Growing Strong: The Diocese of Trichur

by Rev. Thomas Kizhoor
photos: The Diocese of Trichur

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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 Kerala’s 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 bishop’s 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.

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Tags: Kerala Catholic Poor/Poverty Homes/housing