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  • P. Laurent

Sowing seeds of charity

Dernière mise à jour : 24 mars

(This post is the translation of part of a post edited in French last 31st December)


Dear friends,


1. Christmas in Shantinagar

I am writing from Asansol, in the small village of Banskatia on the edge of an artificial lake, a place dear to the heart of Father Laborde. He spent several years there as chaplain to the sisters of Mother Teresa of Shantinagar. This convent, whose name means “city of peace” in Bengali, is a small town of 17 hectares with its houses, park, fields, and rice paddies to accommodate lepers.


It is one of the most important centers in India for treating and operating on them. A hundred of them are at home with nowhere to go. Father Laborde also took care of the Catholic community at the time, built the parish church, and founded a home and a school for the children of lepers. I had the joy of celebrating Christmas evening mass for the sisters and residents.

Most of the congregation was Hindu. It was a real grace to see all these smiles and this fervor spring from these bodies gnawed and damaged by the disease. And very moving, at the end of the mass, to shake all these mutilated hands. I celebrate every morning at the sisters’ house at 6 o’clock. Crossing the village, I am greeted by “Joy Jishu”, which means “Jesus is our victory”.


2. Sickness

The last letter from “Bengal Fire” reached you just less than a year ago. The Covid, the consequences of the illness, the exhaustion of the first three years of mission, my (short) visit to France, and a heavy workload on my return to HSP after my absence explain this long silence. I caught Covid 19 in early April, probably the evening of the Easter Vigil.

A way for me to prolong my Lent and the mystery of the Passion amid Easter celebrations. We had joined the Jalpaiguri centers with the five MEP volunteers present at Howrah South Point for a recollection on the theme “man and woman He created them”. Two days later, I experienced a high fever, febrile state, and great weakness. I carried out a Covid test, far from thinking of having caught it. It took me a few minutes to understand. Three other MEP volunteers also fell ill with less severe symptoms. A doctor who had treated a priest friend sent us the prescriptions (via WhatsApp!). We started a cure of Ivermectin, zinc, and vitamins, etc. After ups and downs, ten days later, I had recovered. But I dragged significant fatigue for six long months when India was going through the third wave.


3. Darkness

Asthenia, depression, weariness. These long months have been a physical and spiritual test like a long sleepless night or a descent into darkness. It is first of all the soul that leads us, place of hope, and that makes us smile, in the very heart of the storms. I love this poem that a famous prisoner unjustly detained knew by heart. “In the darkness that encloses me / Black like a well where one drowns / I give thanks to God whoever he is (…) / Bruised by this existence / I am standing although wounded. (…) / I am the captain of my soul”. He echoes this psalm which says: “My soul is in me like a child, like a little child against his mother”. Despite the darkness of some days, as much as possible, I held on, took care of my soul and my health to move forward, carried by a force greater than me.


4. Faith, hope, charity

Strong from the experience of severe depression, crossed ten years ago, I clung firmly to the faith, with the certainty that the light is always present, even in the darkness. “The darkness before you is not darkness”. You have to have hoped with all your might, sometimes against all hope, to discover the power of hope. Hope gives strength to continue the pilgrimage despite everything, for oneself, for all those who count on us, for those to whom the Lord gives to advance by a mysterious solidarity of souls in the order of grace. Amid these difficulties, every offering is exalted and gives moral strength no matter how small. The Cross reveals its hidden secrets. Faith is never so strong as when stripped down, clinging to the truth, in the midst of darkness. Love is never more victorious than in a heart deprived of feelings, which seems empty.


In October, while visiting Jalpaiguri, we were again confronted with the virus since our home in Bakuabari was infected.

All the children were affected. Some didis were spared, with them we served meals and cared for the sick with medicine provided by the local government. A little girl with epilepsy suffered from breathing difficulties overnight. After three days, in joy and good humor, everyone was back to normal. However, for two weeks, every day, nurses fully covered, from head to toe, dressed like cosmonauts, came to test us, as if we were survivors of the great black plague...!


In front of this pandemic crisis, I am very much skeptical regarding the way the population has been voluntarily frightened by the newspapers. Was it a genuine concern? It is the service of the poor that is the compass of justice. If the 2.5 million deaths from Coronavirus in 2020 (i.e. 4% of annual deaths worldwide) mobilized the press so much, who therefore mentioned even once the 9 million deaths due to hunger (including 3 million children) ? This scandalous tragedy which has lasted for decades has caused half a billion deaths in the world over the past 50 years. If the goal of public health is to save the lives of the weakest, what have we done for them? Yet we have a “vaccine”. The food wasted each year, which represents a third of what is consumed, would be more than enough to eliminate hunger in the world. Why are our leaders showing such a determination to eradicate this virus (without so much success) and so little to eradicate hunger? Obviously in the latter case, no financial sesame at stake. You have to choose between God and Mammon. We cannot serve two masters. Poverty rose dramatically last year under the draconian measures, while the rich got richer. The United Nations speaks of an additional 130 million poor today, which could quickly grow to 500 million. We see the effects here, with triple the number of families flocking to HSP for help.


5. The Simple Life of Howrah

The conditions here are still as spartan as ever, but I think I’m getting used to it. This simple life is a grace even if I measure how difficult it is to detach from one’s comfort. To tell the truth, it is a daily asceticism, the effort to welcome discomfort every day.

This is sometimes more difficult than performing heroic deeds! Every day I try to lower myself to the height of these children who have been entrusted to us. I take all meals with them, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and eat with my right hand. As soon as I leave the center I am assailed by noise and pollution, the dirt of the roads. However, I have nothing to complain about. They take very good care of me. I have now found my pace and discomfort far from approaching that experienced by Fr. Laborde. The Lord never gives us too heavy to bear crosses, and the graces they give are precious for moving forward.


6. The three worlds of childhood, disability and poverty

I entered three different worlds. The world of childhood. The world of disability. The world of the poor. To enter these three worlds, to the peripheries of existence that reveal reality, is to begin to see the world as it is. In these three worlds, which form one – the world of the little ones – I perceive that only one thing is important. A ministry of presence. A demanding, committed presence requires listening to the voiceless, putting oneself at face level, and making oneself vulnerable to dramas a priori so far removed from our lives. A presence that requires making all the concerns, the worries, and joys of these poor people one’s own. In the end, nothing more (or less) than a presence. When in the morning I scan the newspaper, a few pages are dedicated to the local life of Calcutta. I realize the widening gulf between this world and the world I live in.


It is first of all the world of childhood. I live with about fifty children. In all the centres, they are the ones who welcome me first. These communities are bubbling, brimming with life, intensely alive and wonderful.


From the world of the poor, these children open me up to the hidden realities of life in the slums, where so many daily dramas reveal both the fragility of existence and the great dignity of men and women. “During my work in the slums, I have learned that it is precisely the poorest who understand human dignity best” said Mother Teresa. With their freshness and spontaneity, these children seem to me very fragile and helpless in the face of all the attempts of our world to subvert innocence. “Modern civilization is but a vast conspiracy against every kind of inner life” wrote Bernanos. We could also say: a conspiracy against childhood, so much the modern world transforms these little beings and makes them, prematurely, jaded, disillusioned, disenchanted. On the contrary, the children of our centers gather at each plane that passes, admire the fireworks, marvel at a colorful insect and rush to share their discoveries with me. Wonder is this virtue that is so important to rediscover to become fully human again.


I also entered the world of disability. I receive these modest confidences from disabled children and hear their suffering and pride in having gone through so many operations to regain normal use of their feet. I admire their smiles that come from the sky, while their twisted bodies tell of the suffering of this passing world. But I also admire the grace of the disabled young girls when they dance, or the determination of the disabled boys of Mograndangi who play as a fottball team against the dadas inflicting us a blistering defeat!



I entered the world of poverty.

Every morning in the EPN center where I live, I listen to the poor people that come. They share their worries for the future, their daily suffering, their difficulties in caring for their children, the confession of their helplessness, their trust in God with an intense sense of the transience of their condition. I also visit the families at home, to understand their daily lives. As Father Laborde said, “we must not wait for the poor to come to us, but it is up to us to go to them”. Daily dramas are revealed, woven from violence, particularly against women and girls, and the condition of these mothers, abandoned by their husbands, raising their children alone or cohabiting with alcoholic men, upsets me. My bengali still a little hesitant allows me to open my heart to many secrets. If I can’t help everyone, as Mother Teresa says, I can try to start helping those around me.




7. A ministry of presence and listening

I also give more time to this ministry of presence and listening.

I visit an HSP center every week to say mass and be with each other. I take time to talk with children and teenagers, I also sit down with the didis to listen to their complaints and give some ideas or advice. I continue my daily Holy Family apostolate, teaching children the closeness of Jesus Mary and Joseph in their lives. We inaugurated and blessed a statue of the Virgin Mary and a statue of Saint Joseph on the occasion of the year decreed by the Holy Father. Children place prayer intentions at the feet of the statuettes.


During the evening blessing, the children, in the freshness of their innocence, often wish me to have sweet dreams or to dream of Jesus, Mary or Joseph! I give them little spiritual lessons without knowing if they bear fruit. The other day, like every morning, it was the battle between the group of boys and that of girls to know who will go first to the breakfast service. After asking the boys to move forward, two 11-year-old girls said: you shouldn’t always say me, me! but find your joy in the joy of others!!! I was the first surprised to hear, so well repeated, the lesson sown in hearts that I thought were inattentive...


8. In January Asansol and the slums of Santoshpur


This year will have started and ended with Asansol. I visited the center in January which I had not seen for almost three years… I participated in a mass for the death of Fr. Laborde. As in the Orthodox Church, it is a tradition to mark the forty days of departure of a deceased with a mass. I was able to admire the church’s bell tower finally finished and attend the inauguration of a plaque in memory of father.


Back in Howrah, I spent a lot of time sorting through Father Laborde’s papers, a way of prolonging his presence. He had carefully preserved all his letters, many papers concerning his various ministries, retreats given to the sisters of Mother Teresa, and above all many notebooks in which, according to the tradition of the Prado, he copied the Gospels, sprinkling them with spiritual reflections. A gold mine that will have to be exploited one day… I inaugurated a new path to go to the Head Office of Andul Road, passing on foot through a Muslim neighborhood where everyone calls me “doctor”, which changes a bit of “father” and where magnificent lotuses, in this month of January, bloom on the edges of a huge pukur, an artificial pond like those that dot all Bengali towns and villages. I was so amazed at the beauty of these flowers, that the seller of the small nearby shop rushed into knee-deep water to pick a flower. I brought it back to Ashaneer and gave it as an offering to Mary in the small oratory erected at the entrance to the center, with the photo of Fr. Laborde.


The lotus is a symbol of wisdom, and it is also associated with purity and spiritual awakening, especially in Buddhism. It is indeed striking to see these delicately colored flowers emerging from the muddy waters of the swamps. Thus, it symbolizes the sage who rises from material realities to the light. The lotus plant is also known and used in aquaculture for its purifying action.

This symbol has been taken up by Christians who recognize a perfect match with the Christian spiritual journey, rising from the mire of sin to be purified by the light of the Holy Spirit. At the Jesuit center of Dhyan Ashram where I regularly go to recharge the batteries, Mary and Jesus are represented in a Lotus flower.


Another landmark visit on January 13 was a visit to the communities of a health program in Santoshpur and Kanchantalan, along the Hooghly, in poor districts and the slums of Calcutta. I also visited in Banipur poor families.



There, the mobile clinic teams use a very simple room to provide basic care and referral for further examinations at the hospital. We then headed for the slum on the other side of the train tracks. Two small children were filling containers with water in the middle of a field of rubbish. Revolting image. Visiting families, women and girls are usually found at work. Unfortunately men and boys are too often idle. Passing near a room, I notify a dozen boys and teenagers glued to their phones. They have barely raised their heads... Continuing, we see children playing with large white bundles. Behind the slum you can see the brickyard which gives work to a large part of the inhabitants. It is the migrants who work there during the dry season before returning to their village of origin. On the dike, women are washing their clothes. We cross a neighborhood with no hand pump and no running water. The women are forced to walk to the Hooghly to bring back water infested with germs and parasites.


9. Priti’s Wedding

The big event of February was the wedding of Priti, a young girl from HSP who has become an orphan. It is an “arranged” marriage like many marriages so that both families find their account. Difficult to conceive for us who are used to marriages of “love”… which often last the time of feelings.


Two days before – it’s always like this in India – I got a phone call from Nabaneeta telling me that I have to play the role of the girl’s father. The poor in the slums can go into debt and spend fortunes on the holidays to offer an unforgettable moment of joy and forget their condition. Here at HSP, the ceremony will be simple. In the traditional Hindu wedding, there is first the Biyebari, ceremony of the girl’s family that we organized in Ashaneer. The next day, it is the family of the groom who receives. During the Bou bhaat the new bride must then demonstrate her cooking skills. The Biyebari breaks down itself into severals rituals, which the purohit, the officiating Hindu priest – one of our teachers from the EPN school – detailed to me. The ceremonies begin with the Gaye Holud, where everyone comes to cover the face and sometimes the neck and shoulders of the future bride with a paste of turmeric. Turmeric is known for its properties on the epidermis, antioxidant, cleansing... and will give the faces of the two spouses (the same ceremony happens for the young man) their characteristic radiance. Then, the two spouses will be prepared for the actual ceremony. The bride’s preparation is very elaborate, she will be made up, and her hands and feet decorated with henna.


For me, the most moving ritual was that of the Konya Dan (gift of the young girl).

According to the Hindu Shastra, the Hindu scriptures, the young girl is treated as Goddess Lakshmi and the young man as God Vishnu. The future wife is considered to have been sent by God to her father’s house, but intended for her fiancé. The father is responsible for completing the action of God. During the ceremony, he hands his daughter over to the young man, asking him to make her happy with all his heart. Symbolically, he takes his daughter’s hand and places it in the young man’s.

Then comes Subho Drishti, the first exchange of glances between bride and groom on their wedding day amid mantras read by the purohit. Then there is the Phera and Saatvachan, exchange of promises of the spouses while turning around the fire (mawankund). The wife asks the husband to keep seven promises, all relating to the home’s life, to patience... While the husband asks his wife to make five, all related to trust. Then comes the Sindoor dan, the gift to the wife of the symbol that will bind the two spouses. The husband puts sindoor, a red pigment, on the wife’s forehead, and she will now wear it every morning to signify the bond that unites them for life. Finally comes the last wedding ritual, the Mala Bodal or exchange of garlands of flowers between the spouses.


February saw the arrival of four new MEP volunteers for HSP. Clément, Jeanne and Irène arrived on the same plane, while Raphaël arrived a few weeks later joining Florence, who was already there.

The first three gave animation help to our homes, Ekprantanagar, Baksara and Mogradangi respectively, while Raphael came to help at the HSP headquarters in Ashaneer. He is still present after a year, awaiting his visa renewal for a second year. We are grateful for their commitment, support of the MEPs, and all the ideas sown that will bear fruit. Above all, we are filled with gratitude for the humble ministry of presence that they have discovered and accomplished, this ministry perhaps transforms the one who gives it more than those who receive it.


I had the joy of discovering the Uluberia center of Brother Gaston, a member of the Prado, long associated with Fr. Laborde in the slum of Pilkhana, he is one of the figures of Calcutta and the City of Joy.

He created dozens of associations which he then handed over to the Indians. He is ending his life in one of the centers he created, Icod, where he welcomes those no one wanted, the poorest, the severely handicapped. The center, located on the banks of the Hooghly, is made up of traditional houses that promote the local culture. I fond there adults who spent their childhood in HSP, in particular disabled people who were in Bakuabari. I witnessed the talents of making a rangoli or alpana. The art of rangoli is a domestic one: circular geometric or natural patterns made with colored sand or paint, on the floor. The house decorated in this way is a welcome to visitors at a party. With no other model than her imagination, one of the young girls hosted created a magnificent pattern before our eyes.


10. Morning Star Tour and Wetland Walk

In March I was able to go to the Morning Star seminar, invited by the teachers for rest and a time of fraternal sharing. The seminar, subject to restrictions because of the Covid, still hosted around fifty seminarians. The day after my arrival, I witnessed a real miraculous catch. As everywhere in Bengal, there are many pukur (ponds) where fish are raised in the vast land surrounding the seminary. From time to time the seminarians go fishing. The exercise consists of pulling a long net by hand towards one of the banks and catching the fish by hand. We skimmed two pukur and picked up sixty kilos of fish!


I also took some time to relax – for once – by going for a walk in the wetlands, the eastern area of ​​Calcutta. It is made up of wetlands where all the wastewater from the agglomeration of 15 million inhabitants converges. The flora allows the natural purification of water loaded with organic matter. It is a truly magnificent place, used for fish farming and agricultural irrigation, populated by fishing villages and away from noise and pollution. We find there the traditional Bengali life.



11. The Covid and the visit to Kalimpong

In April, I celebrated Easter morning mass in Ekprantanagar for the joy of all.

We also launched an Easter egg hunt with the children. They deployed all their talents for the decoration of the eggs. The Easter morning hunt in the garden triggered a veritable explosion of enthusiasm and joy among the children, even the older ones. After a recollection in Jalpaiguri with the volunteers on the theme “man and woman he created them”, we all fell ill with Covid.


After my recovery and my return to Howrah, I decided to rest in Kalimpong. The situation deteriorating in India, I also postponed my planned departure to France after the first three years of mission. There, I found the sisters of Cluny, in a pleasant setting, and I was able to take long walks to discover the beautiful Himalayan skies of this mountain resort. The situation prevented me from returning to Pedong and Mariam Busty in the footsteps of our MEP elders. I then returned to spend some time in Bakuabari in our centers where some calves were born and I was asked to baptize them. There was, Goru, Shukla, Milky, and in memory of our time of illness – the little eve being born at that time – Koruna, which means mercy in Bengali.


In each center I go to, I never cease to contemplate the love I receive. To love is to be chosen. Without reason or any cause. I was adopted as a baba. Receiving the love of a child is both a wonder and a call. These little lives entrusted to us have sometimes already gone through many trials. Violence, the mourning of a brother, a sister, a parent. We support them as best we can. Family visits to brickyards or slums reveal the world of violence and suffering they go through. Weaknesses, wounds appear in affective relationships and require a lot of tact and intelligence of the heart to give according to what is necessary, mature affectivity, avoid the traps of jealousy and slowly teach autonomy. In this love, the great model is the love of the Father, the unique love of Him who brought us out of nothingness to give us existence and who raises us again to restore us to freedom.


12. The return to France after three years of mission

At the beginning of June, still present in India, and having finally scheduled my departure for France on the 15th, thanks to a notable improvement in the situation, the centers of Howrah and Jalpaiguri almost begged me to celebrate my birthday at their place. Here, the birthday is a great occasion, especially for the father! February 28 is every year the occasion of rejoicing at HSP to celebrate that of Father Laborde, even if he has left us. So I lent myself to the game and to celebrate my 50th birthday, I decided to offer a festive meal to all the children and the didis and dadas of the nine HSP centers.

The menu included mutton, a dish of choice that children rarely have the opportunity to taste. I believe that this birthday in Bakuabari, amid the joy of all disabled children and adults, is the happiest birthday I have ever celebrated! A few days later it was the turn of Florence just before leaving for France after a fruitful volunteering of a year and a half, having gone through the difficult time of confinement. Back to Howrah, for the joy of children, I was also celebrated at EPN, in the center which Fr. Laborde was very fond. My birthday present – ​​probably the most beautiful I have ever received – was to be able to inaugurate, that very morning, a new season of emergency food distribution.


In June I finally returned to France. I was amazed and dazzled by the landscapes and the beauty of France. Everyone who visits France exclaims: “France is a garden!” I was also able to share what I was experiencing in India with some friends. But I was in a hurry to get back home. I think I’m starting to take root in India. I end this long letter here and will tell you about the last six months of the year very soon. Happy and Holy New Year to all!



Lots of love


Fr. Laurent +

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