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 | By Theresa Stratford

Slain Indian Catholics declared martyrs

South Carolina Catholics step in to help widows

On a television show back in 2008, Rita Larrivee first heard about the murder of 100 Christians, including 36 Catholics, in the district of Kandhamal in India. Because she is from India, Larrivee felt a deep connection to the women who lost their husbands to violent nationalists.

The connection she felt was so deep, in fact, that she set out to help the widows and their families. That started in 2010.

Larrivee, a retired doctor who lives in Greenville and attends St. Mary Church, now gets to celebrate with these women since the Vatican has recognized 35 of the slain Catholics as martyrs.

The news brings vindication, hope and for the first time in years, a sense of joy.

Kandhamal, one of the poorest districts in the northeastern Indian state of Odisha, is about 20% Christian. The district has been the focus of orchestrated anti-Christian persecution since 2008, when Hindu nationalists blamed local Christians for the murder of a Hindu monk.

Quickly following the murder, nationalist groups called for revenge. They banned Christianity in the area and forced Christians to march to Hindu temples to recant their faith. Those who defied the order were hunted down, tortured and killed.

In addition to the killing, hundreds of women and girls were sexually assaulted, 300 churches and schools were destroyed and 6,000 houses were burned. An estimated 56,000 Christians were displaced, approximately half of those living in Kandhamal.

The widows of the 100 murdered men lost their spouses and all income for their families. 

The path to ‘self help’

Larrivee was determined to help the widows and their children and came up with a practical plan to help them restore their livelihoods and regain their dignity.

“We gave them each several chickens, and we taught them a trade so that they could earn some money for their families,” she explained.

Larrivee and her team also gave two goats each to a small group of widows. The chickens provided eggs, the goats provided milk and when the goats reproduced, the initial small group of widows gave the kids to the next group. And the process repeated.

This “self help,” as Larrivee calls it, enabled the women to sell handmade goods, such as jewelry, pottery and bricks, in the nearby market. A number of villages had separate groups, each with about 14 women, that learned a unique trade so they could bring different sets of goods to the market.

“They learned how to be successful. It boosted their confidence, and they were able to put food on the table for their kids,” Larrivee said. “For the first time, they had a community and it made them stronger. The fear they felt before dramatically decreased.”

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions halted the women’s activities, but with the help of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy, the groups are gradually reviving.

And education too

Larrivee also wanted to help children there, and she decided to build a school.

In 2010, the local diocese renovated a convent that had been burned during the attacks. Larrivee added a floor to it for teaching, and the interim school educated 40 students.

In 2016, Larrivee’s efforts built a larger school — St. Joseph’s Catholic School — that educates 160 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Most of the teachers then and now are Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy.

Larrivee confirmed that Catholic students make up about 20% of the student body. Some students hail from various Christian denominations, while others are Hindus or Dalits, which are commonly referred to as “untouchables.” About half the students board at the school. The families pay a nominal amount for their children’s education, while donor-provided scholarships fill the tuition gap and pay for uniforms, books and meals.

According to Larrivee, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy have also built space for a high school. They are currently seeking funding for the classrooms, labs and a library and are working on fulfilling government requirements.

Besides the sisters, Larrivee works with Father Richard Vaz of the Divine Word Missionaries. Father Vaz organized the school’s initial funding and setup, and he now serves as an advisor.

Larrivee’s projects have helped the widows and children move past the devastation of the 2008 attacks — but their slain husbands and fathers have not been forgotten.

Recognizing the martyrs

In 2018, Father Purushottam Nayak from Raikia Church, the largest parish in Kandhamal, began working to identify the 100 murdered Christians. He visited villages on foot, meeting with men’s families and listening to their stories. As he discovered, 36 of those killed were Catholic — including three priests, one catechist and numerous parishioners.

Father Nayak uncovered many harrowing stories. For example, Kantheswar Digal, the catechist and sole martyr referred to by name in the Vatican proclamation, was killed after refusing to attend a “reconversion” gathering in which Christians were forced to burn Bibles. The religious nationalists pulled him from a bus and murdered him and two other Christians. In a separate instance, another martyr, Father Bernard Digal, was beaten severely. He later died a painful death from a brain clot in a Mumbai hospital.

On Oct. 25, 2023, the Catholic Church in India publicized the Oct. 18 nihil obstat (“nothing hinders” or no objection) from the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints to initiate the process of beatification for the 35 Catholic martyrs of Kandhamal, all who died from persecution.

Larrivee explained that the archdiocesan council there will meet soon to plan for officially initiating the process.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, martyrdom is “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death” (2473). Rather than renounce the faith, these martyrs of India bear witness with extraordinary fortitude to the truth that Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead for our salvation.

“We are all so thrilled to hear this news. After all these years, it brings us the joy we have been hoping for,” Larrivee said.

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