Summerville woman returns to India and proves that people can make a difference

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles about India.

SUMMERVILLE — Helena Moniz has many memories of the seven months she recently spent volunteering in south central India and all of them crystallize in her description of how simple gifts delighted and amazed the children there.

“Some kids had never seen an apple before,” Moniz said in an interview with The Miscellany. “Just giving them an apple was a big deal for them.”

This gratefulness, she said, revealed both the deep sense of love and gratitude embodied by  the Indian people and the often shocking poverty in the community she served.

Moniz, a parish secretary at St. Theresa the Little Flower in Summerville, returned Jan. 14 from her second trip to Dharmasagar, India. The town is located in the Diocese of Warangal in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

She first visited Dharmasagar for a month in July 2006 and was so moved by the experience that she immediately decided to raise money for a return trip.

“All the plans fell into place,” she said. “I saw that was what happened when you decide to do what God wants with an open and trusting heart.”

As in 2006, she worked with Father Thomasaiah “Thomas” Reddimasu, pastor at St. Anthony’s Church in Dharmasagar. He served in the Diocese of Charleston from 2001-2006 and then returned to his native country to take over leadership of St. Anthony’s, the largest parish in his diocese. It includes a main church plus 10 missions, and serves about 7,000 Catholics. Most of India’s Catholics live in the southern part of the country, he said.

Since returning, Father Reddimasu has opened many facilities to help people around Dharmasagar, including a boarding home for boys and girls, many of whom are orphans because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the area.

He also has started a training center for catechists, occupational schools and special trade schools for women.

On this trip, Moniz said she did a bit of everything in the parish and in the surrounding community.  

“I was a roamer,” she said. “Whatever I was asked to do, I would very happily do it.”

Her duties ranged from teaching and reading to children at the boarding home to mending clothing and helping at a local hospital. She organized holiday celebrations for the children, shucked corn, worked in the garden, took groups of children on outings and helped Father Reddimasu with parish duties.

Frequently, Moniz traveled around the parish with him while he celebrated Mass and other sacraments for people at the mission churches.

In some places, she said, Mass was celebrated outdoors or under very primitive shelters.

“It was like walking the path Christ walked,” Moniz said. “Christ was born in a manger, and this was very simplistic like that. I felt very close to God during those Masses.”

The simple locations did not matter, she said. Moniz said the Catholics of Dharmasagar always seemed happy just to be together celebrating the Eucharist and the love of God, whether they were in the main church at St. Anthony’s or in a simple, narrow room with a low table for an altar.

Moniz spent many of her mornings mending clothing for children and visiting with people in the nearby village.

“I wanted to share things with the people and just to show them how special they were to me,” she said. “I was so fascinated by everything they did. I slept on the floor with everybody else, if that’s what they did, because it was just a way to connect to people. We were connected through worshipping the same God.”

People in the village were happy with simple gifts and pleasures that Americans take for granted, she said.

“The children were happy with fruit like apples and bananas, the girls were happy with simple glass bangles like many Indian women wear,” Moniz said. “Married women were even happy with a gift of safety pins. Young people were thrilled with a mirror, a bucket to bathe with, clothing.”

Moniz also arranged holiday celebrations in the main parish for Halloween and Thanksgiving that were completely new experiences for both children and adults.

She also took part in traditional Indian festivals such as Diwali, the annual festival of light which was celebrated in November.

She said it’s difficult for some people in the United States to come to terms with the kind of poverty many in India deal with every day. In Dharmasagar, for instance, many women work all day for only the equivalent of $1.50. Men make slightly more, but it’s frequently not a living wage.

Father Reddimasu noted that some of the orphans who live at St. Anthony’s boarding home had fathers who committed suicide because their farms or businesses failed.

Moniz said utilities in the main village are sporadic and sometimes nonexistent. Many people do not have indoor plumbing and get their water from one centrally-located pipe.

“Sometimes electricity worked and others it didn’t — every day you lost power at some point,” she said. “And if the faucet in your room was dripping it meant that day there would be water and you could take a bath. You saw a lot of people in the village bathing outside. I couldn’t complain, because for me it was in inconvenience, not a way of life.”

She became used to the simple daily diet, which included eating rice at least twice a day. Other common foods were corn, peanuts, and other vegetables, including at least one that would be very familiar to South Carolinians.

“Over there, okra is a staple!” she said with a laugh.

When children in the area are fortunate enough to go to school, there are often no textbooks for them, she said. Through the kindness of Catholics in Summerville, she was able to have more than 200 children’s books delivered to students in Dharmasagar. She also used her own money to purchase some textbooks for children at St. Anthony’s.

Since her return home, Moniz has again been working with Father Reddimasu, who is on a month-long visit to St. Theresa the Little Flower. She wants to continue telling others about her experiences and raise money to help the people.

She also hopes her story might help others realize the importance of the church’s call for Catholics to be missionaries to the rest of the world.

 “We’re all called to be missionaries, to spread the love of Christ and do his work,” Moniz  said. “Just because I get on a plane doesn’t mean my work is any more valuable than someone else’s missionary work here would be. All of it is valuable.”