2022 dawned bleakly. Not just because of the resurgent Covid, but because of the events of 3rd January. On that sad day Mother Teresa’s “Missionaries of Charity’ (MC) sisters handed over their Nirmala Shishu Bhawan, Kanpur, to the Indian Army. Will Shishu Bhawan now become a Shishu Mandir, the term that the RSS uses for the schools it runs?
The million dollar question (literally) is, why did the MCs vacate Shishu Bhawan? It was a sad, shocking, and totally avoidable situation. It was my mother Lady Florence de Noronha, who had convinced Mother Teresa to establish a home in Kanpur in 1967. Through the good offices of my father Chev Peter de Noronha, one of our relations, Don X de Souza, agreed to sell his bungalow in the Cantonment, for half its actual value. It was a major sacrifice for the deSouza family. Bp Raymond D’Mello of Allahabad diocese paid the sum of Rupees One Lakh and the sisters moved in there in June 1968.
I remember the day because I had compeered the inauguration. Two different choirs sang the same hymn, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren”, based on Mathew 25. From Laburnum the house was now renamed Shishu Bhawan.
Later, through the Legion of Mary we did the painting and white washing the house and planting trees in the garden. Those days adoptions were rare, so most of the abandoned girls continued on in Shishu Bhawan till they were of marriageable age. My younger brother Neville and I were Godfathers to most of them. My wife Meera tutored them at home. At some of their marriages we were the witnesses in lieu of the parents they had never seen.
One may now understand my agony at the way the MCs meekly surrendered before the Defence authorities that “own” the Cantonments. Apparently this was a leasehold property and the lease had expired in 2019. The Defence Estates Office now demanded an annual lease rent of 1 Crore amounting to 2 Crores. We were informed that Sr Prema, the Superior General, was advised to surrender the property in the expectation that the demand of Rs 2 Crores would be waived. It would also weigh in their favour for the renewal of their FCRA licence that the Government had rejected. Even the most unlettered person would agree that this is wishful thinking.
Six months ago Rev Walter D’silva of my parish apprised me of these developments. I immediately advised Sr Amrita, the Regional Superior in Lucknow, to seek legal redress. I simultaneously contacted our Metropolitan Abp Raphy Manjaly of Agra. I contended that there were sixty two cantonments in India and there would be many churches and institutions therein. If not today, then tomorrow, it would be their turn. I therefore pleaded for a pan India approach at the highest level.
Thereafter I heard nothing. Just two weeks ago I perchance came to know about the abject impending surrender. I was shocked. Faced with a fait accompli, I felt helpless. Two days later a sister from Kerala phoned to ask me why I was not helping the MCs. That got my goat. How could I help people who did not deem it fit to consult or trust me? Nevertheless I immediately got back to Abp Raphy seeking an urgent intervention in the Supreme Court. The next day he replied that he had spoken to the sisters, and since they didn’t want to “fight the government”, there was nothing more that he could do.
Unfortunately this is not just about Shishu Bhawan, Kanpur. This is the thin edge of the wedge, the dam bursting. Willy-nilly, the Defence Estates had identified soft targets and moved in for the kill. We cannot entirely blame the government, if we ourselves didn’t stand up for our rights. I am told that the MC house in Meerut is next on the chopping block, as also a school in Belgaum.
Here in Kanpur, there were other properties whose leases had expired. When faced with exorbitant demands they sought and obtained relief from the Allahabad High Court. Apparently Sr Prema did not want to fight the government. Convoluted logic. They were fighting for their rights and that of the voiceless children in their care. They did unsuccessfully try for an appointment with the Defence Minister. The million dollar questions are: Who was advising the MCs? Why were influential persons in the media and parliament not brought into the picture? What was the role of the CBCI? Why doesn’t the hierarchy trust the Laity and seek its influence and involvement?
Horrible as this may sound, is this God’s way of teaching all of us a lesson? Are we too complacent? Are we insulated from reality? Do we have too much property that we got too easily, and therefore do not value? Were the sisters unaffected because they could be easily relocated to another house? Yes, the remaining eleven children were also relocated. Perhaps their feelings and attachments don’t count.
I will share another experience that had a happier ending. At the same time as Shishu Bhawan I had driven Mother around looking for a plot for a home for the destitute. Again, thanks to my mother’s influence, Sri B.R. Vohra, the Municipal Administrator gave the sisters a plot at a huge concession. For years the land remained unutilised. I pleaded with Mother Teresa. She said she had nobody to start it. Finally I met Sr Agnes, her first disciple, at Bangalore, and she prevailed upon Mother to start it as Snehalaya.
Troubles didn’t cease. The Municipality levelled a fine of several Lakh Rupees for non utilisation for so many years. Fortunately the sisters told me about it. Through the good offices of Subhashini Ali, ex MP of the CPM, the demand was waived. Sri A.K. Bit the Commissioner even got the pot holed approach road repaired. Subsequently I prevailed upon the Congress Mayor, Sri Anil Sharma, to have the arterial road named after Mother Teresa. The point simply is; where there is a will there is a way, based on trust of course.
Why are the MCs repeatedly landing in trouble? There is still no clarity on why their FCRA accounts have not been renewed. Earlier a sister in Jharkhand was arrested for an illegal adoption. The MCs had surrendered their adoption licences because the new law passed in 2015 was “against their religion.” In Vadodara they are being harassed for conversions just because some of the girls had Bibles and rosaries.
Now let me take you back to 1990. On 25/5/1990 the Washington Post broke a story of a major scam in food distribution in India. It was run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) under the auspices of the Catholic bishops of India. Renowned audit company Price Waterhouse detected a mismatch of $ 25 million for the period 1986-88. I called it Bofors in the Church, as the sum was equivalent to the alleged Bofors payoffs. This was published in the New Leader (Madras) on 1/8/90 and the next day in the Herald (Calcutta).
Together with the Dalai Lama and Baba Amte the MCs were also major beneficiaries of this food project. The audit company had accused CRS and the beneficiaries of using “short weighing devices” to cover up the shortage of 15% to 20% allegedly lost in transit or handling. Here again it is not so much a case of corruption as of gross ineptitude. Summing up the case Allen Johannes of Patna wrote in the Herald on 3/8/90 that “The tragedy of the whole affair is that the Church in India still does not trust or does not want to trust the laity who may be better qualified for the job”.
There are million dollar questions arising for the church in India, not just the MCs. In a recent debate on India Today TV Rev Valson Thampu, former principal of St Stephen’s College Delhi, stated that we didn’t need foreign money as the Indian Christian community could generate its own funds.
As National President of the All India Catholic Union (1990-94) I had strongly opposed foreign funding, other than for calamities like floods or earthquakes. Easy access to foreign funds, completely controlled by the hierarchy, has made the church a fatted calf and the laity totally redundant. Many among the laity may also be loath to finance church projects because they lack transparency. I follow the principle “No account, no amount”.
Not just the MCs, most priests, religious and bishops are not trained in management, public relations, media, accounting, stock keeping, etc. So they easily run into trouble. There is also a tendency to recruit only docile persons as having true “vocations”. The Regional Superior told me, “We are simply obeying orders from Kolkata”. As the Jesuits learned some time ago – blind obedience is not a virtue.
At the closing ceremony of Shishu Bhawan on 29th December, we were matter-of-factly told that when one door closes God will open another! My question is – who closed the door, or as the song goes, “Who let the dogs out?” The MCs may not be affected because they still have more houses with many doors. I hang my head in shame and sorrow. Surely my parents and the donors of the house, now settled in Australia, would be sharing those feelings, as also the hundreds of erstwhile beneficiaries of Shishu Bhawan. When will our eyes open to reality? Who will breach the trust deficit? Will these Shishu Bhawans one day become Shishu Mandirs under the present political dispensation?
(The writer and his family have been closely associated with the MCs for the last 45 years.)