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Parish Hostels Form Church 'Powerhouse' in Troubled District
Anto Akkara
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Sunday, January 3, 2010
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RAIKIA, India (CNS)—Father Vijay Pradhan has one place to credit for his decision to become a priest.

"I do not know whether I would have been a priest had I not studied in the church hostels here," said Father Pradhan, a parish priest serving in the town of Raikia in Orissa state's Kandhamal district.

Such parish-run hostels are credited by clergy and women religious alike for fueling a rise in vocations in the violence-plagued district. The hostels provide education, spiritual formation and dormitory-style living for students of various ages.

"My father was a schoolteacher and there were several others in the family who were also teachers," recalled the 51-year-old priest, who studied at a hostel in Mondosore, a village in Kandhamal. "So it was likely that I, too, would have become a teacher. But the five-year stay in the church hostel changed the course of my life."

Father Mrutyunjay Digal, secretary to Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said nearly 80 percent of the archdiocese's priests have been educated in hostels.

"I am, myself, a product of the hostel system," Father Digal told Catholic News Service in a recent interview.

Almost every Kandhamal parish has hostels for boys, while hostels for girls are managed by nuns belonging to various congregations.

Home to 75 percent of the 64,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, parishes in Kandhamal sponsor 32 hostels. Their sizes vary, ranging from 40 students to more than 4,000 young people. Hindu students are welcome as well.

The elaborate hostel network provides education, room and board for students. Parishes have sponsors for about two-thirds of the students from across India and internationally.

"I would say the hostel system is the powerhouse of the church," Archbishop Cheenath said.

Because the government education system in the scattered jungle villages is in disarray, poor parents are eager to send their children to the church-run hostels, Archbishop Cheenath said.

"Here they had not only access to proper education. They had opportunity for character and faith formation with regular prayers and catechism classes," he said.

As a result almost all of the parish priests—78 of more than 100—are from hostel communities in the archdiocese. In contrast, clergy in most mission centers elsewhere are drawn from traditional Christians pockets such as Mangalore and the states of Kerala and Goa.

The hostels not only benefit young people, but entire families, Archbishop Cheenath said.

"Many of our people have come up in life," he said, citing the many Christians within the government and in professional jobs who have studied in the hostels.

Archbishop Cheenath pointed particularly to Ramakant Nayak, a retired Indian government official who now serves as a member of the Indian Parliament. Seventy years ago, Nayak's parents insisted German missionaries take him to a hostel. Nayak has said had he not had the chance to study at a hostel, he would have ended up as a shepherd.

The high profile of the hostels left them open to vandalism during a series of attacks in 2007 and 2008, when dozens of Catholic and Christian institutions as well as the homes of Christians in Orissa were attacked by Hindu fundamentalists, Archbishop Cheenath said.

The violence followed the murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu fundamentalists declared Saraswati's murder was a Christian conspiracy.

The 85-year old Hindu leader had been carrying out a strident campaign against conversion to Christianity in Kandhamal, where 120,000 Christians—a majority of them Catholic—account for more than 20 percent of the population.

Despite the violence, Catholic ministry continues because the hostels "are the main source of vocations," Sister Pauline, one of the two provincials of the congregation of St Joseph of Annecy in India, told CNS from Bhubaneswar.

She said her order's province, which includes northern and eastern India, has 40 women in formation, "and 15 of them are from Kandhamal."

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