Archbishop Kalist visits Pondicherry Dalit shrine
by Nirmala Carvalho

After the controversy in Tamil Nadu over the failure to appoint a prelate from the 'outcastes', the new archbishop went to administer confirmations in Konankuppam, where almost all Catholics are dalits and there is a great devotion to Our Lady, which Jesuit Fr Beschi wanted dressed in the clothes of local women. A dispensary that will provide access to basic health services to the inhabitants of 10 villages also inaugurated.

Pondicherry (AsiaNews) - The Archbishop of Pondicherry and Cuddalore, Mgr Francis Kalist, has paid a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Periyanayagi (St Mary Major) in the village of Konankuppam, a place very dear to the devotion of Dalits. This was Archbishop Kalist's first visit and takes on special significance in the light of the harsh controversy that accompanied his appointment, which was contested by organised groups of the faithful who demanded an archbishop in Tamil Nadu from the ranks of the 'outcastes', who represent the vast majority of the Catholic population.

Konankuppam is a remote village in the archdiocese where 350 Catholic families live scattered in four villages where there are chapels and seven others without. Ninety-five per cent are dalit, while 35 families are dhobi (another caste considered disadvantaged). The devotion to Our Lady is linked to the work of an Italian missionary, Jesuit Fr. Costanzo Beschi (1680-1747), who in Tamil language was called Viramamunivar (the 'courageous monk') and was a pioneer of inculturation: he wanted a statue of Our Lady here dressed in the sari, earrings and bracelets worn by local women, and for this reason the shrine is visited by believers of all religions.

During his visit to Konankuppam on 31 May, Archbishop Kalist administered Confirmation to 35 boys. "Before the Mass," recounts the parish priest, Fr Devasagaya Raj M Zackarias, former secretary of the office for Dalits of the Indian Bishops' Conference, "he also inaugurated and blessed a newly built dispensary, promoted by the US organisation 'Dalit Solidarity'. Since people here have to travel at least 10 kilometres to reach the hospital, this dispensary will help 10 villages to receive basic health care. We are also looking for a religious congregation of nuns ready to serve in this area".

Fr Zackarias comments, "it was a great experience of faith for the people, to welcome the archbishop for confirmation after three years. Candidates from the most distant villages made a special effort to reach the parish'. Among the initiatives carried out is also the promotion of education: "The current generation," explains the parish priest, "is the first here to attend university. However, especially among girls, there are still many school drop-outs. In the parish, there are many young widows who struggle to give their children an education. The Jesuit province of Chennai is financially supporting two deserving young Dalits to go to university and this year, the diocese also offered scholarships to eight students from this parish.