Greetings from Kolkata

By Niki Papageorgiou, Professor, School of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

With the blessings of His Eminence Metropolitan Constantine of Singapore, I had the opportunity to visit the missionary community of West Bengal in India recently. The missionary community that has been established there for the last 40 years is slowly but steadily being strengthened and enriched with the baptism of new members, while the catechetical work is being continued in anticipation of the entry of other new members into the body of the Church.

The Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior, located in Kalighat, was recently renovated, regaining its former glory and serving as the pivot of a small but dynamic parish. In a well-kept environment, full of tropical trees and plants, it is the jewel of the region and attracts pilgrims (and not only the Orthodox) with its splendor and grandeur. Around the church, the bustling neighborhood lives and breathes to the rhythm of goddess Kali, with the hawkers lining her temple and the surrounding lanes, the buses, rickshaws, trams and trucks crossing the main road, while underground runs the metro, the oldest underground transport system in India, dragging the daily life of Indian citizens.

The care program for children and the needy continues on a daily basis in the church precincts. Every day the neighbourhood children, homeless or abandoned, come very early in the morning to get milk and cookies in order to “survive another day”. And every noon, about a hundred homeless, poor, sick or elderly people wait impatiently in the queue to get the day’s cooked meal, which consists of rice with lentils, potatoes, okra, or other vegetables. In the church precincts, in a space that is yet to be formulated, it is in our future plans to operate an eye clinic, which will offer medical care to the destitute and the patients in need.

West Bengal has, in total, ten priests and a small but dynamic “yeast” of believers, who got to know Orthodoxy in various ways, even through the contribution of digital technology, after searching on the Internet. Undoubtedly, real-life communication remains the first and main way to get to know the Church, and priests do their best to teach and catechize. These priests have under their pastoral jurisdiction about fifteen churches, all located in the wider area, while the social work of the Church continues with the operation and maintenance of five primary schools and five general health care clinics, which operate in the wider region of West Bengal.

A little outside Calcutta, in Bakreswar, is the building complex of the Orthodox Church which, with the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary being its most important structure, includes the main administration building, the girls’ orphanage, the old school which is being renovated, and the new school, which is the jewel of the area. Sister Nektaria is the soul of this complex as she runs the school, looks after the girls in the orphanage and handles any administrative or other work necessary to run this place. The new school, named after Saint Ignatius, was inaugurated and began operating in 2019, offering high-level education to children from the wider area, which is why it is highly esteemed not only by the children’s parents but also by the entire local community. This school is attended by more than 600 students and has eleven classes, since the Indian education system is based on a single form, the twelfth being currently missing. The educational staff consists of 35 teachers of all specialties. During this period, the third floor of the school is being repaired; once completed, the missing classroom is going to be added, which will make the accommodation of other students possible, too.

The old school, in accordance with the intentions of sister Nektaria, is planned to operate as a College for the training of teachers, the diploma of which will enable teaching to students of elementary education. Thus, on the one hand, it will offer the girls of the orphanage the opportunity to continue their studies, as long as they are interested in this field, and on the other, it will be able to function as a nursery for teachers to meet the needs of the “St. Ignatius” School.

Despite the countless financial difficulties, the girls’ orphanage still provides food, shelter, education and entertainment, making up in the best possible way for the family that has been broken by death, illness, or simply extreme poverty. The orphanage currently hosts over 120 girls of various ages, from three to twenty years old. The long-term operation of the orphanage since 1999 as well as the humid climate of the area, have caused a lot of damage: as a result, it is currently being renovated in order to offer a clean and functional environment for the girls who live there. Sister Nektaria, who takes care of these girls as if they were her own, struggles with the limited financial means she has available, so that her children, as she calls them, do not lack anything, from the simplest things, like pocket money on a school trip, to covering the costs of their education, which often reaches University.

In the center of the complex is the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, which operates on Sundays and major holidays, creating a small but dynamic parish. In addition to the Orthodox children of the orphanage for boys and girls, a group of believers who live in the suburbs attend church every Sunday. The second generation of Orthodox believers in Calcutta is already beginning to be formed, young children who have been born in Orthodox families and are baptized from their infancy, cultivating hopeful expectations for the future of the Church.

A little further down in the same area is the boys’ orphanage, which also hosts over 80 boys of all ages. There as well, the boys receive the same care as the girls in terms of meeting basic needs (such as accommodation, food, education, health care and others.) All of this constitutes a small but dynamic nucleus for an Orthodox community that is developing, albeit with difficulties due to the milieu, but also with optimism for the future.

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60 χρόνια μετά: Εκδήλωση μνήμης Αγίων Ιεραποστόλων