Bill Flynn of Ocean City stands with the fifth-grade boys and girls classes from the St. Joseph English Medium School in India. He visited the students during a trip in January and February.
Bill Flynn of Ocean City recently took his fourth trip in four years to Shanti Bhavan (House of Peace) Seminary in the city of Rayagada in the state of Orissa in the Berhampur Diocese in India to help the seminarians there. This year, he also visited St. Joseph English Medium School in Paralakhemundi to share information about life in the United States and to receive items to bring back to its sister school in the United States, St. Joseph School in Hammonton. In these passages from his journal, he chronicled his experiences during the journey in India in January and February and a visit to Hammonton in March.
ARRIVAL: Upon arrival at Shanti Bhavan, I was met by the assembled group of all seminarians (22 year one brothers, eight year two and four year three). I was treated to the customary welcome song, a small bouquet of flowers from the garden and then individual handshakes and broad smiles. I had 68 hands assisting me to carry my two suitcases to the second floor and then they stood outside my room – still grinning broadly. Knowing how interested they were in anything American, I invited the whole group (about 20 of them) into my 9-foot-by-9-foot room to watch me open my bags. My room is furnished with a single bed (just a little shorter than our standard twin bed), a table, a chair and a built-in two-thirds wall closet where clothes are folded and put on shelves – no hangers. Those young men crowded in next to each other and surrounded the bed while I opened my bags and showed them my camera, clothes, zip-locked bag of pills (they were aghast I take six pills a day – one asked, “Will you die soon?”), lesson plans and other tools of the trade for classroom work.
FIRST DAY: The work ethic for Indian priests and religious is intense. I try to keep up and teach six classes each day at three competency levels. Class periods are 45 minutes long. I cover classes in English grammar, listening skills, speaking skills and writing skills. Classes for computer science are squeezed in whenever possible and I borrow time from their daily recreation periods (i.e. I take six seminarians aside for a computer class and the rest go to their daily recreation period to play volleyball, cricket or other games). The seminarians would rather take a computer class than eat or sleep. One special event occurred on my first day – “Little William” was born. The seminary had nine cows and a calf was born on my first day of class to make the total 10. The day after he was born his mother was tied in the cement barn and the calf was allowed to wander in the back yard. I went near him slowly and “mooed” gently. He walked close to me and I continued to “moo” and he allowed me to touch his head and scratch behind his ears. Thereafter he followed me all over the yard to the amusement of those working nearby. Ergo: There is a cow in India named William Flynn who thinks I’m his mother.
ST. JOSEPH ENGLISH MEDIUM SCHOOL IN PARALAKHEMUNDI: St. Joseph School is managed by one priest, as the principal, and three sisters. All four religious have part-time teaching assignments. The rest of the staff is made up of lay men and lay women. More than 1,300 students are in this kindergarten to grade 9 school. This is the first year for grade 9 and for the next three years one additional grade will be added so it will be both an elementary and a secondary school. My duties here are two fold: Show a happy American face to each class (most grades have two classes and the class size ranges from 30 to 40) and answer a myriad of questions about American culture. The school population is upper middle class to rich and the children come from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds, including Hindu, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Tribal and Buddhist. All classes and conversations in the school are conducted in English. With more than one class for most of the grades, I had a sore throat and tired legs at the end of that day. In five hours I had one tea break of 15 minutes and lunch was served at the end of the day. The highlight of this day was when I visited the two fifth-grade classes, who were assembled in a single room. They presented me with the single class letter that is addressed to the fifth-grade class of St. Joseph School in Hammonton, N.J., their “sister school” in America, along with a personal letter to each student in the fifth-grade class in Hammonton.
ST. JOSEPH SCHOOL IN HAMMONTON: On March 18, I presented the students with a one-hour slide show of pictures of everyday life in Berhampur Diocese, a discussion on the objectives of the “sister school” program, individual handwritten letters from the students in India to each of the Hammonton students, two classroom gifts of birds native to Paralakhemundi that were hand carved from polished water buffalo horns, and a composite class letter from India. The students from Hammonton planned soon to develop their first individual letters to India. The idea is for these communications to expand over time with additional postal letters (foreign stamps are prized in India), email messages sent to the respective school’s email addresses, class photographs and small gifts of friendship. If God keeps me in good health, I hope to return to India in 2012 to exchange mementoes of friendship between our students and the students of Berhampur Diocese.
THE PRACTICE OF OUR FAITH BY INDIAN CATHOLICS: One of the most positive experiences I have encountered here is the strength and depth of our faith for so many in this country. Many villagers and tribal citizens have a thatched or corrugated tin roof house that is in a row of about eight connected houses (Philadelphia rowhouse style). They average 8 feet wide with a front room of 8 feet by 5 feet, followed by a bedroom of 6 feet by seven feet, followed by a kitchen/dining area of 8 feet by 6 feet and then an outside back floor area with thatched roof, covering an area for such tasks as washing clothes. A family of four or more can live in a house of this size. With space at a premium, what is the most common use for approximately 2? feet by 5 feet of the front room? An in-house prayer room. Mats are placed on the floor of the prayer room and many holy cards and pictures of Our Blessed Mother and Christ are on the far wall and maybe a calendar with holy pictures is on the one side wall. It is here the family sits for evening rosary, nightly prayers and private meditations. Their house chapel or prayer room is the most important room in the house. Another aspect of the faithful in India is their devotion to their priests. Priests here are primarily pastoral priests but they also settle disputes between villagers, provide medical support when necessary and visit the most remote outposts where the only access is by walking up steep mountain trails. In return, their status in the community is extremely high. In almost all the many parishes I have visited, to whatever the priests asks of his flock, he gets an immediate and positive response – with a smile.
TAPIOCA PARTY: How do you motivate 31 seminarians into 12 hours of continuous hard work and make them think they are having fun? Declare a Tapioca Party. We grow hundreds of pounds of tapioca in the garden (really what we would call a truck farm of more than 2 acres) and on one day we pull the tubers from the ground, cut off the stalks for replanting, peel and wash the tubers, cut them into small chunks, boil them, drain them and then spread the pieces on the roof for drying in the following days’ hot sun. The Tapioca Party starts after morning Mass and then the schedule is simply forgotten. A small boom box is brought to the field near the back kitchen of the seminary and bouncy India music is played. Everyone (priests, seminarians and I) works at a fast pace at the jobs described above and there are many good-natured taunts exchanged between the seminarians, between the priests, from the priest to the seminarians, between me and anyone – but not from the seminarians to the priests. It really becomes a fun event and everyone works up a good sweat in the 80 to 85 degree day. This is their winter, remember – hard manual work is only done in the early morning hours during the harshest summer months of May, June and July with daytime temperatures at 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit).
THE HOUSE PICNIC: Once a year, the seminarians enjoy a real one-day respite away from the demands of seminary life. That’s not to say seminary life isn’t rewarding. To those who remain a seminarian after these first three years of the 14 years it takes to become an ordained priest, seminary life is clearly the road for them to travel. However, a one-day “kick up your heals” holiday is something to be cherished and enjoyed – and they certainly do. The day starts with the usual wakeup bell and assembly for Mass. After Mass, the schedule is forgotten and it’s “all hands on deck” to prepare food for transport (feeding more than 40 people 10 miles from the seminary is not like packing a few sandwiches). You cannot prepare the food the night before – no refrigeration (the single seminary refrigerator is as large as Alice Kramden’s icebox on the “Honeymooners”). Bicycles have to be prepared and fixed (all are needed and there are always a few flat tires and some unexpected damage). Thirty-one seminarians, four on-staff priests, two guest priests, two guest nuns, four nannies, an American English teacher, and just a few pots and pans need to be transported via one very small car, one three-wheeled taxi, two motorcycles and about 20 bikes. It takes a couple of trips by the cars and taxi but all is transported to the picnic site under a very old grove of very large mango trees along a wide shallow river. The river is not much more than several small shallow streams wandering down a river bed; however, when the monsoon rains come, the river is a giant about 10 feet deep and 200 yards wide. Games, cricket, lying about on mats and a huge lunch are enjoyed by all. I taught my traditional lessons in blackjack and five card draw/seven card stud poker. The seminarians retaught me a nine card game. The picnic grounds were visited by one small herd of water buffalo with shepherd, two packs of goats with little boy shepherds, a few nasty dogs that awaited the scraps of leftover food and everyone gave a wide berth to when they started to growl and fight one another, and another party of picnickers who I thought was a group on a family reunion celebration. We arrived back at the House of Peace, hot, sweaty, dusty, full of good food and quite tired. The schedule restarts with the 7:30 p.m. bell for rosary, 8 p.m. bell for supper followed by a few minutes of free time, the 9 p.m. bell for evening prayer followed by individual adoration and lastly the 10 p.m. bell for lights out.
PROGRESS OF THE BROTHERS IN ENGLISH AND COMPUTER SCIENCE: Although there are 19 year one seminarians with a wide range of competency in English comprehension, it seems as though almost all are more familiar with my American accent. Sentences only have to be repeated once and rarely do I have to ask a more fluent brother to repeat what I have said in the local state language. (All 28 states in India have, and fiercely maintain, their own state language. Many languages even have their own font.) After completing the five paragraph essay program, I was pleased to see all but four seminarians were able to follow the methodology and prepare an acceptable essay. In addition, as of last Monday, all brothers have created a folder in My Documents and then have created or copied a few files and saved them into their folders. Considering some brothers had never put their hands on a computer keyboard before our computer classes, that is great progress. As I prepare to conclude this trip, I can tell you they would all rather go to the library where the five computers are assembled and have a computer class than eat, sleep or go to recreation period and play cricket or volleyball.
ST. JOSEPH SCHOOL IN HAMMONTON: On March 18, I presented the students with a one-hour slide show of pictures of everyday life in Berhampur Diocese, a discussion on the objectives of the “sister school” program, individual handwritten letters from the students in India to each of the Hammonton students, two classroom gifts of birds native to Paralakhemundi that were hand carved from polished water buffalo horns, and a composite class letter from India. The students from Hammonton planned soon to develop their first individual letters to India. The idea is for these communications to expand over time with additional postal letters (foreign stamps are prized in India), email messages sent to the respective school’s email addresses, class photographs and small gifts of friendship. If God keeps me in good health, I hope to return to India in 2012 to exchange many mementos of friendship between our students and the students of Berhampur Diocese.