Hidden Histories Society

Ms. Heinz’s munificence and the YMCA

The current YMCA building. Photo: Special arrangement  

The book, Hundred Years of YMCA brought out by the organisation mentions a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Cochin before a branch in mainland Ernakulam. With no corresponding evidence, physical or otherwise, to prove this, the latter built in 1939 is deemed to be older. It was under its initiative that the YMCA in Fort Kochi was started in 1956 sensing a need for a centre for youth. The Heinz Hall, in its premises, which has hosted weddings for an entire generation and currently serves as a shuttle court, is named after American philanthropist Vira Heinz. Her tryst with the city led to its construction. Who was Ms. Heinz and how did she get involved with the YMCA?

Fort Kochi of the fifties was still strongly colonial, with major English trading companies’ office there. Trade was vibrant and the port saw a great deal of activity. Cruise ships berthed often. It was on one such cruise that Vira Heinz of the American food conglomerate Heinz 57 Varieties came to the city. As most foreigners did at the time she visited the reputed handicraft store Indian Industries run by George Korula to shop for traditional artefacts.

At the time, George together with a manager of A.V.Thomas & Co, T.C.Varkey, had started the YMCA in a rented room of the present Baron House on Eliphinstone Road.

Maisie, his wife remembers the inchoate beginnings. “Fort Cochin of yore was nothing like this. The grass was so lush on the maidan. The YMCA began in a room. My husband donated the first four chairs to the organisation and soon young boys began to gather there for a game of carrom,” she says.

When Ms. Heinz visited Indian Industries and met George she began asking about the city and its activities.

Later over lunch with him she learnt that a YMCA had been recently started. “Does it have a swimming pool?” she asked George to which he replied, “No, madam, we are in a rented room with four chairs.”

Ms. Heinz then donated the first $ 200 towards enhancing the YMCA.

“Ms. Heinz was an astute person. On the next trip the ship purser was sent to find out about the use of the donated money. When she learnt that the money had been used constructively she contributed more.” Mr. Varkey was invited to New Delhi to meet her on a later trip and George and Maisie were invited to Belfast Castle, Dublin, for a meeting. Maisie remembers with pride when Ms.. Heinz, on meeting the couple, told her husband that he had kept her trust and that he was the person she had thought him to be. With more confidence in George and now seeing the couple more as a friend she donated more money towards YMCA, “up to 40,000 dollars.”

Baby K. Roy, former secretary of YMCA remembers George as an active, jovial man who could impress anybody. Maisie says that as the donations kept coming the higher-ups in the organisation began joking with George about his ability to impress Ms.. Heinz. “What did George do to get funded so? They would ask,” says Maisie breaking into guffaws. Ms. Heinz’s philanthropy was notable. She funded projects across the world. Though she hobnobbed with the world’s crème de la crème but spent her money as endowment towards community projects.

Maisie recollects with delight the dinner at Belfast Castle. “Ms. Heinz was no ordinary woman. She came from the famous business family. She was elderly and known for her charity. That evening had distinguished guests. We had the likes of Lady Cadbury and Lord Macintosh at the dinner. Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have made the war plans at Belfast Castle. The rich and the famous were all known to her.”

With regular financial support from Ms. Heinz the YMCA moved to another building. It acquired 115 cents of land from Ms. Gladys Koder of the famous Jewish business family and moved to its present location. The first structure came up in 1956; a hall in building with a wooden floor was named Heinz Hall after Ms. Heinz, the lady who funded its construction.

The Heinz Hall served as a community hall for a long time and became the most desired address for weddings. In the eighties it was refurbished, its flooring redone and reopened as a badminton court. Today too the venue finds itself engaged every evening in close and thrilling badminton matches, crowded with youngsters, serving the very purpose for which it was built.


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 1:53:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/hidden-histories-ms-heinzs-munificence-and-the-ymca/article7235393.ece

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