By Nirmala Carvalho
Mumbai, September 29, 2019: As the world gets ready to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi some orphans in Mumbai thank the father of the nation for inspiring a Catholic priest to provide them a secure home.
St Catherine’s Home, set up in 1957 at Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, has helped thousands of destitute children and orphans to find a home, get professional education, become self-reliant and live with dignity, claims its current director Brother Joseph Sebastian.
“We owe Mahatma Gandhi a lot for inspiring our founder Father Anthony Elenjimittam to translate Christian charity into action,” Brother Sebastian told Matters India.
So, the currents students at the home have planned several programs to mark the day on October 2.
They say they love Gandhi for his message of peace.
“I like Gandhiji’s ahimsa because he never used any arms like gun, bomb or other weapons,” Asha Singh, one the students, told Matters India.
Vinita Arindatiyaar, another girl, said she got a chance to study because Gandhi had told Father Elenjimittam to start school for children.
“This freedom to study I got from Gandhiji. In this freedom one should not use harmful things and ways,” she added.
Varsha Patil says she is grateful to Gandhi for making India a free nation. “I can go to school to study. I give respect to all people small or big. I learned from Gandhiji to tell the truth and help others.”
The home would begin the jubilee celebrations with a thanksgiving Mass on September 30.
On October 1, the home will conduct an awareness program in the school where the staff members will speak to the children and others on choosing the Gandhian principles such as nonviolence as a way of life, Brother Sebastian added.
On Gandhi Jayanti (birth anniversary), the children will travel to a rural tribal center in Murbad, around 80 km northeast of Bandra to spend a day getting acquainted with the Gandhi ashram rules.
Bro Sebastian, who took over from the priest in 2000 after working with him since 1994, says Father Elenjimittam (1915-2011) was one the last direct disciples of Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1957, the Dominican priest founded the Welfare Society for destitute children, which includes the St. Catherine of Siena School and the Aquinas Industrial School.
The aim of the two institutions was to gather marginalized, lower caste and destitute children and educate them to create an ideal cosmopolis and to foster fraternal humanity, explained Brother Sebastian.
The current director recalls Father Elenjimittam narrating to him about the Dominican’s first meeting with Gandhi in 1946 at the Shodpur Ashram in Kolkata (then Calcutta). The meet had left a profound and lasting impact on Father Elenjimittam, Brother Joseph added.
He also recalled Father Elenjimittam telling him how Gandhi asked him on Christmas eve that year to devote his life to break barriers and build bridges between religious with his words and life.
“Charity is the root of religion’ as Tulsidas says, ‘and abandon not charity as long as there is breath in your nostrils’. You are too much of an intellectual; but religion is what St Paul called ‘the fragrance of Christ’. That is charity,” Gandhi explained to the Dominican.
Gandhi later invited Father Elenjimittam to spend time with him at his Sevagram Ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra.
“Mahatma Gandhi intervenes even now in our work. Poor children and their families who come to our institution, lives on the boundaries of our society. Our founder addressed them as the angels in rags,” Brother Sebastian says.
According to him, most people coming to the institutions now bring aggression equal to what the people in pre independence time had felt.
“Gandhi healed the inner aggression by using and introducing the spinning wheel (charka). The entire freedom fighters ventilated their inner aggression by spinning the charka and produced the yarn creatively,” Brother Sebastian explains.
He says they now use the same method in their various program to transform the inner aggression into positive energy through dance, visual art, drumming, theater, Malkham, and Yoga clubbed with life skill lessons.”
Earlier this year, the Bombay Archdiocese honored St Catherine’s Home with the “Pro Life Award” and remembered the services of Father Elenjimittam.
Father Elenjimittam was ordained a priest on December 23, 1939, in Rome, and worked in several parishes in Rome, Perugia and Teramo
In 1962, Pope John XXIII received Father Elanjimattam in the Vatican and confirmed his mission for the orphans in Mumbai and his mission to foster spiritual union among religions, races and nations.
The Pope offered to make him an archbishop, but he declined saying he wanted to continue his mission in Jesus’ poverty and continue the work Gandhi had given him.
In his book, “Cosmic Ecumenism,” Father Elenjimittam narrates the Pope telling him that his work among the needy children of Bombay was truly the work of the Lord.
“The experience with Hindus, Buddhists, Mahatma Gandhi and the new world you have is truly rare and can help us all. You have all my love and blessing for the work you are doing,” the Pope is quoted in the book.
On November 17, 1957, he collected sixteen poor and orphan children, the first batch, to give them a basic minimum education, starting a school under a tree in a plot donated by a Catholic woman in Bandra.
In less than a week the children rose to 78 and some people went to help the priest. By Christmas that year, the number had risen to 132. The school was named after Saint Catherine of Siena for needy children.
Father Elenjimittam wanted his school to have a different ideal from Catholic institutions.
“It was also a duty for me to induce teachers to understand the profound educational ideals of the greatest men of India and beyond, so as to put into practice the fundamental education conceived by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and others,” the priest wrote in his book.
He wanted his students to imbibe sympathy for other religions and “a deep sense of sacrifice and love that could make their work payable, not only economically, but also ethically and spiritually.”
Brother Sebastian says a priority for St Catherine’s is to heal the trauma of abandonment and abuse that many have experienced. In addition to education, they are provided shelter, food and clothing in a haven of love. They become God’s children and dutiful citizens of the country,” he added.