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“Many of the children are aware of the negative effects of alcohol,” the priest says. But simply having a forum for frank discussion has already had impressive effects, he adds.

“I have noticed a lot of changes. Some children are now saying to their parents: ‘If you continue to drink, then we will drink also.’ This has shocked parents into action.”

To reach his parish of St. Bernadette, Father Puthenpurayil must take a winding road through the jungle and around steep hills. From St. Thomas Church, near his home, it can take more than an hour to travel by foot to St. Bernadette Church, a newly renovated sanctuary for the 22 families of this sister parish.

St. Bernadette encompasses a region even more remote and less developed than that of St. Thomas. At a certain point, the paved road put in place just two years ago gives way to a mere dirt track. Many of the homes do not have running water or electricity. However, the community’s church stands in a clearing in the thick vegetation, a stirring testament to faith and dedication.

“Everyone here is very active,” says Father Puthenpurayil. “Ninety percent of them are out working every day, assuring their livelihood and making the community a better place. The parish is very poor, but rich in spirit.”

That hard work is evident in the renovation the community gave its church for its recent silver jubilee. The warm pastel shades of St. Bernadette Church contrast with the darker glades of the jungle that surround it. Behind the building, a handsome bell hangs from a beam suspended between two parallel tree trucks. Before the Divine Liturgy, it peals, reverberating through the vegetation to each of the parish’s homesteads.

St. Bernadette parish struggles with the same alcohol problems as its sister parish, but it also faces another scourge less prevalent in St. Thomas — migration. Its children have reached a level of education surpassing that of their parents. Kerala is in the midst of a transition from an agriculture-based economic model to one driven by industry and the knowledge economy — with an attendant shift from rural to urban lifestyle throughout the population. St Bernadette parish has seen many of its families up and leave, seeking a better income and quality of life in the state’s towns or cities.

“Now the youngsters have mobile phones and have access to TV. They are not ready to work as their parents did,” says Father Puthenpurayil, driving down a bumpy dirt track leading into the parish. “They want to go abroad. They want less physical work, and to earn better wages.”

Michael Muthanattu, 26, stands as a quintessential example of the larger societal shift in Kerala impacting parishes such as St. Bernadette. A graduate in mechanical engineering, Mr. Muthanattu is planning to immigrate to Canada.

“There are no job vacancies in my field here,” he says, standing in front of the church.

“I plan to leave and earn good money so that I can come back and settle here properly. I want to develop this place fully,” he explains. “If I can come back with good money, then I could get the road paving finished and set up a good, modern farm here.”

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