In spelling the purpose of this community’s presence in this place, the community makes a definitive statement, ‘to ensure dignity and education to the children who are under the clutches of the rich and the powerful.’The rose, ‘Torch of Liberty’ signifies the intention and involvement of our Sisters in releasing the captive and empowering the illiterate. From the initial years of the formation of the Christian Community in this region this has been the prime mission of the church which now comes as a legacy to us. ‘Bonded labour’ was a public practice as if it was one of the rights of the rich. And since the time the state announced it as an impermissible practice, it started existing under cover.
This mission of bringing liberty to the captives needed no force or extra inspiration for the sisters. At the very introduction of the nature of the mission in Vilathikulam the Sisters’ ‘fiat’ was instant.
The Geographical location
Vilathikulam lies 60 kms from the rough coast of the Indian Ocean. The entire landscape has a dry look. All that is green are the thorny bushes and the Palmyrah trees that are found scattered all over. The fertility of the soil is lost due to salt deposits in addition to failing monsoons. People who adopt fishing for livelihood use primitive methods that bring no more gain but saving for a second meal. The people are mostly dalits (belonging to scheduled castes) marginalized by the business class. Most of them are daily wagers and constitute the voiceless section of the society. Despite this fact that there were men of valor who did rise up to raise their voice to claim their freedom and assert their rights, this places this part of the land occupies a significant place in the history of India because Panchalankurichi, the headquarters of the valiant ruler ‘Veerapandiya Kattappomman’ who revolted the Britishers’ claim for tax is just about 40 kms., from Vilathikulam. The traitor who betrayed Kattappomman namely Ettayyappan was from Ettayapuram that is about 50 kms, from Vilathikulam.
As if to erase the blot caused by this disloyal son of Bharathmatha, the poet Bharathiar who rose from Ettayapuram ignited the Spirit of the thirst for freedom in an innovative way. None can match him in writing spirited poems and concocting parables from great epics.
Tuticorin, the port city in South India and the district headquarters of Vilathikulam had once been a beautiful town known for pearl fishing. The traders and the fishers were at constant conflict in the first quarter of the 16th century. The misery and humiliation that the coastal natives seemed to have experienced escalated beyond remedy. In an incident described, one reads, that one of the businessmen tore off the ear of a member of the fisher folk community. It was at this time of their struggle, the Portuguese came to their protection. The fleet of the Portuguese came along with some priests who baptized about 20,000 people who embraced Christianity as an expression of their gratitude to the Portuguese priests. This happened in the years 1535 to 1537.
Sent by St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier arrived in Tuticorin in 1542. From then to 1886 the Christian church in these coastal areas had undergone ‘pull and push’ experience due to the arrogance of the local rulers and the overambitious missionaries of different religious orders. The Pearl Fishery Coast became part of Tiruchirappalli diocese that was established in the year 1888. A few parishes of this area were retained as part of Madras-Mylapore diocese.
In 1923, Tuticorin was created as diocese and was separated from Tiruchirappalli diocese and was handed over to the diocesan clergy by the ‘Apostolic Brief’ ‘Quac Catholico Nomini’ of Pope Pius XI. Rt. Rev. Francis Tiburtius Roche, S.J. was its first bishop.
Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Theresa of Child Jesus were held as the patron saints of the diocese. On April 4, 1930 the five parishes of Kooduthalai, Manapad, (Holy Ghost Church) Punnaikayal, Tuticorin (Our Lady of Snows Church) and Vaippar which were till then under the Padroado were amalgamated into the diocese by virtue of the Papal Bull “Quae ad Spirituale” of Pope Pius XI. The diocese had 18 parishes, 23 priests and 70000 faithful. The Cathedral was built by a Jesuit named Piccinelli. In 1849 it was consecrated by the then Bishop of Madurai Apostolic diocese.
Following Bishop Roche (1923-1953), the bishops who steered this diocese to its present vibrancy are Bishop Thomas Fernando (1953-1971), Bishop Ambrose (1971-1981), Bishop Amalanathar (1981-1999) and Bishop Peter Fernando (1999-2005). Their labour has yielded the fruit of 340,000 Catholics, 190 priests, 105 parishes and numerous institutions both spiritual and secular ensuring the growth of the people in all walks of life. The present Bishop, Rt. Rev. Yvon Ambrose was consecrated on May 18, 2005.
The Mission of Compassion
The Parish of Vilathikulam was constituted in the year 1981, with 14 substations and was dedicated to St. Antony of Padua. For reasons such as intense care and development of the parish it was handed over to the Salesians of Don Bosco on September 24, 1994.
Rev. Fr. Francis Guezou, SDB, ‘The man without Frontiers’ who patronized the developmental works of this parish with his confreres, encouraged the sisters (of St. Charles Borromeo) to establish our mission with a new emphasis to our vision and aided the community with economic support for the apostolate.
The Bishop, Rt. Rev. Dr. Amalanathar, D.D. in his invitation had directed the sisters to start the convent by March 1997 but the sisters proving again that they are slow but steady reached Vilathikulam on August 4, 1997. Fr. F.Guezou blessed the foundation stone. Sr. Ignatius, who was then the Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province laid the foundation in the land measuring 4.5 acres and lay on the left side of the Vembar Road about two kilometers from Vilathikulam. The pioneers Sr. Ursula and Sr. Mathilda Mahimai began a new community in a rented house at Vilathikulam town on August 4, 1997. The move to the newly built house took place on November 18, 1999. The time that passed between was the time of personal visits to the houses in and around Vilathikulam. Opening their eyes and ears to the things and people, the heart of the sisters were flooded with compassion. Their minds seethed with ideas. They collected the children working in brick kilns, match factories and in the rich peoples’ houses. The children from broken families and those orphaned were also gathered. They were led on a new path that took them to a non-formal school which opened its door on February 12, 1999. Tuticorin Multi Social Service Society (TMSSS) enabled the sisters to undertake this project by adjoining it with the ‘Child Labour School’ scheme of the Government. The strength of the school was 50.
Here in the ‘Child Labour School’ the children are taught to read and write, and to face the school exams that correspond to their age and are inducted into regular schools. They are introduced to various methods of learning and are helped to develop their talents. Parents’ meetings are held regularly to discuss the future plans for their children.
A free boarding home for the girls who dropout of schools was another felt need of the place that was started in parallel with the ‘Child Labour School’. About 40 girls who are cared in this home attend their regular classes in the Government School.
The effort to introduce the computers and educate the girls of the surrounding villages to be computer literates and this was actualized in the year 2000 with an inaugural function on December 27. This could not be continued after 2005 since the need for transport to reach the ‘Adrian Computer Centre’ in the convent was not easily accessible. The aspirants of this centre preferred going to the computer centre started by the Salesian fathers that year in the town. It could not be said that it was a failure because this introduction had enabled the Salesians to make their enterprise successful and a good number of people became computer literates.
The ministry extended both by the SCBs and the SDBs in this locality is a total success. Education true to its definition has evinced the esteemable nature of the human persons. This rapid change has been made so evident with our English Medium school becoming popular in this place where just a decade ago people thought education is unaffordable and a luxury. St.Charles English Medium Primary School started in 2006 runs classes from LKG to Std. IV. The total strength is 102.
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Mt: 16: 26a). Were not these words of our Lord that snatched St. Francis Xavier from a world of deemed glory and brought him to the fishery coasts of India? The objective of all education should be to orient to knowing the Creator. The sisters don’t neglect the Pastoral work, carried on in collaboration with the Salesian Priests in preparing the children and adults for the reception of the sacraments. Liturgical animation and conducting Sunday school are the weekly programmes. Visiting the families, Basic Christian Community meetings and prayer meetings in the substations are regularly attended. All these activities ensure the faith formation of the people and the inmates.
One need not drive hard the imagination to visualize the busy schedule of the four sisters. The campus is prospective of becoming a ‘hive’ filled with some more ‘busy bees’.