That miracles indeed occur, I found here.
Santhanam, running a meat shop, and his wife Radha, suffering mental ailment, were thrashed, separated and abandoned by their children near a footbridge in Madurai. By quirk of fate, both were found at different points in time and looked after well by committed people on a mission to serve others.
When Radha slowly started responding to treatment, she volunteered to do odd jobs and help those who gave her a new reason to live. One day when she went to distribute tea in the male ward, Santhanam, blinded by the injury inflicted on him, recognized his wife by her voice. But her mental condition prevented her from recalling him. The staff ensured greater communication between Radha and Santhanam and she took few more months to recover completely. Their reunion was a joyous occasion. With no inclination to return home, they chose to stay on and care for the other disowned souls.
Innumerable heart-wrenching stories of so many helpless and homeless individuals, sick, uncared and abandoned by their families and left to die on the streets, scream out from the corridors of St.Joseph’s Hospice (for dying destitute). But it is the common thread of dignity and unsolicited love that they receive here in the twilight of their lives, binds them. And at the heart of all of them is Rev.Father Thomas Rathappillil.
He is like a parent, friend, guide, counsellor to 325-odd residents. Despite the daunting challenge of burgeoning number of homeless and their worsening conditions in an increasingly narcissistic society today, he transmits hope for mankind.
“There is poverty here too, but many more smiles,” says the self-effacing Father.
The hospice is an antithesis to the grim and foul smelling corridors and rooms I imagine during my drive from Madurai to Kodai Road. A right turn from the Mettur toll gate sets me on a winding path at the foothills of Sirumalai Hills in Dindigul district. And it is amazing to see how such a difficult environment can be so cheerful and warm.
Rows of diseased, deformed and senile men and women keep the four nurses and two dozen para-medical staff busy as they move about the chores of taking care of their every tiny detail. “The success of this place is not in what I do, but what my staff does. I motivate them,” says the 60 years old Father.
“I bought five acres of greenery to be close to nature as it helps in holistic healing. I wanted lot of natural light, air and open space. Maintenance is our focal point,” he shares and I can’t agree less looking at the spic-n-span property.
What took this Kochi-born “secular priest” to such definite service? “When I see people leading inhuman lives, disowned and doomed to fend for themselves, I feel they must have been wonderful persons too. So let them at least die with a good impression of the world,” tells.
It all started a decade ago, when the Father was coming out of a restaurant after a hearty meal with Myrtle Watkins, an English woman, whom he met in Yercaud when he was 27. She had just lost her husband and remained with him like a mother, friend, mentor and guide till her death at 92, two years ago. “We were shocked to find a man, an apology of human being, with an arm and leg missing. He was shaggy with worms coming out of his body. He was scavenging scraps from the huge broken plastic bin battling with stray cows, street dogs and mangy pigs. The sight was too disturbing.”
It took him five years to set up the hospice with nine residents.
“Destitute people always lead life upstream. They are like curry leaves, eaten and thrown,” pain echoes in every word he utters.
Father Thomas distinctly remembers the first resident. “You need to search for them as often they will be under benches or thrown inside thrash bins. The first patient I found was lying outside Government Hospital, Madurai. His brain affected by septicemia, body covered with sores and gangrene had eaten off his forearm. He lived for two days but we cleaned him, fed him well and showered all love and respect.”
Ever since, not a day goes by when the hospice does not get physically mutilated or mentally badgered patients from in and around Madurai and also Coimbatore, Trichy, Tirunelveli, Erode, Virudhnagar, Sivakasi, Kodaikanal, Dindigul. About 70 residents are from outside Tamil Nadu (Bihar, Orissa, Punjab, Gujarat, Karnataka). “Often, they are left behind by their kith and kin outside temples or on railway platforms. Our service is not about how much we do or give but how much love we put in,” says Father Thomas who is helped by two young Jesuits, Father S.J.Mathai, 88 and Father R.George, 86.
“Earlier, we used to go around looking for diseased and abandoned people on the streets and bring them. Now mostly, shopkeepers, autowallahs, bus-drivers, passers-by inform us and we rush to the spot. On arrival, their wounds are bandaged, medication administered, they are washed thoroughly, shaved, dressed afresh, fed wholesome meal and their ragged clothes burnt. Every individual’s specific needs are taken care of. Some can’t see, others can’t walk, few are too feeble to even get up from bed. We nurse the sick with all love and devotion. We have wheelchairs and zimmer frames and take them out in the lawns. Our aim is to restore self-respect in their final hours.”
The value of little things done so sincerely and faithfully surpasses every act here. Had it not been for Father Thomas, all the residents of St.Joseph’s Hospice in the last four years would have been mere statistic in the list of unidentified dead.
His present concern: “People are dying in herds in anonymity in Chennai. Nobody is bothered. So much suffering and pain all around is depressing. I may be biting more than I can chew but I feel God is pushing me.” A good Samaritan has donated 16 acres in Chengulpet and despite funds crunch he is on with the construction of his second hospice that will take 250 inmates in first batch.
Father Thomas is like ‘Mother Teresa’ of South Tamil Nadu. At the heart of his life, he only feels sense of vocation and mission.
On a mission
Born in a Catholic family of nine siblings, he had a deep abiding sense to work for poorest of the poor. With most relatives as priests, he came to Palaikurichi near Trichy, at the age of 12, and joined the Brother Group. Later he did three year “Novi tiate” course in Yercaud to complete his Brotherhood and Post-Graduation in English Literature from Loyola College. Thereafter he trained and worked in France, Rome, joined a seminary in England, worked in Africa. He got ordained at a native church in Kerala and did priestly work in parishes for eight years.
At the age of 42, he also underwent a quadruple bypass surgery and doctors gave him a decade. “But I am in the 18th year and so I am a man in hurry. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between disowned people. God has set me with a task and I shall do his work,” he smiles.
Since its inception in March 2006, the Hospice – the only one of its kind in South Tamil Nadu -- has provided love, care and dignity in life as in death to 700 past residents. At present, it is a loving shelter to 325 patients (140 women and 185 men) including 75 mentally challenged.
It costs Rs.20,000 per annum to take care of one resident.
On an average, four people die every week and so far 950 people have been buried within the premises in an innovatively designed 26 feet deep air-and-water-tight chamber where the body decomposes under natural heat and humidity within five weeks. Prayers of all religions are chanted and every member of the hospice is called out to attend the ceremony.
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