IN KATHAKINARU, a village situated some 18 km away from the city of Madurai, the cultural headquarters of the state of Tamil Nadu, India, a Roman Catholic school with twelve classrooms was struggling to accommodate all of its pupils. Four classes, totalling 180 pupils, had to have lessons outside, sometimes sheltering from the sun under the trees, or other times from stormy winds or torrential rains in corridors or under thatched roofs, in order to follow lessons. “Neither the Government nor the Education Department allows a school to be run in this way,” explains Father Antony Packiam, Principal, Kathakinaru RC School, and parish priest, “but at the same time they don’t want to help you financially to improve the situation, especially not Christians who are in the minority.” It was for this reason that Fr. Antony approached St. Anthony’s Charities for help.
Madurai is the administrative headquarters of Madurai District, and is the third largest city by population in Tamil Nadu. It has been a major settlement for 2,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is well served by road, rail and air. It is popularly known as “the city that never sleeps” because of its active night life, attracting a large number of tourists from within India and abroad. Kathakinaru, by contrast, is very different.
Few basic services
“Kathakinaru is a small village, it is a place where roads from many other villages converge,” says Fr. Antony, “The people who live here are very poor, and most do not have regular pay for various reasons. Many of the children are working children, and others are withdrawn from school because of poverty. The main occupation in the area is field work, but others work as builders or sellers of small items. The women are either housewives or do small odd jobs.” Many things are lacking in Kathakinaru – there are no street lights, the streets themselves are narrow and mostly not tarmacked, but worse still, what many consider as basic necessities are also missing: there is little clean drinking water, no toilets or bathrooms, nor functional sewers.
“The adult population is mostly illiterate as well as the young people and children,” says Fr. Antony, “so as a result many are forced to work in the fields or graze cows. Those who do want to attend school often have to walk long distances to get there.” The houses in the villages are usually made of earth with thatched or tiled roofs. Very few have their own home, the majority living in rented accommodation. “Women do not enjoy the equality which is spoken of these days,” continues Fr. Antony. “They are not able to own personal property and are not allowed to participate in discussions, or even in decisions to be taken by the family. Girls usually do not continue their studies beyond the age of puberty because it is considered too dangerous for them to be a long way from home.”
The Kathakinaru RC School falls under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Madurai. It is one of the most important historical schools in the area, having been founded in 1949 in order to provide education to the oppressed and poor living in the surroundings of the city of Madurai. “The school building has become very old and shabby,” says Fr. Antony, “At the moment it is attended by over 700 children coming from 21 poor and remote villages. There are 17 qualified teachers who give service to our school.” The majority of the children, some 90 percent, are from the lowest caste, the Dalit (meaning ‘oppressed’ in Sanskrit), often known as the ‘untouchables’. “Eighty-five percent of the parents have no land of their own,” continues Fr. Antony, “and for this reason they work daily on the land of others, or sell things for minimal profit. You can imagine how difficult it is to cope with the fees for private schools which require an exuberant amount!” Because of the caste system, children from Dalit families are not even allowed to attend private schools, so they have no alternative but to attend schools, such as the Kathakinaru RC School, which offer education for free. For this reason, the school was overcapacity: “With only twelve classrooms it was impossible to accommodate them all,” confirms Fr. Antony. “We had an urgent need for new classrooms and turned to St. Anthony’s Charities to ask for support in the construction of two new classrooms.” The total cost of the project was €20,000 with a local contribution of €3,300. A request for support from St. Anthony’s Charities was made for the balance, and an award of €16,700 granted in June 2016.
The stated objectives of the school are to provide easy access to education to the poor and the oppressed, providing education based on both humanitarian and Christian values. “If we manage to achieve these objectives,” says Fr. Antony, “then all the children will have a healthy atmosphere in which to study. Slowly they will also be able to free themselves from their inferiority complexes, concentrate and dedicate themselves better to studying, and follow a regular programme to develop their talents.” The school is also home to a musical band made up of thirty girls and boys. “The band has received many awards at the state level,” adds Fr. Antony.
The project proceeded as planned, on time and to budget. The final phase, from 14 September 2016, saw floors laid, brick walls and concrete columns placed, and completion of the roof, with all works completed by 4 October 2016. The new classrooms will provide much needed accommodation to pupils allowing them to study in safe and comfortable environment. “The inhabitants of Kathakinaru are ready and prepared to maintain the school now that the new classrooms have been built,” says Fr. Antony. “The Parent-Teacher Association has also provided assurances that it will ensure the maintenance of the school with help from the Archbishop and from the school Principal, who will always also be the parish priest.”
“Dear friends of St. Anthony’s Charities and readers of the Messenger of Saint Anthony,” he concludes, “I am truly amazed and touched to see how you accepted my request for help, and you answered so expeditiously and generously. Please accept my thanks, together with those of the children, and their parents who are really happy to see their children in such spacious classrooms protected from the weather. The children, if they could, would thank you in person because they are so happy. In addition to being protected from the heat and rain, the harvest was better this year, and they have been able to focus more on study without being subjected to distractions. Thank you very much from the heart. As the scripture says, ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.’ He will do so a hundredfold, blessing your family, your loved ones, your work and all your heart’s desires! We remain united in prayer. Thanking you once again and hoping to count always on your generosity.”