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A Place to Call Home

Sean Sprague and Jomi Thomas report on an orphanage in southern India offering refuge and hope

by Sean Sprague and Jomi Thomas

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Arya Raghavan is a 12-year-old girl with a big grin and sparkling eyes. Athletic, she loves to climb trees, pick fruit and toss them to her friends waiting below. Arya lives with her younger sister, Athira, and 40 other girls at an orphanage founded by a Catholic community of sisters in Chamal, a village in India’s southwestern state of Kerala.

The future for both Arya and Athira looks bright, but that was not always the case.

Four years ago, the girls’ father committed suicide, leaving their mother, Mini, homeless and destitute, unable to support herself and her four children. Eventually, Mini found a job working as a live-in caregiver for the sick and elderly. Though she manages to support herself, she cannot provide for her children – nor can they move in with her.

Mini would have preferred to keep her family together, but she reasoned her girls would be better off in a nearby child care institution. A Hindu, she had no doubts that her girls would be well cared for by the sisters at Mother Mary Home for Girls.

In a state where the rate of suicide is two and a half times the national average, Arya and Athira’s story is all too familiar. Many correlate Kerala’s high suicide rate with the state’s unemployment rate – a staggering 20 percent – which ranks among the highest in India. Underemployment is significant as well. Families largely get by with funds from family members who work abroad; foreign remittances account for more than 20 percent of Kerala’s gross domestic product. And though the economy in India has been booming, radically transforming this incredibly diverse and complex nation of a billion people, poverty is widespread among Kerala’s 31.8 million people.

Mother Mary Home for Girls lies in the remote and beautiful valley of Wayanad, nestled between hills covered in dense tropical vegetation. To Arya, Athira and the other girls, all of whom were born to poor, broken families, the orphanage must have first appeared as an oasis. Coconut and fruit trees abound. Milk cows and chickens wander the home’s four acres, donated by a local parish of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

Mother Mary Home opened its doors on 30 May 2004, initially welcoming just seven girls, including Arya and Athira. It has since grown rapidly. Three Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, a religious community of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, run the home. Founded in 1962 by Father C.J. Varkey to share “the redeeming love of Jesus irrespective of caste, race and religion,” the community includes more than 700 professed sisters in more than a 100 communities throughout India, Italy, Germany and the United States.

The sisters administer not only orphanages and schools, but run and staff health care facilities, homes for the elderly, a rehabilitation center for people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and function in a number of pastoral and social apostolates, including family counseling and prison ministry.

Sister Jane Thennattil, a retired teacher with 30 years experience, directs Mother Mary Home. Beaming with pride, she explained that most of the girls, who range from 5 to 16 years of age, were referred by local priests, though, she added, some were brought by their parents. Regardless, all of the children are interviewed. “We cannot take all,” Sister Jane said.

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Tags: India Sisters Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Women in India