Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 4, 2005
Jesuit nourishes seeds of life
Fr. Abraham restores broken lives of youth in Himalayan foothills
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Sitting at her dining room table, Kathleen Lewanczuk had a story for every child's smile in the photo album of her trip to India in the spring.
But she could not escape from her own concerns.
"What happens to the children when Father Abe dies?" she asked.
She slowly turned the pages, revealing happy and healthy children - some as young as six years old - who live a simple, yet prosperous, life in a Jesuit mission Father Murray Abraham founded more than 40 years ago.
"I just don't know," Lewanczuk said.
Originally from Halifax, Abraham runs the St. Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre in the Himalayan foothills near the Nepal border. It is a non-government refuge for more than 60 children and young adults who fled an impoverished life in nearby villages.
Abraham saw the need to help children after he was appointed principal of St. Alphonsus School in nearby Kurseong in 1959.
For years, Abraham travelled the world with his Book of Life seeking donations for the centre. And he has established a community devoted to the academic, vocational and spiritual formation of children.
They plant some 50,000 trees annually because the monsoons create dangerous landslides from deforestation. The centre uses animal waste to produce methane as an alternative fuel source. Abraham has designed a water harvesting system, complete with solar energy to heat the water.
SASAC's motto is "Helping the poor to help themselves." Because hunger is a major problem in rural India, the centre has always been involved in concentrated food production, with vegetables, mushrooms, a piggery and dairy production.
SASAC is involved with Homes for the Homeless, similar to Habitat for Humanity. There is a greenhouse where flowers are grown for sale in Kurseong or Darjeeling.
The centre works with neighbouring farmers so they can produce enough food to feed their families and the communities around them.
It is also devoted to the empowerment of women through employment.
Lewanczuk is concerned that as Abraham turns 80 this September, with no one in position to take over, the centre may close. "Father is like Pope John Paul II," she said. "He is a living miracle. He will work until he dies."
With 12 children, Lewanczuk's parents once wrote into the priest's book during his brief stay in Calgary many years ago that the family would donate the amount of a weekly family dessert.
"I think it was two dollars (every month)," Lewanczuk said.
Abraham was always grateful for donations. Once the centre was fully operational with about 1,500 regular Canadian donors, Abraham began circulating a letter to them every month. Lewanczuk estimates Abraham has written more than 500 letters. "My father used to read the letters at dinner time."
A typical day at SASAC has everyone up at 5 a.m. for chores. Lewanczuk said the children loved to sing while they clean out the barns. They sing on their way to school. The younger ones stay at SASAC for home schooling while the others attend private Catholic schools run by Jesuits and other religious orders.
After school, the children enjoy free time to play before going to the large garden plot to work for an hour. There is more study time and a prayer gathering before dinner.
They have three meals a day, consisting mainly of bread, rice, sugar tea and curried potatoes. A small portion of meat is served once a week, usually pork or chicken.
Lewanczuk's niece, Grace Nixon, 19, told the WCR that she was inspired by the children's love of God and everything around them.
"All of the children, whether Hindu, Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, all participated in Mass and nightly prayer with great devotion. Being with Father Abraham was a gift. He is one of the most genuine people I've ever met," she said.
Abraham told Lewanczuk that people will never be loved like they are loved by the poor. It breaks his heart to have to say no to some people who hope to live at the centre, Lewanczuk said.
The children reside with Abraham in an old Jesuit house called Woodcot. Women from Kurseong come up to the centre to help cook the meals. Lewanczuk said the only source of power is a single generator.
There is a small chapel, but 60 people gather every morning for Mass.
Lewanczuk and Nixon spent time teaching the children English. They also taught them about St. Patrick's Day.
"We put little shamrock tattoos on their cheeks and we sang Irish songs," Lewanczuk said. "I dressed up in a costume I brought. The kids loved it."
SASAC has no medical supplies, so the children must travel two hours on narrow mountain roads to a hospital.
Inflation is running rampant.
"I feel it is our obligation to help the world's poor," Lewanczuk said. "Yes, we have poor in this country, but we have welfare. They have absolutely nothing. Being with Father Abe felt like being with Jesus. He helps people to improve their lives, to return to their own villages and help there," she said. "He has devoted his entire life to others."
For more information about Father Abraham's mission, call Kathleen Lewanczuk at 439-7272.
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