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MUMBAI, India – A Catholic parish in southern India is helping the poor and members of marginalized communities.

Our Lady Periyanayagi [Mary Major] Church in Konankuppam, Tamil Nadu, consists of around 350 families. The parish includes two substations with a chapel and encompasses another seven villages.

“It worries most people to buy new Christmas clothes for their children. Most of the Catholics in the parish are Dalits and poor,” said the pastor, Father Devasagayaraj M. Zackarias, the former national secretary of the commission for disadvantaged castes of the Bishops’ Conference of India.

Dalits is the term used for the lowest members of Hinduism’s caste system, and were formerly known as “Untouchables.”

Rathinam and Rosammal, a married couple who are having a home built by the Our Lady Periyanayagi Parish in Konankuppam, Tamil Nadu, India. (Credit: Father Devasagayaraj M. Zackarias.)

“Only a handful of people are paid monthly salaries. When some children go for Christmas Mass with new clothes, the poor people do not want their children disappointed since they do not have new clothes. So, they try their level best to go for a daily wage, earn some money and get clothes for their children. Some of them get loans from their neighbors and buy new clothes,” he told Crux.

The priest said that heavy flooding this year led to the destruction of many homes, which are made out of mud.

“It is a huge loss for the people where they do not have a place to sleep, suffering like Mother Mary and St. Joseph. An elderly couple lost their house since their house, which was a hut, completely collapsed,” he said.

An appeal was made to the members of the parish, who provided $2000 to build a one room house with cement blocks and a tin roof.

“This will be the Christmas gift by the parish to the poor couple,” the priest said.

He added that the Saint Vincent De Paul Society gave money to another four families who lost their homes in the flooding.

“We have also appealed to some well-wishers and pilgrims to help 24 more families whose mud walls collapsed. I am sure that these people will experience the meaning of Christmas in our parish besides all the external celebrations. Thus, our Christmas will be a celebration of walking together with the people who suffered a lot due to the flood,” he said.

Our Lady Periyanayagi Church is an 18th century shrine that has been a center of Marian devotion in southern India for centuries.

Zackarias noted that in his parish, most of the decorations are centered on the parish church and other chapels, as opposed to people’s homes.

“Unlike the towns we can find stars only in one or two houses,” the priest said.

He also said the young people have been decorating the parish nativity scene in the native style of the Tamil people.

“They prepare a hut with hay resembling their own poor houses for the crib. They show their creativity in the crib. They do inculturation by growing rice, millet plants on the floor to make a grass bed to show the shepherds’ field,” the priest explained.

“In some parishes a theme is chosen for the crib decoration. In 2020, with the guidance of the assistant parish priest Father Olil, the youth prepared the crib in the form of a coronavirus, fixing a star on the top of the virus depicting that the birth of Jesus will break through the huddles of pandemic. This year they have chosen the theme of synodality, which will show that all kinds of people walk together to see the child Jesus,” he said.