vibrant break dance as Indian film music thumped out of a portable stereo. He had developed his technique from watching the movies; his intricate jerks were perfectly timed as he gyrated, dark eyes and skinny arms syncopated like a modern-day dancing Siva. Then he stood at attention and finished his show by bursting into song, a cracking voice evoking a melody in the local Malayalam language.
The bright-eyed boy is said to be highly intelligent and gifted; however, he is an orphan who never knew his parents and avoided the desperate life of a street urchin by just a hair. Millions of Indian children like Sanjit are subjected to difficult circumstances that are beyond their control. Even labor in unhealthy sweatshops would be a lucky option for many of these young people when compared to begging or sleeping in the streets or falling prey to unscrupulous adults. These horrors can be avoided, however, by those children like Sanjit who are lucky enough to end up in a Catholic orphanage where deprived children are given a fair chance to grow.
Thousand of boys and girls have been saved from a life of misery thanks to two orphanages in the state of Kerala run by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and funded in part by CNEWA.
St. Savios Boys Home houses about 120 boys. The home is set on attractive grounds in the suburbs of Trichur. The boys live there until they are helped with finding a job, a house and often a bride.
St. Annes Charitable Institute is the equivalent girls home and has 151 residents. In both homes care for the children continues into adulthood.
Twelve-year-old Sanju Picha has no parents and no idea of his birth name or religion, but hes crazy about the game of cricket. An average student, Sanjus dream is to become a famous cricket player, though he will settle for the life of a police officer. He and 30 other boys his age sleep in a long room at St. Savios under a huge mosquito net. Each boy keeps his possessions in his own tin trunk. A soap box, pen, schoolbooks, uniform and a ball are typical contents of these little trunks.
Ajo Manaparambil, 14, is an A student who would like to become a Catholic priest. He is encouraged by his teachers, but if he does not make it as a priest then he would like to be a lorry (truck) driver. St. Savios is home to Ajo: he never knew his parents.
Retish does have parents but they are very poor and live about 50 miles away. He does not see them often. If he stayed with them, however, the nearest school would be a 10-mile walk from home, so the 10-year-old attends school at St. Savios. He wants to be a police officer, too or a lorry driver.
Sister Victoriana of the Carmelite Congregation of Mary Immaculate has worked at St. Savios Home for three years. She explains that space is a problem at St. Savios, so the institution is not always able to accept new applicants. The sisters hope to add new buildings soon, thereby providing more space for more children.
Sister Victoriana asserts that time is of the essence: Due to an increase in illegitimate births, there is no shortage of eligible children waiting for a lucky break.
St. Annes Charitable Institute, founded by Father John Kizhakudem about 75 years ago, is administered today by the Nirmala Dasi Sisters. Girls live at St. Annes from the age of five until their teens and, in some cases, well into their 20s. The girls live in tidy dormitories and eat together in a large dining room; tasty, nutritious meals such as rice, lentils and vegetables in a curried coconut sauce are cooked in giant pots over wood fires in the adjacent kitchen. St. Annes boasts a large playground, gardens, a library, entertainment rooms and a chapel. Next door is the Catholic school of St. Annes, where the girls join tuition-paying day students from Trichur in receiving a first-class education.
Many of Keralas schools are run by the states churches or mosques, and the state boasts a literacy rate of 91 percent, well above any other state in India.
Education and literacy are important in this region of India. Keralas long history of Christianity, dating back to the arrival of St. Thomas the Apostle in 52 A.D., the proliferation of excellent church schools (particularly from the 19th century onward) and the socially minded political reformers who helped dismantle the caste system all contributed to the states high standards and quality of education.
The girls of St. Annes and the boys of St. Savios live like large families they are comfortable, lively and happy, it seems, just as in any other normal family unit. They grow up identifying so strongly with their institutions that most stay in touch and visit their big families for years after they leave. Some of them never leave: About 30 grown women, former orphans of St. Annes, currently work there.
St. Annes girls are not simply pushed out of the nest and into society; instead, they are properly placed so many of their ambitions can be achieved. St. Annes also tries to settle the girls marriages by the time they reach marrying age. Otherwise, as one director laughingly explains, they would never leave!
Indias dowry system requires the parents of the bride to pay a large sum of money in order to marry off their daughter. Acting as parents, the sisters at St. Annes must seek funding, usually from philanthropic members of society, to pay for the girls dowries. In India it is considered undesirable for a woman to remain single, explained Sopha, whose name means bride.
A small, fiery-eyed young woman, at 21 Sopha is one of the oldest of her generation still unmarried. She laments that all her contemporaries have already left St. Annes with their new husbands; now she is beginning to feel a bit desperate. To help her find a husband, her newlywed friends go scouting for her; no doubt an eligible young man will soon be found.
Sopha never knew her parents but is aware that she was an illegitimate child, which is not unusual for orphans. Consequently, she must bear a heavy stigma in Indian society.
Largely orphans themselves, St. Savios boys will often seek their brides at St. Annes. There, chaperoned by a religious sister, the young couples can get to know each other and make up their minds about their potential future partners. If the young women marry into an orphanage instead of a normal family, St. Annes can avoid having to provide a dowry.
St. Savios and St. Annes offer a better alternative. Newlyweds are given a small plot of land, big enough for a small house. Part of the agreement includes their participation in the building of their future home. Then the couple will find work, earn a living and be able to return each evening to a property that is fully theirs with no debt attached.
Some of St. Annes girls set their sights higher than marriage. Fourteen-year-old Bhagya Thresia would like to be a doctor, although the sisters caution her against it. Despite her intelligence, it would be unlikely for Bhagya to get that far due to the cost of such studies.
Bhagya had a very unhappy early childhood. Her father died before she was born; soon afterward, her mother went insane from shock and grief. At seven years of age Bhagya was sent from her state of Tamil Nadu to Kerala to take a job as a house servant. She was cruelly treated there, so she ran away and was found by a police officer, who brought her to St. Annes. Since then, St. Annes has been her home.
While visiting St. Annes I was treated to a performance by the girls. Well-dressed and sparkling, they assembled in a hall and one of them sang a Malayalam song.
At my turn and inspired by Sanjit at St. Savios I attempted a middle-aged display of break dancing, to the delight of the girls and the horror of the attending adults. Several couples and young families were also visiting the orphanage during my visit. The wives were all former residents of the orphanage. They seemed to be living happy, normal lives.
Another institution, the Christina Center, provides a steady stream of children for St. Annes and St. Savios. The Christina Center acts as a home and refuge for unmarried mothers, usually delinquent or vulnerable girls who find themselves pregnant, homeless and alone. These women suffer the strongest of taboos: Not only are they outcasts, but the stigma also extends to their entire families. It is difficult for their sisters and daughters to marry.
At the Christina Center, young women and their babies are offered discreet refuge and quality care. In most cases the women are eventually separated from their babies, a difficult but necessary step to ensure safe and healthy futures for the young women and their children.
The toddlers live at the Center until they are five years old; then they move on to St. Annes or St. Savios. In this way the young mothers are freed from the stigma of bearing an illegitimate child and instead are given a chance to continue with their lives in a normal fashion.
The Christina Center, St. Annes and St. Savios care for needy children from their prenatal stages right through to adulthood and even beyond in the midst of a challenging cultural and political climate. With Gods love, the orphans of Trichur have every chance to succeed.
Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages.