Fund helps persecuted Christian widows in India

GREENVILLE—Over the past year, the generosity of people from the Diocese of Charleston has helped change the lives of widows in India whose husbands were killed because they were Christians.

Donations from South Carolina have purchased livestock and vegetable seeds to help the women feed their families, paid tuition to Catholic boarding schools, and helped send youth to school to learn trades, according to Rita Larrivee, a member of St. Mary Church in Greenville who spearheaded the fundraising effort.

Larrivee, who was raised Catholic in India, learned about the widows’ plight from a television news story. The men died at the hands of right-wing Hindus in anti-Christian violence that erupted in late 2008 in the state of Orissa on India’s east coast. Larrivee was horrified at the statistics: 100 people hacked to death, thousands of homes burned, women and girls sexually assaulted, more than 46,000 Christians forced from their homes.

Initially, she worked only with family members and close friends to raise money for the women. She went public with her effort, which she calls simply the Orissa Widows Fund, in late 2011, and has been touched by the response. She has received donations from individuals and parish groups from around the state.

“The widows are very, very happy because their children are being sent to school, and the older children are learning trades like nursing, dress making and truck-driving,” Larrivee said. “Altogether it’s been amazing to do this work, and the generosity has been wonderful. People who have written to me with donations say they’re glad to support their brothers and sisters because they are being persecuted. This has made people more aware of persecution of Christians worldwide.”

Larrivee is not alone in her efforts. Father Richard “Richie” Vaz of the Divine Word Missionaries helps collect and distribute funds. In India, nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy and the Sisters of the Daughters of the Cross work directly with the widows and their families.

The nuns organized self-help groups, where women learn skills such as basic budgeting and accounting, animal care, farming and nutrition, and how to run a small business with the help of microloans. Donations helped the nuns purchase turmeric, a spice that the women grind and sell in nearby villages. They also lease tracts of land to plant and harvest peanuts and tomatoes.

Larivee said Orissa’s Christians specially need prayers during the upcoming Christmas season, when violence tends to escalate. In recent years, Catholics have been attacked as they gathered to celebrate the holy day, and some saw their homes vandalized and burned while they were at midnight Mass.

The nuns in Orissa, meanwhile, hope to make the season brighter with a Christmas celebration for the widows and families, complete with gifts and a festive dinner.

“The big thing I’ve learned is to trust in God, because He will provide,” Larrivee said. “When the coffers have been empty, the next day a check will arrive. I really feel the power of the Holy Spirit in what we are doing.