In July, Helena Moniz visited a place she can’t quite leave behind.
“Everywhere I went I saw the face of God,” she said.
She went to India for a month. Her connection there was Father Thomasaiah Reddimasu, a priest from the Diocese of Warangal, whose five-year stay in South Carolina left a permanent impact. While he was here, he worked hard to raise money to send back to his impoverished homeland. The plight of his people, particularly the children, touched many lives in South Carolina. Thanks to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, people can still help by becoming missionaries through prayer or donations.
Moniz is the parish secretary at St. Theresa the Little Flower in Summerville. The church’s pastor, Msgr. Edward Lofton, is the diocesan director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
The purpose of the society is to foster a deeper spirit of universal mission, to inform Catholics of the life and the needs of the Catholic Church in the missions, and to encourage prayer and financial help for those churches.
“We all answer the call to be stewards of our faith and to share the word of God,” Msgr. Lofton said. In the diocese of Charleston, he also sees to it that money collected through the organization goes to the poorest of the poor.
It was at a society conference held in the spring that Moniz heard the message that people who work for the missions should take one of their own. She said she had been searching to discern what God wanted her to do, and she found the answer in India.
Moniz went to Dharmasagar in the Diocese of Warangal in the state of Andhra Pradesh to help in any way she could. A mission trip to India would be a tremendous culture shock for most Americans, let alone an American woman traveling by herself. The attitudes, religion, poverty and infrastructure are not comparable to America’s, but that wasn’t difficult for Moniz to deal with.
“I had no expectations so I was fully open to everything I experienced,” she said.
From day one she assimilated by eating only with her right hand, and wearing the traditional clothing and botu mark on her forehead to symbolize that she worshiped God. She helped her hosts with their work when she could. Her only true shock was at the level of poverty.
Moniz brought a suitcase of medical supplies given by donors in the community. Before she left India, she also gave away all but the clothes on her back. In the remote villages she saw people gathering water from a pipe and bathing outdoors. Women cooked on a gas-powered burner if they were lucky enough to have fuel cylinders. It was a place where ants were always in the food, corruption was rife, money was power, and the poor were plentiful.
Father Reddimasu told her that there were three frequent causes of death in India. The first is car accidents, because the roads are chaotic. The second is suicide, because the culture does not tolerate shame. If a farmer has to borrow money to buy seed and his crops fail, he can’t repay the lender and so he kills himself, Moniz said. In turn, his widow has to be supported by her own children. If her children are young, and she’s lucky, her family might take her in. The third cause is HIV/AIDS, which has a high rate of mortality. People don’t realize that they are symptomatic, and the disease is passed on to others.
Moniz offered to buy books on HIV/AIDS prevention for everyone in Father Reddimasu’s village.
“Father Thomas said, ‘Why? They can’t read,’ ” Moniz said. “I really believe that if we could educate people we could drastically reduce the spread of AIDS.”
But government schools are in shambles. Moniz said that most of the non-government schools she saw were run by Catholics. The girls who did go to school start at 6 a.m. and sit outside on the ground studying.
Moniz started out in Hyderabad with Father Reddimasu’s family. She later stayed in the Sisters of St. Ann Convent in Fatima and helped them make eucharistic hosts. The women running the presses were mentally and physically handicapped.
The nuns also have a hospital that has a picture of Christ in every room. They start each operation with Catholic prayers, Moniz said.
“Even Hindu doctors bring patients in and start the prayers,” she said.
Doctors wore rubber aprons and gloves, she said. No one else had protective clothing; they just changed into a different pair of sandals. The hospital had metal grids for windows and ants were everywhere.
Moniz helped with two deliveries while there. “I wiped the mothers’ faces with my clothes,” she said. She sat with a little boy who had cancer in his shoulder and neck. His left arm had been removed. Though she couldn’t speak his language, she comforted him with Sprite and chocolates. He died the day before she left.
Father Reddimasu took her to a hospital, and next door a medical university sat empty. “It cannot be opened because of corruption,” Moniz said.
“It takes courage to be Catholic in India because they have anti-conversion laws,” Moniz said. “They all wanted to know about Catholicism.”
She came home with $20 in her pocket. The rest of her money she gave to Father Reddimasu for his next project, a hostel for boys. He has already opened training centers, a computer school, a trade school for iron work and an educational trade school for women. He has even arranged for homeless children who live at a train station to go to school. Orphans are everywhere and even the convents have adopted children.
“You do not need to be Catholic to benefit from the services of the church in India,” Moniz said. “You just need to be a child of God.”
Her life has been changed forever. She hopes to raise enough money to return and continue the mission.
“The generosity I saw moved me,” Moniz said. “Everyone who had less took care of those who had even less. There was a kindness and a caring. I saw such an outpouring of consideration and compassion. It was never about me, it was always about the other person, and that’s what I saw in India.”
Anyone who is interested in sponsoring Helena Moniz on her next mission trip to India may contact her at the number below. She is also available to give presentations on her experience.
For more information about the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, contact Msgr. Edward Lofton at (843) 875-5002 or e-mail propagation@ sttheresachurch.com.