Priest gifts 1000th house on ordination silver jubilee
By Matters India Reporter
Bengaluru: A Catholic priest marked the silver jubilee of his ordination by gifting newly built houses to two poor families.
“It was a great joy to hand over these two houses on April 25, the day of my ordination,” Father George Kannanthanam told Matters India. The Claretian priest said he has so far built 1,000 houses for the homeless in the past 25 years.
He said he has planned to build a few houses for the poor in the Jubilee year.
One of the houses was given to Hanumanthayara, a wheel-chair bound man living on the outskirts of Bengaluru, capital of Karnataka state. Rani, a widow with a mentally challenged daughter, received the second house.
“My family members have planned for another house in my village for a poor family,” the priest added.
The funds for the house construction came from Habitat, Ysmen International and St Peter’s Church, Doddaballapur, Bangalore. The house are about 500 square feet and cost about 400,000 rupees each, the priest said.
According to Father Kannanthanam, a house provides destitute people an address. “For the people who are made homeless during a disaster, a house gives them the hope that there is someone who cares for them. I feel very glad that my 25 years of priesthood could provide them that feeing,” he said.
He recalled Mother Teresa’s words that lack of a decent house is not just the absence of a place to live, but absence of basic worth as a human being. “Thus when you build houses, you bring them dignity.”
He recalls that his housing stint began at the time of his ordination. Ordinations, he says, are costly as the family has to serve “sumptuous meals” to more than 1,000 people. His family in neighboring Kerala state had arranged for a grand program with the late Cardinal Antony Padiyara as the chief celebrant.
The young priest requested his parents to set apart a part of the money to build houses for poor families. “My parents were very happy about the idea and all my brothers and sisters also supported the idea,” he recalls
His father, a member of Vincent De Paul Society, identified two families from their village and a major item at the ordination was giving away the house keys to them. The guests were served tea and snacks “that tasted very good,” the priest said.
The house construction followed him to his first appointment as assistant priest of two communities in Shirady near Mangalore (now renamed Mangaluru), a coastal town in Karnataka. He went there armed with Masters in Social Work. His first commitment in the new place was to work among alcoholics.
“As a young priest, I organized the youth and women from the two churches and led a protest leading to the closure of two alcohol outlets in the two villages. Many alcoholics stopped their drinking habit.”
But he soon had another problem – keeping the former alcoholics sober. They had to be continuously engaged in some activity. Thus was born the idea of a housing program – for former alcoholics and the poor villagers. After several rounds of discussion, the villagers decided to change leaf roofing of their houses to tiled roof.
Cebemo, a Netherland-based agency, helped them buy tiles while the people provided labor. “We did 40 houses in 40 days which was like a celebration for the people,” Father Kannanthanam.
So, when his congregation recalled him to its headquarters in Bengaluru, the villagers traveled 300 km with him as a gesture of their gratitude.
In 2001, he took over as the director of Sumanahalli (goodwill village)society that cares for victims of leprosy and HIV and disabilities. According to him, the 12 years there was the best time of his life.
At the same he continued his house mission and built houses for 12 families at a place called Devanahalli, some 40 km from the city. But soon the international airport was shifted there making the place “a goldmine.” The leprosy cured families were quick to move in, he recalled.
The second set of 28 houses was built at Kengeri, close to the University of Mysore. They built a community hall, which soon became the hub for education of children and all common activities for the people. This was followed by 30 houses in Doddaballapur, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Each house was built on a 600 sq ft area. The molded houses had attached toilets.
The 50 odd houses in Chikkanaikanahalli on Sarjapur road were by far the largest housing program from Sumanahalli. The Rajiv Gandhi Housing Corporation had planned for a 500 house layout for the poor homeless. The priest and team negotiated with the managing director, who allocated 10 percent houses for the leprosy cured people.
“Now each house would cost more than 2 million rupees. Everything from bus to school to job opportunities is at door step for the people now. Many of them extended the house to the side as well as to the top.
The last housing program in Sumanahalli was near Yelahanka where they built 28 houses — he best built so far – with floor tiles, inbuilt toilets and good drainage system.
Thus a total of 160 houses were constructed for the leprosy affected persons. All these families along with the houses got a place in the social set up of the larger community, thus ending the years of stigma into which they were pushed due to leprosy.
“The next generation which is free from leprosy would be able to live a completely normal life. But for these houses, they would be living in a leprosy colony for generations, without being part of the society,” Father Kannanthanam said.
The priest’s team also helped many people build houses in their land. They funded about 20 families to build houses. Some were persons with disabilities, some widows and others migrants from all religions, castes and places.
The priest also helped build houses for HIV affected people. His team again worked with the Rajiv Gandhi Housing Corporation to allot 16 houses for the HIV affected persons at Tavarakere the government earmarked for houses for the poor. “Hardly anyone knows that they are from the background of HIV,” the priest explained.
The Rajiv Gandhi housing Corporation had to be paid 30,000 rupees for each house. Sumanahalli raised the money from the public through donations. Organizing this fund was major challenge which the priest’s team did through churches appeals visitors to Sumanahalli.
Houses were built also for victims of natural disasters. The priest’s team has built about 200 in two years for the survivors of the 2014 Nepal earthquake.
The priest said his first experiment on housing for disasters was with tsunami. He rushed to Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu on December 27, 2004, a day tsunami southern Indian coast. His team has also built houses for flood victims of North Karnataka in 2009. They built 16 houses for the poorest people in Bellary city.
The priest’s team agreed with Caritas Nepal to build 60 permanent houses in a village at the cost of 300,000 Nepali rupees each. The 300 sq ft houses are expected complete by mid 2017.