Healing the Sick in Gorakhpur

text by Lark Ellen Gould
photographs by Ilene Perlman

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It’s an early Thursday morning in Gorakhpur, a small town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh at the end of the train line from Delhi. Father George Kalladanthiyil, C.S.T., has just finished his meditations with the 30 young seminarians who live at St. Joseph’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Seminary. He walks toward an outdoor altar where all is still, except for the sound of a light wind and the cawing of crows. A statue of the Virgin Mary guards the altar in the grotto, formerly part of an old train switching station abandoned by the British more than a century ago. Enveloped in orange garlands, which were placed by local villagers, the statue also guards two graves. One bears the headstone of a man who died in the prime of his life, Father Joseph Thoomkuzhy, C.S.T., who, we learn from the headstone, was born in 1959, professed as a religious in 1977, and ordained a priest in May 1986. He died in July of the same year.

The priest’s death was not remarkable. It is why he died that lights the fire in Father George’s eyes.

“He had an allergic reaction to the penicillin he took for a cold he had that summer,” says the priest who runs the daily operations of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Gorakhpur and vividly remembers the new young priest.

“If we had had our hospital here at that time, this would not have happened. This was one of the reasons we built it.”

“Today, the Diocese of Gorakhpur runs a hospital, clinics and a variety of social work services, programs staffed with well-educated doctors, attorneys and social workers who bring professional assistance to a region in need.

The Diocese of Gorakhpur encompasses some 11,000 square miles, stretching north to the Nepal border and east to the state of Bihar. In this densely populated area, more than 85 percent of the total population of 13.5 million people profess Hinduism; the rest follow Islam. There was no formal Catholic presence in the region until 1970, when members of the Little Flower Congregation, a Syro-Malabar community of priests from India’s southern state of Kerala, began to minister to the needs of the people.

In 1984, the Holy See erected the Diocese of Gorakhpur, entrusting it to the care of the Little Flower Congregation and naming Father Dominic Kokkat, C.S.T., as its first bishop. Under Mar Dominic’s leadership, the diocese operates 2 parishes, 20 mission stations, 24 convents, 17 primary schools, 7 high schools, two maternity clinics, 11 clinics, 183 educational programs and 45 health education centers. “These community-based programs give this sleepy Indian outpost near the Nepalese border much-needed services, offering the hopeless a better chance of survival in a world of poverty that has remained unchanged for a millennium.

Survival starts first with health care, a service that had been the sole domain of the rich until the diocese opened Fatima Hospital in 1995. The Gorakhpur area is rife with diseases that doctors in developed nations seldom treat today: leprosy, cholera, dysentery, malaria, viral fever, jaundice, encephalitis, tuberculosis and polio. Recently, an outbreak of filaria, a mosquito-transmitted bacteria that attacks and painfully swells the testicles as elephantiasis might billow a leg, threatened these flood-plagued villages dependent on water from stagnant wells, polluted rivers and slow streams.

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Tags: India Health Care Poor/Poverty Village life