Bishop Zinkula gets an education in India

Barb Arland-Fye
Students of Holy Cross School in southern India perform a dance in honor of Bishop Thomas Zinkula’s visit to their school during his trip to India six weeks ago. Bishop Zinkula visited many places in India and presented a peace award to the Dalai Lama.

Bishop Zinkula visits two Catholic schools that teach students of all faiths

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Thirty-two students dressed in their Catholic school uniforms filed into Father Francis Bashyam’s office at Vianney School in southern India to meet Bishop Thomas Zinkula from Dav­enport, Iowa. The bishop would not have guessed that the students live with their families in a leper colony that Fr. Bashyam visits.

The children, whose families exist on the margins of society, appeared solemn and curious at first. But they quickly warmed up to the bishop who wore a short-sleeved shirt and khaki slacks and sat on the edge of a desk as he told them a little bit about himself. Then in a teasing way, he asked them: “Which of you is the smartest?” All raised their hands. “The most handsome … the most beautiful,” he continued enthusiastically. “Study hard and be the best person you can be,” he advised them. He shook each one’s hand as they left the office, with smiles on their faces, to return to their classrooms.

Fr. Bashyam and Bishop Zinkula are good friends. The Indian priest served for a year in the Archdiocese of Dubuque when the bishop was a priest of the archdiocese. Seven years ago, the bishop spent two months of his sabbatical in India, as the guest of Fr. Bashyam and of Father Lazar (Nathan) Arokianathan.

When an opportunity developed to return to India to present a peace award to the Dalai Lama, Bishop Zinkula made arrangements to visit his two priest friends and the schools they oversee. Fr. Bashyam manages Vianney School and Fr. Nathan manages Holy Cross School in Sirwar, also in the Bellary Diocese.

Diocese funds building projects

The vast majority of students at both Vianney School (1,400 students) and Holy Cross School (600 students) are Hindu or Muslim. Just a small percentage is Catholic, reflecting the religious composition of India. Many of the students’ families live in poverty. The two schools are among 20 diocesan primary and higher primary schools and 15 diocesan high schools in the Diocese of Bellary.

Tuition covers most of the salaries at Vianney and Holy Cross schools, Fr. Bashyam said, but funds for infrastructure and facilities come from donations. The Diocese of Davenport is among the recent donors through its Diocesan Propa­gation of Faith, which contributed $5,000. The donation recognizes the “hospitality Bishop Zinkula experienced during his first trip to India and his great admiration for the work that his India priest friends undertake,” said Kent Ferris, who oversees the Diocesan Propa­gation of Faith.

Fr. Bashyam said $3,000 of the donation will pay for the roof of Holy Cross School’s new high school classrooms and the rest has been applied to the new toilet facility for the staff at Vianney School.

School visits

Exposed rebar poked out from the roofless third-floor classrooms at Holy Cross when Bishop Zinkula visited the school Feb. 28. Fr. Nathan said the school will expand to ninth grade in 2019-20 and add 10th grade in 2020-21. Vianney School already serves students up to 10th grade. During 10th grade, students take a statewide exam to determine whether they will go on to college.

On the day Bishop Zinkula visited Holy Cross School, banners featuring his smiling portrait hung outside the parish church and on the back of the stage in the school’s enclosed pavilion. “A hearty welcome to Bishop Thomas Zinkula,” the banner read. “God bless the bishop. God bless the faithful of the Davenport Diocese.”

Inside the pavilion, students took turns by grade to sing, dance or read for the bishop as the sun baked the dry earth outside. A group of the littlest students bounced up to the stage wearing posters around their necks illustrated with cheese burgers, pie, movie theater popcorn and other less-than-healthy foods. They danced and sang to a song about making healthier food choices.

“When I was here seven years ago, I was very welcomed,” the bishop told the gathering of more than 600 students, teachers and other staff. “I enjoy the people of India. I enjoy the food,” he said. Fr. Nathan interpreted for the gathering. Although students are learning English, the native language of the state they live in, Karnataka, is Kannada.

Bishop Zinkula told the students: “You are children of God. I want you to know that God loves you very much. You are very special to God. He gave us life, our families who love us. He gave us food and schools like this one to learn new things.”Fr. Nathan asked the bishop to bless the school’s new kindergarten block, which was nearing completion. A plaque in the building expressed appreciation to Bishop Zinkula “In remembrance of his memorable visit to Holy Cross School, 28th February 2019.”

The bishop, in turn, expressed appreciation to the teachers who had gathered in their staff room during a break. “Thank you for what you do here,” the bishop said. “Your work is very important – teaching children.” The teachers asked for a blessing and posed for photos with the bishop.

The children, playing outside or eating their lunches, wanted a handshake from the bishop, as he left the school for another engagement. “They love it,” said Father Thomas Michael. “They’ll remember it for a lifetime.”

Meeting students’ basic needs

Fr. Nathan, who previously served as diocesan superintendent of schools, said his primary goal is to meet the basic needs of the children. The curriculum has been designed so that students compete in a healthy way to develop teamwork and leadership skills. Hindus represent the largest percentage of the student body (60 percent); Muslims represent around 30 percent and Catholics about 5 to 8 percent. “The goal is to educate all children.”

At Vianney, “the poor and needy always find a welcome spirit in this campus,” Fr. Bashyam said. “Several-hundred students could pay close to nothing. Their parents are treated with dignity for choosing to educate their children here at Vianney in spite of various hardships at home and outside. Most express difficulty due to illness, single parent, unemployment, orphaned and destitute, among many other reasons.”

On March 1, the morning Bishop Zinkula visited Vianney School, he stood outside with Fr. Bashyam on school grounds to greet arriving students. “What happened to your teeth?” the bishop asked one little girl whose smile revealed a missing tooth. When an older girl wearing a crossing guard vest approached, he asked, “How many lives did you save today?”

Students and their teachers formed rows outside the school to begin the morning’s assembly. Bishop Zinkula told them: “It’s really good to be here with you. I find the people of India to be very special – very special culture, very special place. I’ve experienced people who are very warm, welcoming and hospitable, joyful and spiritual. I want to be more like you, in that respect.”

Fr. Bashyam took the bishop on a tour of the classrooms, stopping in at each one so that students could greet the bishop in a smaller setting. “Where I live in America it is very cold and there’s lots of snow,” the bishop told a second-grade class. “Snow and ice, everywhere there is white,” Fr. Bashyam added.

The bishop said just a quick hello to the 10th-graders, taking a statewide exam that would determine whether they go on to college, Fr. Bashyam said. “This is important for their future.”

Finally, the bishop ended his tour with a restroom stop, at Fr. Bashyam’s request, to see the new kindergarten toilet block. He is proud of the school’s ability to teach and to provide children with proper sanitation, an invaluable component to their well-being in a country where the poor don’t have access to such basic health resources.

(Next week: Bishop Zinkula witnesses Catholic Relief Services in action in an Indian slum.)

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