Holy Trinity School sixth-graders learned about the culture of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern state, during a presentation at the school by Passionist Father Justin Nelson Alphonse Jan. 24.
Father Alphonse, pastor of St. Agnes Church, was born in Trichy, an ancient city in Tamil Nadu. He shared with the students that he grew up speaking the Tamil language, which is at least 5,000 years old.
Dr. Isaac Larison, who teaches language arts and literature at Holy Trinity, said he wanted the students to have a “more realistic view of the culture,” since they are reading the book “The Bridge Home” by Indian American author Padma Venkatraman.
Larison said he can show the students a map, but “I’ve never been there. This is his reality,” he said of Father Alphonse. “They’ll have a greater appreciation for the book but first of all for the country because they have met someone. They’ll have a more realistic view of the culture.”
Sixth-grader Elliott Redella told Father Alphonse that “The Bridge Home” tells the story of two young sisters in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, who run away from an abusive home. The children end up living on the streets, scavenging for items to sell from the city’s garbage dump.
Father Alphonse told his young listeners that childhood poverty and homelessness are a reality in India. The densely populated country is home to 1.3 billion people. High rates of poverty and illiteracy have caused Indians, especially in the northern part of the country, to struggle, he said.
He shared with the students that there is also an “evil system called a caste system” that keeps people from advancing. Those high up in the caste system have more access to educational opportunities and healthcare, but those in the lower end of the caste system “cannot come up in life because opportunities are denied them,” he said.
Many children go to work to earn money for their families, he explained.
“Some run away hoping for a better life, but life is very challenging on the streets. … They end up begging. … Girls are abused and get into prostitution,” said Father Alphonse.
He told the students that religious communities, such as the Salesians (the Society of St. Francis de Sales) minister to homeless children in India.
The students asked him a variety of questions about life in Tamil Nadu.
In response, Father Alphonse told them he grew up with his father, a banker, his mother, a housewife and two brothers and a sister. They walked everywhere, including to school. His family, like most, didn’t own luxuries such as a refrigerator. They walked to the markets every day to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, which was eaten only once a week or on special occasions.
As a boy, he said he was “naughty” and could usually be found climbing trees or picking fruit from the neighbor’s garden. He did well in school but was talkative in the classroom, which led to his ear being pulled by his teacher, a popular form of discipline in his school.
Tamil Nadu is known for its festivals, including the day of “Pongal,” when cattle are honored for their service to farmers, said Father Alphonse. Cows are bathed and their horns are painted and decorated with balloons. The animals are then led through the streets in a parade.
Though a large percentage of the Indian people are of the Hindu faith tradition, Father Alphonse said his Catholic roots go back three generations.
“I come from a family of very strong Catholic background. That’s why I am a priest,” he said.
His parents sacrificed to send him and his three siblings to Catholic schools because it was difficult for students to “thrive” in the public schools that lacked resources, he said. He attended all-boys schools, he noted. He was an altar server at his parish and was inspired by the way the Carmelite pastor preached. He thought maybe one day he could become a priest as well, he said.
At the age of 15, he entered the seminary and started his journey toward becoming a Passionist priest. Father Alphonse said he will celebrate the 22nd anniversary of his ordination this year.