Being more than 9,000 miles from home when a natural disaster occurs most certainly leaves a person with a sense of helplessness.
Sister Rufina “Ruby” Kappithanparambil expressed that feeling while describing the severe flooding in August in Kerala, India, where her community, the Congregation of the Carmelite Religious, is based.
Sister Ruby and four other sisters serve in the refectory at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, cooking meals for seminarians, faculty and staff. The religious community arrived in St. Louis in 2003 and began serving at the seminary the following year. Sister Ruby, the local superior, was part of the original group that came here 15 years ago.
In the first few days of flooding, “we were were worried — we couldn’t get to them,” Sister Ruby said of her community, as well as the sisters’ families in India. “All of the electricity failed. People had no food, no shelter. They have to start from the beginning. It’s heartbreaking.”
The flooding, which occurred in mid-August, was due to unusually heavy rainfall during monsoon season. It’s the worst flooding the state — on the southwest coast of India — has experienced since 1924. More than 1.45 million people have have been displaced, and more than 400 people have died, with that number expected to rise. Many families also have lost their homes to landslides. The rainfall and its damage also has extended to other parts of the country in recent weeks, including Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.
The sisters’ motherhouse is in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. In India, the community serves primarily as school teachers. About 60 sisters have lost their homes, Sister Ruby said. Many schools in which the sisters serve have been turned into shelters for people displaced by flooding.
Sister Ruby has been inspired by the stories of unity, with people from all walks of life working together on recovery efforts. She teared up as she described the fishermen who have used their boats to help with rescue operations, for example. “The churches are open for everyone, the schools are open,” she said. “It is bringing people together once again. There is no difference between caste (in life) and religion. There are no politics. They are working as one.”
Catholic organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and Caritas India have been collaborating with government and other local partners to provide emergency aid to families impacted by the disaster. The Indian government estimates that recovery efforts will cost more than $1.1 billion U.S. dollars.
CRS has been providing aid to more than 2,200 families, with a priority in Wayanad District, a tribal area where people mostly survive on agriculture and foraging. It was among the hardest hit and most isolated areas impacted by the flooding. The organization is offering resources including water purifying tablets for clean drinking water, buckets for safe water storage, hygiene items and shelter kits.
Father Mathew Azhakath, a Carmelite priest originally from Kerala who was in St. Louis in September to lead a retreat, visited with the Carmelite sisters at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and spoke about the flooding there. The priest currently is director of a Carmelite conference and study center in Bangalore. “The people have been generous,” he said. “There is a wonderful unity among the people.”
Bishop Joseph Raja Rao Thelegathoti of the Diocese of Vijayawada in southeast India also visited St. Louis last month on other business. He shared his perspective of the flooding in Kerala.
“Every diocese in the country has reacted positively and they have sent immediate relief in the form of money and in the form of things,” he said. “To our satisfaction, the first people to go there for relief were the Church organizations. The religious congregations opened their houses, the dioceses opened their schools and centers to the people.”
The bishops have donated toward recovery efforts, including a special collection taken up recently during weekend Masses. There are 174 dioceses in India, Bishop Thelegathoti said.
“Right now they keep writing to us about relocating people and giving them decent housing,” he said. “There are many who are very poor and they need housing. Some of them have nothing because their land has been washed away” from landslides.
The bishop also is encouraged by the unity of the Indian people. “The entire community of Kerala became a fraternity,” he said. “There’s been no division or discrimination. Each one began to help the other. It was a chance for the (Catholic) Church to show its solidarity. The Church in Kerala experienced the solidarity of the Church from outside through its support.”