How it all began
Sometime in November 2012 Archbishop John Barwa of the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar invited CFC ANCOP Canada to come to his archdiocese. He wanted to get the support of the lay group in helping the poor of his archdiocese in Odishia, India. A mission team from Toronto was dispatched composed by Jun and Malou Clarito and me. Being of Indian descent, my ability to speak the Indian language would be helpful when we immerse in the communities.
In India, we organized people for values formation and teaching under the Christian Life Program (CLP). The venue of the first CLP was St. Vincent’s Pro Cathedral of the archdiocese. While there, Malou presented ANCOP to Fr. Santosh Digal (the archbishop’s secretary) and Fr. Mrutunjaya Digal (the archdiocese’s treasurer) and she provided pertinent documents for the archbishop to review when he returned from his out-of-town trip.
When the archbishop learned about ANCOP, he was eager to have the ANCOP programs particularly the Child Sponsorship Program initiated in his archdiocese. He signed the contract of agreement with ANCOP for the start of the CSP in the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. Three months later we received a list of nearly 168 children to be sponsored for education; 150 more were added in succeeding years.
Indeed, ANCOP has transformed into a true act of charity, putting faith and love into action in this country. My wife Liz and I have had the opportunity to visit and observe the positive impact of the CSP in the lives of the children benefiting help for school.
Twenty kilometers away from Odishia, another mission area beckoned to us. Dhanmandal is a remote sleepy small town in the state of Orissa. The nearest major railway station to Dhanmandal is in the city of Cuttack which is at a distance of 20 kilometers. The nearest airport is at Bhubaneshwar, 60 kilometers away.
This mission area in Orissa is under the care of Fr. Mrutunjaya Digal. He accompanied us in our visit to the center particularly the orphanage operated by the diocese. It was a one-hour and 30-minute trip by car. From the main highway, we turned onto a narrow mud road bordered by agricultural fields. The hostel cum orphanage turned out to be an old and small structure. It looked very solid but needed a good paint job.
In a matter of seconds upon our arrival, several tiny hands opened the main rickety gate to the hostel. The little children whose smiles were as bright as the morning sunshine were a welcome sight. Their joyful glee to have visitors were palpable, and within no time, they surrounded us in a welcoming gesture. With them was Fr. Xavier Tirkey who introduced himself to us and said, “these are my children.”
Dhanmandal Visit: Fr. Mrutunjaya Digal seated in white habit together with some guests listening to the children sing. Standing in the background is Fr. Xavier Tirkey.
Once we were settled, the kids performed to us a traditional welcome song. Then Fr. Tirkey told us how the hostel cum orphanage came into existence since his arrival 12 months ago. “I was transferred to this village to start up a parish and provide the sacraments to the Catholic tribal families in this rural area,” the priest said.
Fr. Tirkey shared that while doing his pastoral rounds he noticed the little children, many of them no more than four to six years old, doing menial jobs like tending cattle or just aimlessly wandering around. No one was looking after them, many looked hungry with barely any clothes on, while others were just helplessly looking about or sitting on the side of the muddy roads trying to survive. He was moved with compassion and decided to do something for these children.
“For the first few months I questioned God why he brought me to this remote area. I am a priest and could be far more useful and effective serving an established parish rather than roaming in this semi-arid, jungle-like surrounding searching for potential catholic tribal families who would like to come together to start a parish,” shared Fr. Tirkey. “After witnessing the plight of the children I came to understand my mission.”
Fr. Tirkey went into action – he searched for the children’s family whereabouts. He discovered that some families were so poor and could not afford to look after their children. Other children with single parent had no one to take care of them at all while their father or mother was trying to find means to bring food to the table.
A typical home in Dhanmandal
For children with parents or guardians Fr. Tirkey obtained permission to take them to the house where he was staying. He assured the parents that he would take care of the children, feed them, and give them an education. Those without guardians were put under his wing. The parents or guardians were free to come and visit the kids and see for themselves how they were being cared for.
Fr. Tirkey’s ministry for the children met several challenges including being suspected for his motives. The priest persevered, and now several of his kids are already enrolled in formal education at a nearby government-run school.
The children were doing well in school. They were intelligent, loved reading, writing, and Math. Moreso, they picked up well the values exemplified by Fr. Tirkey. They grew to be responsible doing the chores assigned to them with cheer and joy. The children’s life change did not fail to inspire the hostel’s neighbourhood. People started to be supportive of the ministry and have offered to help the priest in looking after the children, whose number had grown to 27 in a short span of time. What was very inspiring was that these school children were from families that had never stepped inside a classroom. One parent who saw her son reading at mass in English burst into tears. “Now my son will have a future,” she said.
When Liz and I last visited the hostel, the kids were so happy to see us. Fr. Tirkey proudly showed to us the children’s annual exam results in school. Amazingly, the kids had an average mark of over ninety percent with a couple of kids at seventy-five percent. The struggling kids were confident and were determined to do better.
The children entertained us with a skit and dance numbers taught them. We have learned that the children’s knowledge and skills are broadened including their creative abilities through various trainings and workshops organized at the hostel. The kids looked healthy, happy, well dressed and well fed. Evident was the sense of peace, joy, and love at the hostel.
Fr. Xavier Tirkey and Fr. Mrutunjaya Digal with the kids
Liz Almeida with the Dhanmandal children
Fr. Tirkey’s kids are ANCOP’s CSP scholars. Their stories have not failed to move my wife Liz and me. We vowed to continue to help them and many other kids through ANCOP because truly education and a loving and caring environment can transform lives leading to a bright future freed from poverty.
By Francis Almeida, CFC ANCOP Toronto/India