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Partnership Between U.S. and India Born of Compassion

By Tom Price

On the morning of December 26, 2004, Bishop M. Devadass Ambrose of the Diocese of Thanjavur in southeast India was in his house. Some 8,500 miles away, Father Joe Kerrigan, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was asleep in a hotel room in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was going to a hockey game later that day.

Metuchen delegation visits Thanjavur

Members of the Diocese of Thanjavur, India, greet a parishioner from the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Charities Solidarity Team

About 11 a.m. local time, Bishop Ambrose took a phone call from a priest 100 miles away on the coast at Vailankanni. He heard, "Look at the TV," and, "Something calamitous has happened." Then the line went dead. "The TV was showing Madras," remembers Bishop Ambrose. He saw the flooding and thought, "This is happening somewhere else" (Madras, or Chennai as it now known, is some 200 miles north of Thanjavur).

As the bishop spoke to more people, a shocking picture emerged. "I didn't know the word 'tsunami' back then," he recalls. "I took a jeep, and with people from the hospital, we got to Vailankanni." The scene that greeted them would soon flash around the world.

In the comfort of his Scranton hotel room, Father Joe watched television in horror as the scale of the catastrophe became known. "The numbers kept going up and up and up," he says of the reports of dead and missing, which eventually topped 200,000.

A Lasting Partnership

Almost five years later, Bishop Ambrose and Father Joe sit together at the pastor's house at Sacred Heart in New Brunswick, looking back at five years of partnership between the Diocese of Thanjavur and the Diocese of Metuchen and the tangible solidarity that has been forged.

"We hope we brought viable concern and love from the USA, but how amazingly enriched we were ourselves by their love and faith, how rewarded a hundredfold by their unique presence."
~John Schweska, Metuchen solidarity team

They are joined by Father Arul Raj, who is serving as a parochial vicar in Metuchen and is studying for his master's degree. He is one of two priests Bishop Ambrose sent from India as part of the partnership. When his studies in New Jersey are complete, Father Raj will bring his new skills back to Thanjavur.

Father Raj was a member of the emergency response team that the bishop organized just hours after the tsunami struck. He tried to make sense of the first reports from coast. He recalls the priests at Vailankanni frantic and struggling to communicate what had happened: " 'The water is all over us,' they said."

In the grim days that followed, Father Raj began the task of tending to the dead. He organized a group of teenagers to help him collect the bodies, photograph them so loved ones could identify them, and bury them in mass graves. By the end, Father Raj had presided over funeral Masses for 850 people.

Though staff and parishioners at the two dioceses were complete strangers five years ago, there have now been five visits between them. Metuchen's tsunami fundraising efforts contributed $700,000 to an $18-million Catholic Relief Services reconstruction program for the Diocese of Thanjavur. This money went toward building 3,000 new homes.

"We already had a partnership with Guatemala, but we wanted to help," recalls Father Joe. "We went to Ken Hackett [CRS' president] and asked if we could channel our help to one area." Meanwhile, Bishop Ambrose was seeking help.

"The social services committee of the diocese contacted Caritas India. Caritas India contacted CRS," Bishop Ambrose explains.

"We've gone from building homes to building people,"
~Bishop M. Devadass Ambrose, Diocese of Thanjavur

CRS served as liaison between the two dioceses as the agency's tsunami reconstruction program began. Thus, the seeds were sown for a lasting partnership between the two dioceses. "I first visited [Metuchen] in 2005. This is when the relationship really started," says Bishop Ambrose.

"He told us that the tsunami was over. He visited us to engage us spiritually and pastorally. It was a new phase of the relationship," continues Father Joe.

'How Amazingly Enriched We Were'

Father Joe explains how Bishop Ambrose spoke of the plight of the orphans the tsunami had left behind. Many, particularly the sons of fishermen, needed to learn a new trade if they were to have any hope of earning a living. The Metuchen solidarity team decided to use some of the funds they had raised to expand the hundred-year-old St. Xavier Industrial Training Center in Thanjavur, where these orphans would be able to learn a new trade.

December 26 marked the fifth anniversary of one of the world's most horrific natural disasters—the Indian Ocean tsunami. Learn more about CRS' work to leave the tsunami's survivors with a legacy of hope.

Father Joe and parishioners from the diocese visited Thanjavur in 2007 for the dedication of the refurbished and expanded center. Following this, Metuchen and Thanjavur partnered on the construction of a cyclone shelter—which doubles as the chapel of Melakaraiiruppu village. Before it was built, 80 families had to walk 4 miles to take shelter. Now, when a storm approaches, they have a safe haven. The shelter was dedicated in February 2009, and again a delegation from Metuchen was there to celebrate with the people of Thanjavur.

John Schweska was one of Metuchen's solidarity team who went on the February visit. "We hope we brought viable concern and love from the USA," he says, "but how amazingly enriched we were ourselves by their love and faith, how rewarded a hundredfold by their unique presence."

With Schweska on the visit was Bob McLaughlin, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, who admits that the contrast with life in the United States made a real impression on him. "When you actually experience their lifestyle, it opens your eyes. The smiles on their faces were saying a warm welcome wherever we went."

'We Share One Mission'

As we reach the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, Bishop Ambrose is once more visiting his friends in Metuchen. As he and Father Raj chat with parishioners at Sacred Heart, it is clear that these people, from opposite sides of the planet, have come a long way together.

"It is not merely money, it is a personal relationship between the dioceses," explains Bishop Ambrose. "We understand that we share one mission."

"We get a sense that we are one Church. It is a universal Church. We are all brothers and sisters across the world."
~Ernie Revoir, St. Veronica Parish

Bishop Ambrose speaks of how the partnership now helps the whole community in Thanjavur, not just those who were impacted by the tsunami. The latest Thanjavur-Metuchen project is a scholarship program for nurses at Our Lady of Health School of Nursing in Thanjavur. Known as Nursing Out of Poverty, the project gives village girls with little access to higher education the chance to earn a nursing degree. Both of the dioceses kick in to help fund the girls' tuition and other costs. The first graduates will receive degrees this December. "We've gone from building homes to building people," smiles Bishop Ambrose.

Ernie Revoir, of St. Veronica Parish in Howell, New Jersey, tries to sum up what this partnership has meant for parishioners across the Metuchen diocese: "It grew from the wanting to help with the tsunami. We get a sense that we are one Church. It is a universal Church. We are all brothers and sisters across the world. There are a lot of people from the parishes here. This is a real connection."

When speaking about the partnership, Father Joe acknowledges the continuing guidance and expertise CRS brings to the relationship, as well as to the diocese's other Global Solidarity Partnership with the Diocese of Santa Rosa in Guatemala. It is clear that there are lasting bonds here. Out of the compassion that moved strangers to respond to a disaster 8,500 miles away, something lasting has been born.

Tom Price is senior communications manager at CRS at headquarters in Baltimore.

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