Community of St. Thomas
COMMUNITY OF (ST. THOMAS), NOW IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, CHANDANNAGAR
On August 27th, 1861, at the request of the government, three Sisters arrived at Chandannagar for the education and instruction of the children of the locality. The beginnings were painful enough: eight little European orphans awaited them in a place which had nothing, but they were soon able to begin classes, thanks to the kindness of the good missionary Father and of the chief administrator of the colony. Right from this time, the work grew and made up a Day Boarding, which had up to fifty boarding pupils.
After the terrible cyclone which devastated India in October 1864, famine struck. The misery became so great that at any hour poor mothers went to them to ask for something to eat and offered their children to them. Then they saw that it was necessary to rent a place to receive these poor little victims. This situation provided the occasion for the creation of an orphanage called “The Holy Childhood”. This work did wonders, as they received these small children (babies), boys and girls, and when the boys reached the age of reason, they sent them to the Fathers.
As for the girls, they remained in the orphanage, where they were taught how to read and write Bengali; and then, after their first communion, they learned do some work. Because they were raised in this way, we found it easy to set them up in life The works increased, the place became insufficient, but Providence provided. In October 1868, the opening of classes took place in another establishment, wonderfully situated on the banks of the Hooghly river and which an important person in the city had bought for the use of the Sisters of St. Joseph in perpetuity. With the help of a collection made by Father Barthet, we repaired it and adapted it to its new purpose. In 1869, an old chapel, which had been built by the Capuchin Fathers, and which touched our establishment, was bought by a generous lady who gifted it to the community. This chapel was in ruins and had been abandoned for more than thirty years; it was repaired with the help of a collection, and services began there on September 8th, 1870. On that day, Holy Mass was celebrated there with solemnity.In 1877, a pretty grotto was built in the flower garden which surrounds the chapel, where we have the happiness of possessing a grand statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, which draws a large number of pilgrims. At about the same time, Father Stoffell, who was replacing Father Barthet temporarily, had attached to the establishment a small building for the Holy Childhood Orphanage, so that it was completely separated from the hostel.
In order to follow as much as possible the English customs, our school year began on January 20th and ended on December 15th. The return of our boarders wasn’t as satisfactory as we would have desired; we attribute this to the facility available now, since the construction of the railways, for travel to the mountains to escape the awful heat of the plains.
The First Communion took place on August 15th. Twelve of our boarders and seven from the orphanage had the joy of being admitted to the Holy Table; included in this number were two convent Armenians. Some twenty of the youngest pupils had already been admitted as aspirants of the Holy Angels on October 2nd. Five of our oldest were received as Children of Mary. This association began on March 19th, 1882. These ceremonies are always very solemn, thanks to the very paternal exhortations of the good Father Superior; often our little Protestant pupils are very moved, so much so that many burst out in tears and go to find Father to ask him to her their confession. Among our Children of Mary, there are many who show good signs of a vocation.
During the month of September, we had the visit of the primary inspector, who turned our to be good and helpful. After putting the primary pupils through two days of examinations, after which he seemed satisfied, he refused to see the hostel, because, he said, he was short of time. However, he didn’t upset us.
In January 1886, two Sisters arrived to take up the management of the hospice-hospital, at the request of the doctor of the locality and of Fr. Barthet, president of the Relief Committee. It was inaugurated on February 11th, after a very private blessing without external ceremony, lest it draw the attention of the hospital attendants and the poor patients. On the same day, Sister Saint Regis and Sister Jeanne de la Croix were settled there. All the personnel of the hospital, attendants and patients, welcomed them with joyful enthusiasm.
On December 21st, the little chapel of the Sisters was blessed, so that, from this time, on they had the joy of having Holy Mass almost every day.
August 27th, 1886 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of our establishment at Chandannagar, we celebrated a feast-day “en Dieu” and a day of happiness. The majority of our former pupils spent the day at the house. They attended Holy Mass, celebrated by the Father Superior and sung by the pupils, and afterwards greeted Mother Superior and her assistant, the first two sisters who began this work. They also took part in a splendid banquet, and then spent the rest of the day in innocent entertainment, which concluded with a brilliant fireworks display.
On December 5th, 1886, we were saddened when our very dear Sister Maria Christina Coatan was taken from us. She succumbed to tubercular consumption from which she suffered for many years. In spite of her constant pain, she remained working as long as her strength allowed. Her last moments were most consoling; for she remained fully conscious till the end, and died while kissing her crucifix.
Sister Maria Christina Coatan was born at Plouzane (Finistere-which, in my atlas, is on the north-west tip of Portugal on the Atlantic Ocean), on January 12th, 1851. She made her profession at Paris on November 8th, 1877, and pronounced her perpetual vows during her final illness. Because of this death, which took place ten days before the ending of the school year, we were not able to conduct the solemn distribution of prizes; this was done privately.
Three days later, we had the good fortune to go on retreat. The holy exercises were given by Father Rabany, who endeavoured to have us understand the need of perfection, and reminded us of the means to arrive there. We concluded on the eve of Christmas. We all came together in thanksgiving to prepare for the visit of Our Divine Saviour to our chapel, by arranging a nice crib.