As you approach Kalighat from the metro station, first you see the famous temple of Kali which is frequented by thousands of people, especially during the days of the festival. People come in hoards to worship and thank God for the blessings they have received. But I am sure most of them are unaware of the oases love and compassion which exists almost next door to the famous temple, the home for the destitute and dying, the first love of Mother Theresa started back in 1952.
Mother Teresa received what she described as a “call within a call”. She had been traveling on a train to Darjeeling to do her retreat when she received an “inspiration,” a message that told her to leave the convent and help the poor by living among them. That started a journey, with just a few rupees in hand, picking up the first victim on the road side, and carrying him and bringing him to Kalighat to look after him during the final moments of his life. “I THIRST”, the words spoken by Jesus on the cross, which you find inscribed at many locations at Kalighat, are very much indicative of the condition of the inmates and their thirst for love and compassion.
I had decided to do volunteer work at Kalighat when I was told that I needed to take a break after my retirement as a faculty member at St Aloysius College. I wanted to spend about ten days at Kalighat, volunteer there by looking after the destitute and the dying. I had worked at the same place back in 1987 for about 45 days. It was a wonderful experience and I wanted to do it once again. But then on the 13 March I got the news that Fr General had appointed me Rector of St Aloysius College. I decided immediately to go to Kolkata spend a week at Kalighat and do my retreat, eight days of silence and prayer in preparation for the new assignment as the Rector of the prestigious College in the south with a history of 133 years.
I arrived in Kolkata on 8 and the same evening I paid a visit to Kalighat. Met Sisters there and told them that I would be there every day as a volunteer for the next eight days. The warm and cheerful greetings given by sisters was indicative of the joy with which they work to alleviate the suffering and pain in the lives of so many men and women who find solace at Kalighat. I sat in the Chapel above, in front of the holy Eucharist and prayed. I was very much moved, and realized that Jesus present in the tabernacle in the Chapel above, and in reality, he was there below, in those who were abandoned by their own families, left on the roadside to die and now looked after by sisters, volunteers and other helpers.
Next eight days of my stay were very rewarding. I used to reach Kalighat early morning by 8.15 and start work immediately. Most of the inmates were already ready after a good bath given by volunteers and my job was to give a shave, wash linen, give water to drink, converse with them, carry them back to their cots, sit by their side holding their hands, smile at them, say “Hi” as I passed by and even sing a few songs to entertain them?thus in many ways I tried to reach out to those inmates who had nobody of their own to say that they are loved and cared for.
We used to serve lunch by 11 a.m. Some of the inmates had to be fed using spoon. Some of the inmates were also difficult cases. They refused to eat. And we have to spend a lot of time coaxing them to eat. One such person whom I was feeding on the fourth day of my work, passed away the next day. Many of the inmates who are brought to this place are in a very bad shape do not survive. I remember Cameron one of the volunteers from Canada was sitting next to the one who was quite serious and was on oxygen. He was finding it difficult to breath. He passed away the next day. Cameron was holding his hand. His instant reflection was “isn’t it a great thing to realize that what we do during our short span of life is meritorious when we reach out to others?”. One of the blessings these inmates experience is that there is someone to care for them at the time for their final moments in life. Sometime it is sad to see that our own near and dear ones sometimes pass this world with nobody to hold their hands and say that they are cared for and loved!!
I was interacting with some of the volunteers. Lee Horscraft from Australia had to say this about his visit. “My girlfriend really wanted to visit Kalighat and I wanted to volunteer in India. I wanted to try and help people and make them feel good. Kali Ghat was very hard at first. Seeing all the sick people and not knowing what to do or how i could help. Speaking or trying to communicate with the inmates was very rewarding especially as we became familiar with each other. It made me realise how fragile life is and to try and enjoy much as much as possible and to do good where i can.”
On the last day I visited Shishubahvan, located close to the Mother House of MC sisters. It was a heart rending scene to see many children ( more than 150 ) abandoned by their own mothers to be taken care by sisters and volunteers. At this place you find children who are just born and abandoned, up to the age of 10. Some of them are spastic children, others physically and mentally challenged, unwanted by their parents. When enquired, sister in charge told me that even rich people abandon children when they find that they are physically challenged. They just leave children outside the door of Shishubhavan and disappear. There was a case when the child left outside was mauled by a dog. But the soothing thing is that these children find a lot of love and care and are looked after so well by all those volunteers and sisters.
Mother Teresa always said, “Do not abort the unborn, bring them to me and I shall look after them”. Unfortunately our world has become callous where girl child Is not wanted and children born out of wedlock are either aborted or abandoned. We have something serious to think about and guide our youth.
One of the redeeming factors here is the presence of so many volunteers, especially from other countries. During the days I worked there I met two young boys from Chile, two from Australia, one form New Zealand, three from mainland China, two from Singapore, Japan, Spain, Canada, UK and United States. I really appreciate their generosity to come and volunteer at Kalighat and Shishubhavan. They were very serious in their work. They did all sorts of work, from cleaning the floor, bathing the inmates, feeding, shaving to interacting with the inmates. I am very much touched by their simplicity and their attitude of selfless service. When I enquired why he came to Kalighat, Mark told me, “I wanted to experience the lives of the people abandoned. I had heard of this place and I wanted to come and work for some time”. This is what Omar Kouhlani, a student of ESADE, Spain said about his experience at Kalighat: ? I enjoyed working at Kalighat so much that I tried to go morning and afternoon. It’s been an experience like none I had before, like a master lecture on humanity, religion, friendship, love, dignity, Indian culture, brotherhood and life as a whole. For me it was a accelerated way of maturing?. Dillon Hyland from New Zealand had to say this about his experience: ?I really wanted to volunteer to add depth to my travels to give spiritual purpose to my time away so in a way it was for selfish reasons. though that quickly changed when I arrived in Kalighat i felt so blessed to be able to hold their hands and speak with them even though i didn’t speak Hindi and they no English. To be able to spend time with the man on bed 15 with whom I spent so long trying to feed will forever be a cherished memory?. I also tried to feed that same person who passed away the next day.
One of the highlights of my experience at Kalighat was the Holy Eucharist celebrated for the Sisters and volunteers on Sunday, 14th April. In my message I highlighted the question Jesus asked Peter three times, ?Do you love me??. Jesus was asking Peter whether he was ready to love with the type of love Jesus loved- complete self-giving and self-surrender. I told the congregation that all of us are invited to love others in the same way Jesus loved us and the fact that we were there was an indication that we were willing to go an extra mile in our lives. I also brought to their notice that experiencing suffering and pain in our lives and in the lives of others, awakens us to the reality of life that ?we come empty handed and we have to go empty handed?.
Whatever good we have done in life will outlast us and any amount of money or wealth will not be of any use when we start the next journey. Hence we would get true satisfaction when we give, share with others and build institutions which could educate our youth to be harbingers of goodness, compassion and love. Commenting on this in Facebook, Rupert Rego, an alumnus of St Aloysius College wrote: ???A message so simple, yet so complex; so mundane, yet so cathartic. Fr Denzil Lobo….ever so inspiring!? ?.
Thereafter I spent eight days at Dyanashram in silence and prayer invoking God?s blessing on me and all the others I came across and especially praying for graces and blessing as I take up the next assignment as the Rector of St Aloysius College, Mangalore on 2 May, 2013.
Fr Denzil Lobo SJ
Rector Designate of St Aloysius College, Mangalore, India, and Director of AIMIT, the Management and IT School of St Aloysius College, Mangalore which offers MBA, MCA, MSc(Software Technology) and M Sc(Bioinformatics). Could contact Fr Lobo at: and web site
Author: Fr Denzil Lobo SJ