Sr.Alphonsa Gonzalvas, Sr.Helena Pinto and Sr.Sabina kurian were the pioneering volunteers who arrived at PopeJohn’s Garden, Mahavaram, on June 19, 1971. They were invited to take over the reins of the administration of the colony for leprosy patients. They started the heroic servie under the valuable guidance of Rev.Fr.Schlooz, S.D.B., director of the Beatitudes Social Service Welfare Rehabilitation training Centre, Vyasarpadi, Madras (Chennai). This unit of Don Bosco Beatitudes is managed and supervised by the sisters of St.Charles Borromeo.
The inmates are involved in cultivation, there are one thousand coconut trees that fetch income for the maintenance of the colony. Paddy, groundnuts and vegetables are cultivated according to the season. There are many mango trees, several jackfruit and guava trees which are income generating. Cattle rearing, breeding of pigs and poultry-keeping has also contributed to the income for the upkeep of the inmates.
Weaving and spinning section is a very vital department. The inmates are involved in spinning thread, making dhotis, towels, bandages and gauze for the dressing of the patients. Making mats is another busy section. They are made from a special variety of grass. There is a carpentry section, tailoring section, making shoes, rope making and candle making.
On June 6, 1973, Sr. Paula took charge of the colony, she acquired another four and a half acres of land on the eastern side of the colny, a new well was dug. A small chapel was built here and dedicated to St.Anthony. this area yielded plenty of vegetables, fruits and flowers. It was a feast to the eyes, eco-spirituality was advocated more in reality than in words. From this time onwards Pope John’s Colony was renamed Pope John’s Garden.
The Memisa dispensary is a very important department of Pope John’s Garden. The health centre caters to the needs of the patients as well as outpatient lepers living in the locality. In 1971 when the sisters of St. Charles took charge, there was only a small dispensary for the inmates and other leprosy patients. In 1975, the extended dispensary was opened by the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr.Karunanidhi, for the public as well. The health centre promoted medical aid for all kind of ailments, it helped to remove the stigma attached to the clinic. Many patients suffering from cholera, jaundice, influenza and other minor ailments were treated at the clinic. Maternity cases were also admitted.
The wards and buildings were built of mud and the roofs were of thatched palms. As the years passed by, it was necessary to provide a descent abode for the patients, with minimum convenience and privacy. These were changed to concrete buildings in a phased manner. Each of these wards on completion were named as Damian ward, Charles ward, Sagayamatha ward and John Bosco ward. These wards were built with the aid received from the Netherlands Lepra Fund opened by the representatives of the Netherland Council.
The common kitchen, a gainding mill, two storage sheds, a tea stall, cowshed and water-pump shed, were erected in 1975. Two more twin –room family quarters were built. An indoor games club and a library were opened. A mini zoo was the dream child of Sr. Vincent, who wished to make the people of the colony more human and spiritual. There were enclosures for deer, peacocks, and guinea pigs and love birds. She planned the Sathyamatha chapel for the people, the scheme made rapid progress. In 1979 there were 387 inmates, this bears living testimony to the indomitable courage of the sisters.
A major administrative change took place in 1980 when Fr.Schlooz was called for an assignment in Polur and Fr.Ittayachen Manjil took over as Director till May 1983. He was followed by Fr.Tarcisius Rathnaswamy.
The Holy Scriptures depict God as a compassionate Father. Compassion points out to a spontaneous feeling of tender, delicate love and sympathy. Jesus as compassion incarnate, made ‘caring’ central to His ministry. Pope John’s Garden at Madavaram is a home for caring for the most neglected, rejected and frustrated people in the society- affected by Hansen disease.
Everything and everyone has been designed to preserve the uniqueness of God’s creation. Rev. Fr. Orpheus Mantovani SDB, an Italian by origin, imbued with great zeal and love for the poor, came to South India in the early 1960s. His idea of starting a rehabilitation centre for Hansen patients was supported by His Grace Louis Mathias, the Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore. Such noble concerns are not born of mere ethical or lofty ideas but as a result of an encounter with the Divine.
Pope John’s Garden is a home for Hansen patients. It was started in 1965 and managed by the Salesian Fathers. In 1970 an invitation was extended to the Sisters of St. Charles by Rev.Fr Luigi Difiore, SDB the Provincial Superior of Chennai Province, to look after this project. The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo born of compassion lost no time to respond to this invitation. Rev. Mother Christiane the then Provincial Superior sent three sisters to join hands with the Salesians, to bring to deed the feelings of compassion. The arrival of pioneers and the services rendered by our sisters from 1971 – 1982 are recorded in ‘Seeds of Compassion’ Vol.I by Rev. Sr. Sheila Corda.
The inmates of Pope John’s Garden began to feel self reliant with the encouragement and care given by the Sisters. Plot by plot they began to cultivate the 40 acres of land. The land was full of fruit bearing and shady trees, mango grove, coconut grove, vegetable and flower gardens fountains and creepers, a beautiful place indeed. The small industries like candle making, mat and cloth weaving and dairy farm which were all managed by the inmates began to fetch income for themselves. All thatched roof buildings were converted into RCC roofs. Every improvement was the fruit of toil, sacrifice, prayer and love. The transformtion of the garden had changed the outlook not only of the campus but also of everyone who lived in this home. Life began to blossom and dance.
An extract from the visitors’ record
“I cannot forget this city of love, only part of the bigger city, which is Pope John’s Garden where lepers are honoured. The sisters working here deserve a special mention. May our Lord bless this great complex of pastoral, charitable service rendered with special understanding and reward these who are laboring here with special blessing reserved to those specially see Him in the poor, the suffering and the abandoned. I invoke heaven’s special blessing on these.” (By Rt. Rev. Dr.Arulappa, Archbishop of Madras Mylapore on the occasion of his visit to Pope John’s Garden to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to 39 inmates) Daily prayers, celebration of the Eucharist, devotions, novenas, processions, retreats- all brought more meaning to life and instilled hope in these brothers and sisters who once thought all was lost.
They found life meaningful and death a door to eternal life. In November 1994, the inmates had the opportunity of listening to Dr. Cruz Divakar for three days that strengthened their faith in the Lord. The sisters worked with one mind and heart convinced that the best thing one can do to transform any situation into something real and lasting is to pour out one’s life into loving service to those who need it most.
Celebrations certainly have a role in helping the sick to accept suffering by offering them the chance to relax and to let-go. In the year 1989 Pope John’s Garden celebrated the death centenary of Fr. Damian the patron of Hansen patients. Fr. Damian contracted leprosy while living with a group of Hansen patients of Molokai. December 12, 1990 was a red letter day in the annals of Pope John’s Garden as it celebrated the Silver Jubilee of its birth. It was indeed a thanksgiving day, rejoicing in what each one had received in this home. They spent the whole morning in thanksgiving before the Eucharistic Lord. At 11.30 a.m. a solemn Mass was celebrated with His Grace Rev. Dr.Casimir Gnanadickam, the main celebrant. Religious sisters, priests, neighbours, well-wishers, benefactors, children, youth all streamed to PJG to share the joy of this day. January 29, 1994 was another memorable day. A library was opened in the centre by Rev. Sr Renee D’Souza, late Provincial Superior of the Sisters of St.Charles. The Golden Jubilee of the Priestly ordination of Rev. Fr. Schoolz SDB, the former director of this project was celebrated with gratitude and joy. Rev. Sr. Therese Mary SCB who for 13 years endeared the patients to her heart was gratefully appreciated and thanked on the occasion of 50th anniversary of her Religious Profession. Pope John’s Garden rose from obscurity to public reckoning as it received an enviable reputation for its best humanitarian service. His Excellency Dr. Karunanidhi conferred an award to this centre for being ‘the best Rehabilitation centre in Tamil Nadu’ on August 5, 1998.
People work for others but not all who work appeal to the heart of those for whom they work. Rev. Fr. Tarcius Ratnasamy a long time director of the center had conquered the heart of every inmate by his distinctly marked kindness towards these people. The Hansen patients tearfully bade good bye to him, their beloved Director on April 24, 2007 as he took flight to his eternal home. He served as Director of this centre for two terms. In him the inmates and the Sisters lost a dedicated priest, a caring and understanding brother in Christ and a good leader.
Working with the inmates of the garden calls for magnitude of patience. The gradual deterioration the patients experience, has changed the whole pattern of Pope John’s Garden’s activities. A good number of them have passed away, many are handicapped and some invalid are confined to their bed in Isolation Ward. But everyone is cared with love and compassion by our sisters till they breathe their last. Everyone is prepared beautifully to meet death not as the dead end but as a new beginning. Everyone is given a decent burial and fondly remembered by the inmates in their prayers. At present there are only 100 inmates. The decline in the number has increased the work load of sisters. Every small industry in the campus has come to a standstill. Though each day is tirelessly long, it is happily rewarding too.
The Memisa Dispensary that was inaugurated by his Excellency Dr. Karunanidhi in 1975 has attracted patients from far and wide. The dedication prayer and extraordinary healing power of the sisters, especially Sr.Shanthi K., have brought relief to many patients who suffered from virulent diseases at the out-patient department.
The future of the Garden
Today medicine to heal this disease has been developed and the risk of communication has all but disappeared though the prejudice of discrimination continues. A paradigm shift is being contemplated by the Don Bosco Fathers under whose direction our sisters render their service to the inmates of Pope John’s Garden. However it is the desire of the sisters to continue their service as long as there are Hansen patients in this centre.