Standing in front of their new school bus donated by St. Joseph Parish in Edgerton are Fr. Joseph Isidore (in white robe) along with the girls and senior citizens at the St. Hermine’s Home for the Destitute in the Diocese of Tuticorin in India. St. Pius X Parish in Cambridge also bought a generator for the home. (Contributed photo)
I had never met Fr. Joseph Isidore before he came to the Diocese of Madison.
The connection was with my wife’s aunt, Dot Talbot. It seems that she financially helped a seminarian from the Diocese of Tuticorin in India.
When that priest (Father Norbert) was ordained, he began to save the $20 bills she sent him every month with an eye toward helping the less fortunate. Father Joseph is Father Norbert’s friend.
Tsunami gives impetus
Over the years, the $20s added up. The tsunami of 2005 helped decide the direction in which Father Norbert would donate his savings.
Families living close to the Indian Ocean were devastated; parents gone, children orphaned, too much need, too little resources. Blessed Mother Teresa would be rolling up her sleeves, but Mother Teresa was in Heaven.
It was in the midst of this tumultuous time when Father Norbert and Father Joseph started St. Hermine’s Home for the Destitute.
India is primarily a Hindu country which employs the caste system to determine the worth of an individual. Higher caste kids receive an education, lower caste kids don’t.
Boys are more valuable than girls. In the lower castes, girls are seen as a burden to the family. If they live, and often they don’t, girls in the lower castes are literally sold to wealthier families as indentured servants. The exact duties of these young girls are unclear.
Start home for girls, elderly
St. Hermine’s Home for the Destitute was born out of saved $20 bills and the desperate need created by the tsunami.
There are 30 orphaned girls from the age of 10 to 14 and 30 elderly adults with debilitating medical conditions. The girls help with the disabled adults.
Were it not for the St. Hermine’s Home, it’s fair to say that the girls would have been sold and the adults would be dead.
Priest wants to visit U.S.
Father Joseph sent an e-mail to the Diocese of Madison in early 2008. He had six weeks vacation and wanted to visit the U.S. to practice his English. He also hoped to earn stipends that he could take back for the home.
We responded that we would welcome him and do our best with the stipends, but we could offer no guarantees.
When he wrote that he had received his visa, I called Fr. William Vernon, who was administrator of the parishes in Cambridge and Edgerton at that time, and asked him for a favor.
Father William is a friend of mine who is used to me calling and asking for favors. He agreed to do his best. He did, however, ask me to go make other friends.
Spends time in diocese
Father Joseph arrived in October and I turned him over to Father William. During his stay we had a few dinners together, but mostly he helped Father William with St. Pius X Parish in Cambridge and St. Joseph Parish in Edgerton: celebrating Masses and Baptisms, hearing Confessions, and getting to know the people of rural Wisconsin.
He went to various parishioners’ homes for dinner and even rode an 18 wheeler around the area! In one day the truck took him to Milwaukee and Chicago, which he thought was pretty cool.
Having heard about St. Hermine’s Home and the desperate need for funds, Bishop Robert C. Morlino agreed to cover Father Joseph’s plane ticket. Other than that, he could accept stipends and hope for the best.
Education of girls
The home is not a school. To avoid the fate that the caste system defines as their destiny, the young women of St. Hermine’s must be educated. The technological revolution in India has allowed an educated worker to overcome some of the limitations imposed by their caste.
There is a school the girls attend 15 kilometers from the home called Fatima Higher Secondary School. The problem is that the public bus service is sporadic at best. It forces the girls to wait up to two hours to be picked up, which means classes are well underway by the time they arrive. The wait can be even longer for the ride back, leading to lost time on homework.
What would it be like for the girls if they had their own bus to safely pick them up, to safely deliver them home?
Parishes pitch in to help
Now they do. There is a school bus that travels the roads of the rural Indian state of Tamil Nadu. On the front of the bus in proud block letters is the title “St. Hermine’s Home for the Destitute.” On the back of the bus is the name of the benefactor: St. Joseph – Edgerton. With the bus, the girls say, “Every day is like a picnic.”
The Catholics at St. Pius X Parish in Cambridge bought a generator for the home. St. Hermine’s now has running water and lights at night. Father Joseph says that it gives the girls more time for homework.
The generator is not as popular with the young ladies as the bus, but just as necessary. More importantly the generator provides security for the home. There are radical elements in India that would prefer the Catholic Church not educate those in the lower castes, particularly girls.
When Father Joseph arrived, I told him not to expect very much; “it’s a bad economy,” I told him, “probably the wrong time to come.” I wish I had told him to expect a miracle.
Kevin Phelan is the chancellor of the Diocese of Madison.