Church-run schools in north India are key to helping dalit converts to Christianity escape the poverty trap.
Fr. Varghese Vithayathil, Provincial Superior of the Congregation of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), described the importance of education in Bijnor Diocese and the surrounding area in north India in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
There were no Christians in Bijnor until three priests from the CMI arrived in Bijnor in 1972 – Fr. Vithayathil estimates there are now more than 36,000 Christians in the diocese and around 70 priests, not including priests working in outlying provinces.
Most converts to Christianity are dalits – the very lowest caste in Indian society – historically referred to as ‘untouchables.’
Fr. Vithayathil said, “The message of Jesus is directly addressed to them [i.e. the dalits] – peace, forgiveness, love – they are more attracted to Christ than the upper caste.”
He described how development work among the dalits is one of their priorities, as the government is not providing much help for them.
He said, “It is our task to teach them about their rights, develop them – education is the most important thing.”
“We are having many schools, because without a school there is no development.”
Fr. Vithayathil explained how schools are also vital in catechetical and evangelization work.
He said, “There we can communicate the message of Jesus very easily, a message of peace and harmony.”
Currently they have both Hindi and English-medium schools.
Fr. Vithayathil said, “Parents want English-medium schools – it is the computer age and the internet is seen as very important – without English no future, so English education is becoming very important.”
There are 14 schools in Bijnor Diocese helping approximately 20,000 children – 9 of these employ English as the language of instruction and the other 5 use Hindi.
There are also 8 English-medium schools in the provinces teaching about 15-16,000 children.
For many children, English is new to them and has to be mastered.
He said, “It is difficult in the beginning but they pick it up, in 7th or 8th standard [age 12-13 years] they can speak English fluently.”
“Even village people, they want to send children to school, but have to send children to work in the field to support the family – far off villages.”
He described how they are hoping to start more schools in rural areas, but need the money to set them up and dedicated personnel to run them.
The Church is making a big impact in the area, where there is currently only 40 percent literacy; this figure has grown by 8-10 percent since the Church started its schools.
Fr. Vithayathil explained how the founder of the CMI, Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara, ordered priests to have schools attached to their parishes in Kerala – “He said without schools there is no parish.”
The CMI is Part of the ancient Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its lineage back to the Apostle Thomas.
It was the first indigenous religious congregation in the Catholic Church in India.
Aid to the Church in Need is helping the CMI’s education work by supporting the order’s priests through Mass stipends.