February 20, 2021
St Antony of Padua, Italy, is known to restore things lost. If someone loses a key of the house lock or car, among Christians, first thoughts turn to St Antony. That trust and confidence may be well placed considering the devotees who throng to Milagres Church, Mangalore every Tuesday evening for novena in honour of the saint. They have their petitions expressed through a long classified list read out by the officiating priest who is from St Antony’s Asylum – a home for the poor, destitute, aged and abandoned – at Jeppu. There is a long history behind the asylum stretching back to over a century.
In 1898, the assistant parish priest of Milagres, Fr M P Colaco, returned from Padua, home town of St. Antony, with a relic of the saint. He started a devotion to St. Antony on June 12, 1898 which continues on every Tuesday even now. On the days of this devotion, now called St Antony’s Novena, bread was distributed to poor people who came begging at the church compound. This came to be known as St Antony’s bread and was given to 25 / 30 people. As time went by, it was realised that these unfortunate souls had no means for lunch or dinner. This sowed the seeds of what is today St Antony’s Asylum which is home for several hundred people – men women and children.
St Antony’s Ashram (file photo)
It was also realised that the recipients of St Antony’s bread every Tuesday had no shelter of their own. So, a number of huts were built across the road from Milagres Church. As the years passed, the number of destitute so catered increased beyond the capacity of the huts at Milagres Church. So, in 1931, the scene shifted to Jeppu where 28 acres of land was acquired in a government auction. About 70 beneficiaries moved to this location. The campus now has 13+ buildings which function as dormitories with 20 beds in each. In addition, there is a chapel and a mini hospital supported by Fr. Muller’s, Kankanady.
Many of the inmates are mentally retarded or alcoholics – when I first wrote this article for Vijaya Times (now defunct) 18 years ago. Women and children include those driven out of the house by alcoholic males. The children have their own ward and get education until they can safely fly out of the coop.
St Antony’s Asylum is managed by its director, when I first wrote about it, Fr Clifton D’Souza, a veteran who had been a priest for 44 years then. There were office staff and four religious Sisters of the Order of Helpers of Mary. Many of the inmates themselves were given some responsibilities to run the attached farm whose cocoanuts, paddy, vegetables, piggery and dairy partly met the requirements of the asylum. The inmates can wander around the vast campus, watch TV or go to the chapel for quiet prayer and meditation. About 15% of the non-Christian inmates (then) could have their own private devotion or prayers.
About 150 of the inmates (then) were senior citizens, with 20 of them bed- ridden. They got their medical attention and medicines in-house. Serious cases are taken care of at Fr Muller’s Hospital. Given the age profile biased towards senior citizens, the asylum had then about 25 deaths per year. The Christians are buried in a cemetery at Nandigudda and non-Christians buried or cremated at Nandigudda, according to their caste rites. The asylum doesn’t charge anything for admission or maintenance. On the other hand, it advised the prospective inmates to settle their property claims or problems before admission.
An empty sac does not stand erect. So, how does the asylum run for over a century? As noted earlier, the whole thing started with St Antony’s devotion at Milagres. That goes on with Christians and non-Christians crowding the church every Tuesday with petitions and offerings. Fr Clifton was the chief conductor of these weekly novenas. Besides offerings put in the donation box, devotees of St. Antony send offerings through mail. Fr Clifton had full trust that the devotees will support the running of the asylum.
That is another story for another time.
PS: There is another story about St Antony’s campus. An interesting museum is being set up on St Antony Campus with rich heritage exhibits mainly donated by John Tauro. But, that is another story for another time.