Throughout the area of my primary responsibility—North American, Australia and Guam—the main arena of evangelization is the parish. True, the brothers minister in many other ways, including schools, hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and countless others. The pillars of ministry in each jurisdiction, however, tend to be the parishes. There is a good argument for keeping it this way; parishes tend to be the focus of Catholic life in these areas. They are much more than just a place to attend Mass on Sunday. They serve as places to build community and to provide outlets for service to the wider society. A well-run parish can support and expand a jurisdiction’s ministry beyond what its brothers could accomplish alone.
Assisting Br John Antony with the visitation of the Province of Saint Fidelis in north India at the end of July and the beginning of August, I saw a very different model in action. Saint Fidelis is a very large province begins just to the east of New Delhi and continues beyond the eastern shore of India to include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Traveling separately, it took John Antony and I ten days to complete the visitation, usually spending no more than one day in each friary and sometimes traveling as many as twelve hours from one friary to the next.
The Capuchin presence in this area of India goes back to at least the early part of the 18th century when the mission was entrusted to the Order by Propaganda Fide. By the mid-twentieth century, Indian laws concerning missionaries made it difficult to continue the mission so most of the parishes and friaries were handed over to local clergy. Indian friars, however, maintained a small presence, and in 1972 the Province of Karnataka-Goa-Maharashtra accepted the territory as its mission. Since then, the jurisdiction has grown into an autonomous province of about 120 friars.
Evangelization in this area of India has always been a difficult proposition. Despite the hard work of friars from France, Italy, Canada, Belgium and the United States over several centuries, Catholics remained a very small minority. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Indian friars first concentrated their efforts, the largest Capuchin parishes have around 200 families. As a way to expand their evangelical efforts, the friars began opening schools. Today, the Province runs about six schools and is in the process of opening others. The schools are open to all students regardless of religion, and offer education from pre-school through grade 12. Each school has an enrollment of around 3000 students with a waiting list that is often exceeds the number of students. The principal of one school told me that they recently had sixty applications for ten openings. These schools allow the brothers to bring the Gospel to bear on the morals and ethics of their society.
Beyond the evangelical impact of the schools, what I found most amazing were the determination the brothers showed and the sacrifices they made to establish the schools. They often began by teaching students under the trees. Then, when they had collected enough in fees, they built one room for the school. As they collected more, they added additional rooms until the whole school was built. Often, the brothers themselves barely had a roof over their heads until the construction of the school was finished. Br Julian Crasta did much of the planning for the schools and supervised their construction, which saved a great deal of money. Rarely did they seek funding for the schools from external sources. Thanks to careful management, most of the schools are not only self-supporting, but provide support for the Province, subsidize their schools in poorer areas and make seed money available to start new schools.
The brothers are quite proud of their schools, and justifiably so. They are proof of how the Order can evangelize even in difficult situations through creative thinking, a sense of mission and a willingness to sacrifice.