By Brother Austin Dee
“So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel there.”
(Acts 16:9, 10)
In 1961, it was a man of Madurai beseeching the De La Salle Brothers to come over to India to help in educating the poorest of the poor there. This call came in an unofficial capacity from Rev. Fr. A. Simo, a young priest and former De La Salle Brother in Sri Lanka but was by then attached to the Archdiocese of Madurai. He was secretary to Archbishop Leonard and he was aware of the fact that the Archdiocesan authorities were considering the handing over the newly founded Boys’ Town, Nagamalai to some Religious Congregation. He thought that this kind of educational and social work among the poor would appeal to the zeal of the De La Salle Brothers, and so informed Bro. Vincent Joseph Provincial of the District of Colombo, of the possibilities. The matter was given due consideration, and then official contact was made with the diocesan authorities. And so it was that the Brothers made a second beginning in India on August 1961.
Yes, this was the second coming of the Sons of Saint De La Salle to India. The first had been at the request of the Vicar Apostolic of Mangalore, backed by the approval of the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda and the Papal Nuncio in France. At the beginning of 1859, therefore, four Brothers were sent to this mission. The first house to be opened was a novitiate under an American Brother Pastoris, and it was not long before some promising youths presented themselves. Notable among them were Bro. Timothy of Mary and Bro. Anthony of Padua. It was not long before there were schools or orphanages in Calcutta, Agra, Tellicherry, and Karaikal in Pandicherry, Calicut, Cannanore, and Mahe. Prospects seemed good, but perhaps progress had been too rapid for healthy growth and one by one school had to be closed. The last was that of Cannanore in 1884. The Brothers withdraw to Colombo and Malaysia.
The eyes of the Church and of the Institute of the De La Salle Brothers in particular, were upon this new venture. Would it prosper this time, and justify the risks being taken in this difficult enterprise? We are glad to say that as we celebrate this Silver Jubilee of the Brothers Second Coming, we can look on these past 25 years with a certain justifiable pride. We have tried to learn from the failures of the last century, and have aimed at consolidating our positions in Tamil Nadu before moving further afield. It is very satisfying, as we look around on the Brothers that make up the Indian Region today, to see that 42 of them are sons of the soil, and most of them less than 35 years of age. May they belie Homer’s warning:” In youth and beauty wisdom is but rare, “(Odyssey), and go on to make a worthy contribution to the preaching of the Gospel in India.
Fr Viswasam & Bro. Cassian
Boys’ Town, Nagamalai, Madurai, had been founded by Rev, Fr. Viswasam, who was later, consecrated Bishop of Coimbatore. Everything was still at a rudimentary stage when the Brothers took it over. In a large stony tract of nearly 100 acres stretching along the slope of the Nagamalai hills and just nine kilometers outside Madurai, a humble beginning had been made with about fourteen young boys. A number of make-shift buildings were huddled together for the Brothers and boys, only one of which still remains intact today. There was a tiny chapel adjoining the simple abode of the resident chaplain, Rev. Fr. Pushpan, so the spiritual needs had been given first priority and Jesus was there in their midst. In this daring enterprise, the hand of the Lord has been visible throughout “raising the poor from the dust, and lifting the needy from the ash-heap” (Ps. 113-7).
(Bro. Arulsamy) …Fr. Visuvasam started an orphanage with 16 young boys. It was a humble beginning and these boys were accommodated in a mud house. On 21st of August, 1961, the Brothers took over the animation of Boys’ Town. Bro. Alban Patrick was the first Director of Boys’ Town and Bro. Cassian Pappu and Bro. Joseph Homan ably assisted him.
A HEARTY WELCOME TO OUR CHRISTIAN BROTHERS ALBAN & JOSEPH
21 08 1961 (Fr. Visuvasam is seated in the middle).
In 1960 Archbishop Leonard, SJ of Madurai Diocese asked Brother Vincent Joseph, Provincial, Colombo District, to take over a very small Boys’ Town, 8 miles from Madurai. There were 120 acres of land, mostly uncultivated due to lack of water and the land was strewn with large boulders at the foot of Nagamalai Hills.
It had been run by Fr. Sengal a diocesan priest who did not have the wherewithal to develop it. This priest originally had the choice of two sites. One was where the Government Agricultural College now exists on very fertile land near Yani Mali, Madurai with abundant water supplies. Father Sengal was a historian and chose the harsh land of Nagamalai because of its association with 6,000 Jain monks who lived there and who were massacred by orthodox Hindus. There are still a number of ancient remains from the time of the Jains.
THE ORIGINAL BOYS’ TOWN 1961
In 1963 the Brothers took charge of very primitive conditions with a community that consisted of Bro. Alban from Ceylon, Bro. Francis from Ceylon, Bro. Ealred from U.K., Bro. Thomas from Australia, Bro. Xavier who was the first novice master, from Ceylon. Bro. Norman from USA was there for a short time but had to leave due to visa problems.
There were 16 small boys who were living in a former chicken house. The Brothers had a small house and all rooms were shared and used at night. Living conditions were difficult and even harsh. Brother James Kimpton was sent to help Bro. Ealred in Dec. 1964 when the Community was reduced to two Brothers. He was told that he would be there for a month but has remained in India ever since with the exception of two years in 1969-’71, when he went home to do further studies.
First Boy’ Cottages at Boys’ Town 1960
Bro. Alban Patrick who at this time of his life was in his 63rd year took up bravely the arduous task of building up the first establishment. He was a man of great determination and commitment. He remained at Boys’ Town until Dec. 1963 prepared as he used to say as quoted by Fr. Viswasam and later Bishop of Coimbatore, ‘We shall rough it up Father.’ A number of makeshift buildings were erected for Brothers and boys. There were a lot of difficult situations; there was no electricity and no piped water. People had to carry water from the well. Bro. Joseph Homan who joined Bro. Alban in this pioneering adventure under the Nagamalai hill later left the Brothers to found his own Boys’ Town and remained on in India.
Bro. Norman who came from St. Louis District, USA arrived in Boys’ Town in July 1963 and who took over directorship in Dec 1963 began to build three excellent living quarters for the boys at the western end of the property. Two were completed and used during 1965 while the third was redesigned on the same foundations as the other two and is now the chapel. It was the intention of the community to build similar houses as needed by the influx of boys and as there was finance. Simple workshops were also planned. The boys all went across the paddy fields to the Catholic school at Samayanallur. The father of Mr. Germanus was the contractor and Germanus, learned all his building skills by working with his father. Bro. Norman remained in India until May 1964 when he returned to USA. He came back to Colombo District in Dec 1966 and from there went to Pakistan where he still remains.
Later in 1962 the Brothers put up simple quarters consisting of five rooms at the present farm. They also erected a tiny chapel adjoining the simple abode of the resident chaplain, Rev. Fr. Pushpam, looked after the spiritual needs of the students and workers. Life in Boys’ Town was always a tiring and trying experience. Bro. Cassian Pappu who was one of the three Brothers said that those days were a period of planning and dreaming. They were always tired of questioning themselves about the future apostolate of the Brothers. They entrusted the works of all to God’s providence to guide them.
There was a large poultry farm, a few cows and sheep. The Brothers started cultivating rice and grapes. Bro. Cassian Pappu was the first sub-Director of the community and the Recruiter for the Brothers in India. Without knowing much of the local language the Brothers struggled hard to carry on their apostolate. Bro. Joseph Homan with a home background in farming the lands of east England started developing the farm. He toiled hard on the rocky plains of Nagamalai to convert it into arable land.
A few months later in 1962 Brother Francis of Paula, at the age of 81, joined the community. He was always a cheerful Brother who kept the community alive. He loved to be with the boys and to teach them prayers. In 1962 most honourable Bro. Nicet Joseph and Very Rev. Bro. Lawrence O’Toole visited Boys’ Town and saw the dire need of financial assistance and personnel. They gave a lot of encouragement and financial assistance.
Life in Boys’ Town was always a tiring and a trying experience, but one can imagine what the pioneers must have had to put up with. The first Director of Boys’ Town was Bro. Alban Patrick from Sri Lanka. After a long and distinguished teaching career, most of the time as Director and Headmaster he was well fitted and still active enough to put Boys’ Town well on its feet. At the same time invitations had been sent out far and wide for suitable volunteers for the work in hand. There was a quick response. Soon Bro. Alban had two hardy men by his side. One was Bro. Norman, an experienced school man with a strong bent for engineering, and the other was Bro. Joseph Homan, with a home-background in the farmlands of east England. All got off to a good start.
Visit of Bro. Nicet Joseph Superior General 1962
Front Row: Bro. Vincent Gottwald, Bro. Nicet Joseph; SG, Bro. Laurence O’ Toole, Bro. Alban Patrick.
Back Row: Bro. Francis of Padua, Bro. Joseph Homan, Bro. Cassian Pappu
Till 1964 the Boys’ Town was managed by a community of Missionary Brothers, who lived in a small white house at the eastern end of an undeveloped property of 120 acres belonging to the Archdiocese. Sixteen boys from destitute homes were accommodated in a large mud house. The chapel was a tin-roofed and work had started on the first vineyards and rice fields. The boys attended Loyola Technical School, Madurai or the local village schools. Two new cottages were begun – now called the reception and visitors’ cottages.
In 1965 SECOLI at the Mother House, Rome through the intervention of Bro. Vincent Joseph, obtained a huge grant from MISEREOR, Germany, to build a very large Boys’ Town and all the workshops and all the infrastructure. The grant came to many million rupees. MISEREOR demanded the best architect in Asia, Mr. Geoffrey Bawa of Edward Reid & Begg, Colombo and the topmost engineers in India, the Engineering Construction Corporation, Madras, a branch of Larsen and Turbo to do all the construction work.
Brother James Kimpton was required to spend a month in the offices of Geoffrey Bawa, in Colombo, an internationally famous architect, because he was asked to supervise the whole project, but with no rights to change or add anything. The present Boys’ Town is only half of what was then planned. In addition to existing facilities there was to be a large Parliament Building, a special Administration Bock, a small hospital, more classrooms, even a barber’s shop and a shoe repair shop, another five groups of boys’ quarters and a beautiful church.
There were 20 acres of excellent paddy fields fed by perennial streams and good open wells. Each year 2½ to 3 crops of paddy were produced in excess of the needs of more than 100 boys
When the workshops for the various trades were completed the boys in addition to learning trade skills, received and carried our large contracts for the sale of manufactured goods thus insuring not only skills training but an income to make the running of Boys’ Town self-sufficient. The woodwork complex had large contracts and one was to do all the woodwork in the Pandyan Hotel which was being built; 48 bed rooms, the dining hall tables, the various doors and partitions. The interior of Grindlays Bank, Tuticorin was redesigned and built by Boys’ Town as were all the benches in Holy Rosary Church and likewise St Thomas’ Church, Batlagundu. There were also contracts from TVS, Madurai for spare parts for vehicles. Every department of the workshops was constantly busy and productive for the first three years and Boys’ Town was very fortunate to have the help of excellent volunteers from Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO’s) in each of the workshops. The standards they set were very high and very professional. Thus, in the machine shop they had a volunteer from Rolls Royce car manufacturers. The farm was also run by a young English farmer. They all trained their successors to replace them after three years. Boys’ Town had a reputation for excellence in and around Madurai.
Once the sprawling campus of Boys’ Town had been completed, the trouble started. It meant increasing the numbers to two hundred, buying all the raw materials for the long lines of workshops and just running the place. Boys’ Town went straight into recession from which recovery was very slow and tricky. “Rome” simply said stop moaning, get on with the running of the place and don’t grumble. The Brothers kept pleading for yet more and more assistance.
Brothers Ealred & Joseph Homan
Bro. Ealred, who had been in charge from 1964 until 1971 suddenly left leaving a mountain of debts in his trail. Bro. James found out about them as described in the chapter on Boys’ Town financial difficulties and managed to clear almost all over the next three years and left the institution solvent before moving to found another institution at Genguvarpatti, Boys’ Village. He devoted a great amount of energy and time to not only providing for the training and welfare of the Boys’ Town boys, but also developed the farm with the best scientific agricultural innovations to be found anywhere in India at the time. About his experiences then he had the following observations to make which he wrote about in Dec 2009:
In 1971 when I returned from the UK after a sabbatical to pass several Engineering Exams and one on Child Care, I resumed responsibility for Boys’ Town.
Financially Boys’ Town was bankrupt. Boys’ Town existed by deficit financing only. There were large loans owing to several banks from Madras to Tuticorin which amounted to many (c.15) lakhs which at that time 30 years ago, was very crippling and the monthly payment of the interest alone was extremely difficult. All purchases for all supplies for Boys’ Town, including even petrol for vehicles, had been done on credit basis and never paid because there was no money. Every part of Boys’ Town had been hypothecated to banks to get all the loans and there were threats to seal off all buildings, workshops, equipment and materials. Nothing actually belonged to Boys’ Town except the boys.
The books of finance were never closed and balances arrived at, so that no-one could estimate the financial situation, or even know about it. Nothing was ever audited. The accounts were all a mystery. I gave orders to the accountants to close all books of accounts every week and present them to me each Saturday. That met with resistance, it had never been done. We engaged a qualified Chartered Accountant to audit all the accounts. The findings took several months and were frightening. We could never trace three lakhs of rupees (multiply that by at least 10 in 2010). It had simply disappeared. And yet we had productive workshops for wood and metal items. We had 20 acres of rice fields with excess water from large wells. We had a flourishing pig and dairy farm.
When I was asked to hand over the reins to Bro. Calixtus in 1974 everything was financially stable. All bank loans had been paid back. All loans from funding agencies were settled. All creditors had been paid off. Boys’ Town was not only solvent but a substantial bank balance existed and all productive departments were paying into the actual running of Boys’ Town. When I left, the pig farm had a recorded 700 animals which included a superior breeding stock. This breeding stock was from Australia and Ireland so that when crossed there were pigs that could give good hams and bacon, etc. The infrastructure (which is still there) was of international standards. There was a meat processing plant which employed senior boys and a canning unit for pork products with a qualified chemist from Spencer’s in charge. There was a large food-mixing plant for animal foods. It was flourishing and all products were sold every day to Spencer’s and Co. in Chennai which went to all their many branches in India on a contract basis that they would take all our very large products. One year after I left there was not a pig in the place and so the whole large production complex ground to a halt, staff left and that income dried up. All the infrastructure is still there in 2010. The entire flock of 700 animals was sold, including the precious breeding stock to get quick money, but lost a regular source of good income as a consequence. That part of the farm is now rented out to others.
There was also a large dairy with 40 Jersey crossed cows and an excellent bull. That too died out and the buildings remain empty. Even all the 20 acres of paddy fields were left unused lying fallow and overgrown. We used to grow 2½ to 3 crops a year with excess paddy for all our needs. The balance sacks of paddy were sold to Convent Schools in Madurai. Another source of income lost. The several work-shops had substantial orders and were kept busy training boys as well as producing goods for sale to support the actual Boys’ Town. There were the following large work-shops:
Fitting, machining with many lathes, etc., welding, a classroom for engineering drawing, woodwork with excellent machines, a saw-mill to convert logs into planks as required. Nearby was a classroom building. In 2010 where has all this gone? Only one smallish building remains in the use of the Brothers. The others have been cleared of all machinery and rented out to others. That large hive of activity, training and income has disappeared. One sometimes wonders how such drastic changes have taken place and been allowed to take place. But I think it is necessary to put on record the actual facts of the situation, if not the reasons for them. I do not wish to comment on the above but for the sake of history I attest that the above facts are true if only very brief and in a skeletal way.
There are much of the first years of Boys’ Town which is unknown or have become a collection of myths, even the reason why Boys’ Town was started in such a difficult terrain. I think I am the sole remaining survivor, together with a few boys who was there during those initial years. But that is all another story…Bro. James Kimpton
On June 15th, 1965 news came that a large grant of D.M, 200,000/- had been obtained from Misereor for the development of Boys’ Town. It was to be the first of many donations from the German charity towards the massive development undertakings over the following few years that resulted in Boys’ Town becoming what it is today. The E.C.C. (Engineering Construction Corporation) of Madras was engaged to estimate on the plans prepared and later to build the new Boys’ Town. Archbishop Leonard a past pupil of the Brothers in France and the person responsible for allowing the Brothers to come to Madurai gave permission for the Brothers to receive money direct from Misereor to facilitate the undertaking. He was a true friend and staunch supporter of the Brothers throughout the he remained time as archbishop. It was initially the farm including the cultivation of crops and animal husbandry where most of the developments began in order to provide food for the ever growing population of boys arriving at Boys’ Town.
De La Salle Cottage under construction 1964
Besides Misereor, many other charities and funding agencies were also contacted to lend support to the realization of a ‘new town’ under the Nagamalai Hill for abandoned youth. Little by little donations came in to help the Brothers provide for the needs of their charges. The boys assisted the staff to ferry sand from the river bed by tractor and trailer besides doing spells of work on the road to allow access. At this time too, Boys’ Town was still without electricity. While promises of financial assistance kept coming from Misereor, little in the way of hard cash was sent with the result that plans for the development of Boys’ Town were constantly stalling and the Brothers were strapped for cash nearly all of the time even to the point of not being able to pay for food items. When the E.C.C estimate for the construction of the cottages was delivered to Boys’ Town around 10th July, 1965 it was far in excess of what the Brothers had expected at Rs 77,000/- per each cottage. The Brothers had estimated the total bill to be in the region of Rs 3 lakhs. Money that was coming from Misereor through the Archbishop was not being released and the archbishop was also refusing to sign documents needed by the Brothers. In the absence of progress with building construction the Brothers concentrated on developing the chicken and pig farms getting approval for the design of the pig-sties from an expert Mr. Howard, in Bangalore. The administration also developed the water supply for the farm and for the students was done by digging new wells and laying pipes.
On 6th July 1965 the Brothers through Bro. Visitor received information about another grant. It promised Rs1,150,000/- from Misereor. This made possible the erection of the Boys’ Town complex of buildings and workshops. The new cottages were built and two were occupied by 13 March, 1967. Bro. Machar who was in charge of the Boys’ Training occupied one cottage and Bro. William Abel occupied another cottage with each having twenty boys. With Bro. James remaining in an old cottage the numbers of students reached eighty.
Brother Pablo Assistant made a visit to Boys’ Town on 1st April 1967 to be present when Apostolic Internuncio, James Knox blessed and opened Knox Compound on 3rd April 1967. Then the Brothers’ quarters together with the administration complex, stores, kitchen, dhoby and dining room were opened and occupied on 1st May, 1967. Two Spanish Brothers, Joachim and Emiliano came and joined the community after spending one year in Tuticorin learning Tamil later that month. Later again in Sept., 1967 Archbishop Leonard who was about to retire came to bless and open Leonard Compound. It was a privilege for the Brothers to have him come for this occasion as he had consistently supported and encouraged the Brothers since their arrival. There was reason for his loyalty having been a past pupil of the Brothers in his native France. He had a reputation for being strict but honest in all his dealings. Meanwhile the workshops were nearing completion and the machines were installed in the woodshop by 22nd Sept. 1967. The machines for the machine shop were not installed until early 1968. A new access road was also constructed to improve access to Boys’ Town and the older cottages were renovated. The rate of development was breath-taking.
Knox Cottages Complex, Boys’ Town
Once the new Boys’ Town was completed the number of students suddenly increased from the usual sixty to close upon two hundred. Up-to-date machinery gifted by Misereor was installed in the new metal and wood work-shops and raw material was bought and adequate workmen and staff were employed. This sudden growth of Boys’ Town brought about a complexity of troubles and financial problems. Large sums of money were employed from abroad. Contracts were sought and fulfilled. Side by side with these developments land was opened out for agricultural development. For all these innovations much money was required and Boys’ Town sank into debts to the tune of Rupees fifteen hundred thousand. Thanks to the good offices and magnanimity of our Major Superiors in Rome, the debts were cleared by 1974.