I don’t want to dump any additional rain on Forest Park’s parade, but there’s more to celebrating Irish heritage than wearing green hats and drinking Guinness. St. Patrick’s Day, after all, is a spiritual holiday: a time to recognize the Christian generosity the Irish have spread throughout the world.
Look at the impact an Irish missionary made on the dirt-poor district Fr. Ben Chinnappan came from. Fr. Ben is a chaplain at the nearby Hines VA and a resident at St. Eulalia in Maywood. If it hadn’t been for Father Thomas Duffy of Dublin, Fr. Ben would be back in India washing dishes.
Fr. Ben comes from the “untouchable” class – a people who are treated as badly as any slum dog in India. The modern term for these downtrodden souls is Dalit, but not much has changed in the 3,000 years the untouchables have clung to the bottom rung of Indian society.
Even missionaries shunned this despised group of indigenous Indians. That is, until Fr. Duffy arrived in the 1930s. Fr. Duffy came from a wealthy family, but had no compunction about being the first priest to minister to the poorest of the poor. He raised money during the depths of the era of the Depression to build a boarding school in Villupuram District.
Fr. Ben’s father was among the outcasts that were educated at this school. He not only escaped the bondage of untouchable society, but was able to provide higher education for his son. After graduating from seminary, Fr. Ben earned his master’s degree from the University of Ottawa. He has served as a U.S. military chaplain ever since.
Fr. Ben recalled that Fr. Duffy’s tireless work with outcasts took a personal toll and that the Irish priest died at 52, with only a few rupees to his name. Determined to carry on Fr. Duffy’s ministry, Fr. Ben founded St. Patrick’s Home in 2000. The boarding school provides free housing, education and health care to poor Dalit children.
In 2005, Fr. Ben opened the doors of St. Patrick’s Community College to Dalits. That same year, his organization, Dalit Solidarity, built 60 homes for destitute widows. He also started St. Mary’s Health Center, which serves 15,000 Dalits scattered throughout the district.
Fr. Ben’s principal donor during these years was an Irish-American named Thomas Aquinas Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds died last February and Fr. Ben has scrambled to make up the shortfall.
When the downpour started during our St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Irish commentator said that God was telling us to go inside the bars. I think He wants us to do much more than that.
We can help Fr. Ben by making a donation to Dalit Solidarity, Inc., P.O. Box 112, Hines, Ill., 60141, or through his Web site, www.dalitchristians.com. Then we can lift a toast to Fr. Duffy and all the Irish who have given their hearts to help the least among us.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.