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A Place of Promise — and Providence

A special village for girls is changing lives in northern India

by Jose Kavi

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Sister Merly Kattuvally had a hard time giving her charge a haircut. The 13-year-old, who suffers from severe visual and hearing impairments, squealed, shook her head and flailed her limbs violently every time the scissors touched her hair. Two girls held the hands of the child, named Kiran, while sister went to work, slowly and gently. An hour later, she was finished.

“It was worth the trouble,” says Sister Merly, 57, under the shade of guava trees in her convent’s backyard. “She is our treasure and blessing.”

Despite Kiran’s tantrums, Sister Merly’s voice rings with good cheer.

“She has shown great improvement from the time she came to us eight years ago.”

The haircut marks one more small triumph for a place that witnesses them daily. Administered by the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Mary’s Children’s Home specializes in care for the blind. It is one of the many initiatives that comprise a complex: San Joe Puram Children’s Village, sponsored by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Faridabad. San Joe Puram enables children with special needs to learn and grow together with other children.

“She was like a lump of flesh,” Sister Merly recalls of Kiran’s arrival. “She had no reaction to anything. She would just sit in one place or crawl all over, whatever the time.” Since then, many sleepless nights have been spent attending to the girl. But after years of constant care, Kiran now responds when her name is called or when music is played.

“She also makes the sign of cross,” adds sister, who acts as both the superior of St. Mary’s and vice principal of Infant Jesus Senior Secondary School, which is also a part of San Joe Puram.

Such progress, slow but steady, has prompted Sister Merly to compare Kiran to Helen Keller — an American woman who, despite being born blind and deaf, became a world-renowned author and lecturer. In a larger sense, however, Kiran represents more than one girl’s triumph over adversity; she also symbolizes a quiet revolution San Joe Puram has triggered among women in underserved villages of the state of Haryana, in northern India.

Whether she realizes it or not, Kiran is a sign of promise and possibility.

Msgr. Sebastian Vadakkumpadan, San Joe Puram’s founder and director, believes Providence brought him to Chandpur, a sleepy village in the Faridabad district of Haryana.

“Chandpur is 52 kilometers [about 30 miles] south of central Delhi, but it is more than half a century behind in every aspect,” remarks the 73-year-old priest, who now serves as vicar general of the eparchy.

A native of the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, the priest came to Delhi in the early 1990’s to serve Syro-Malabar Catholics leaving Kerala in search of work in the capital. Charged with the belief that service to those in need is as much a part of pastoral care as celebrating the sacraments, he opened a school for children with special needs.

“I had seen many families hiding their disabled children from the public. I wanted to bring those children into the mainstream.”

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