‘Our Doors Are Open’

Amid great change in India, the church continues her mission to children

by Anubha George

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Editors’ note: The names of children in the article have been changed to protect their identity.

Bobby lived in the hills of Idukki in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala with her mother and father. When she was 3 years old, she witnessed her father murder her mother, chopping her body into pieces and burning them. Bobby is now 7. She remembers it all.

Understanding the level of trauma the toddler faced, the head of a nursery that received her placed Bobby at a facility equipped to provide the level of care and support she needed — St. Thomas Home, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

“The girls we’ve had here have been from broken families,” says Sister Francila, who administers the center that has served girls since its founding in 1968.

“Either their mother has left the family to be with another man or the father has left to be with someone else.”

This situation seems to be common in the high ranges of Kerala, where laborers from different states migrate for work.

“People who work on tea or spice plantation estates in this part of Kerala are all day laborers; they don’t have a steady income,” Sister Francila says. “These workers have no homes or savings.”

Most of the laborers hail from northern India or neighboring states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. “Intercaste and interreligious marriages are common here,” Sister Francila adds. Cohabitation is likewise common.

“Leaving one’s family to be with another man or woman isn’t something that’s looked down upon. That makes it common,” she says.

The tea and spice trade has flourished in this part of Kerala because of the climate, which is temperate, yet slightly humid. Spices such as cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg and areca nut grow in abundance. This region is also known for its rubber plantations.

Most of these estates are owned by generations of the same families, who provide housing and accommodation. “The houses are built very close together,” Sister Francila says. “Anyone can go in or walk out of any home at any time of day or night. This makes safety and the security of girls a big problem.”

St. Thomas Home was founded with this challenge in mind — to provide a safe place for girls among a highly transient population.

“The idea has always been to give girls from these families an opportunity at life — or they would have the same life as their parents,” Sister Francila says. “That cycle would never break otherwise.”

Presently, the home houses 30 girls, ages 5 to 18. There, Sister Francila says, they lead a disciplined life: “They wake up, pray, go to school, study and learn to manage their lives.”

Despite its long record of providing an invaluable service, St. Thomas Home has recently decided to give up its legal classification as an “orphanage” and will now run as a “boarding home” for girls.

In the last year or so, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart has closed eight of its so-called orphanages in Kottayam district alone. “Just two of the ten orphanages we had in this district remain,” Sister Francila says. “The rest are closed.”

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