St Theresa’s Church – Ashta
St Theresa’s Church
Sehore Dt – 466 116,
Tel. Ph : 07560 – 242510.
Patroness – St. Theresa of Child Jesus.
Parish Priest – Fr. Francis Scaria.
The original history of Ashta goes back to those days when Fr J.C. Kokkat (1946) used to be a regular visitor to Ashta and many other stations of the present Bhopal Archdiocese, then under the diocese of Indore. While Fr. Kokkat was regularly carrying out his ministry in St. Francisâ€™ Church, Jehangirabad he came in contact with Mr. Samrathmal Gupta, a Jain who was married to Sushila Gupta, a Christian. Mr. Samrathmal Gupta hailing from Javra near Ratlam was then a compounder in Hamidia Hospital. Later Mr. Gupta became a Catholic. In 1952 he was transferred to the Government Hospital at Ashta. In Ashta he started staying in a rented house which he purchased later. Fr. Kokkat, on his way to other stations, made it a point to halt at Ashta and offer regular masses at the house of Mr. Gupta, the only Christian family residing at Ashta then. Later Fr. Joe Fernandes S.V.D. also used to visit Ashta occasionally. Mr. Gupta also acquired some agricultural land in Jagnathpura.
In 1996, when the Archdiocese of Bhopal was new, at the directions of Archbishop, Most Rev. Dr. Eugene D’Souza, Fr. Gauci and Fr. Mendonca, went out to make a survey of the Sehore district. With open eyes and keen ears, he went through the small towns, very poor villages, and illiterate people, to find that this is the place where Christ is not known and it is the obligation of the Church to make Him known. On 23rd September they came to Ashta. There they met Dr. S. N. Gupta, who was very influential and due to his frequent tours in the villages as a Doctor and had great knowledge of the conditions prevailing in the whole area. Mrs. Gupta was also a Municipal Counselor then.
On leaving Dr. Gupta they drove to the Tahsil office to meet the Tahsildar, Mr. N.P. Dube. He was also very sympathetic and helpful while discussing about various issues related to AshtaTahsil. The Fathers met many other Officers and leaders at Ashta. They also visited the 20 bed government hospital at Astha, which according to them was over-staffed as the people had not yet got accustomed to the idea of going to a hospital. The Fathers had good impressions about Ashta and proposed to the Archbishop to start a model Farm at Ashta with an Irrigation Department and a Better cultivation Department, an Agricultural school, a Social Work Department and a Mobile Dispensary. They also recommended highly the starting of a Girls higher secondary school at Ashta.
In the survey conducted by Fr. Gauci and Fr. Mendonca it was found that the area was perfectly rural and the problems were basically of agricultural nature. Difficulties related to irrigation, fertilizers etc. were upper most. Side by side, the local population and the Government officials pointed to the necessity of a good dispensary and Child Welfare Centre.
Father Devdas, a new comer to the Diocese, brought with him his years of experience and eagerness to work among the poor in the villages. He expressed his wish to go out there to pioneer the work and see how he could influence the people. Late Fr Odoric (then Brother) also joined him to pioneer the work.
A piece of land, 26 acres in all, was bought on July 7th, 1967. (At present Khrist Premalaya Theologate, Theresa Hostel, DSS Convent and the Farm House etc. are located on this plot of land.) Father Devdas refused to build himself a good brick house. He set over his head a thatched roof, threw away his shoes, dawned himself with a saffron cloth (normally worn by priests of the place) and tried to identify himself with the people and live with them. It must be said that with this he made many friends, spoke to many people. With all the good intentions however, he could not just make it. There was something missing somewhere, and he could not really pin-point what it was. He called for guidance, looked for help, and invoked the good Lord for graces, but Devdas was not his original self after a year of all that hard work. He almost broke down and had to be asked to rest.
After Father Devdas’ departure, the land had to be looked after, lest it fall into the hands of some outsiders. Father Raphael Sequeira was asked to live there and try his hand. He was given the assistance of Brother Kinny. Father Raphael was pulled out from a city parish where he was the traditional Parish Priest and worked very well among the traditional Catholics and non-Christian city dwellers. The pair could not think of doing anything ‘pastoral’ in this God-forsaken area.
The good pair did not really do much but looked after the land. Besides that they could not do anything for themselves, so they thought, and so, it was wise for them not continue to stay out there.
To add to their problems there was an unexpected flood in the area. The house that they lived in, like other houses was six feet deep in water. This made it impossible for them to continue to live in that house. They then moved out lo a nearby city called-Sehore, presently the district headquarters.
Soon after his ordination, Father Joe Gnarakatt was asked to relieve the pair. Being the man that he is, very humbly went to the place, observed things around him, his people, their homes, their work and silently made a through study of the place. He then took a short leave and went for a training programme in agriculture. Father Joe must have been in agriculture by birth. With the crash programme however, he learnt scientific methods and real advanced agriculture. During the course of his programme he kept in mind the picture that he had drawn for himself of the Ashta Mission and the villages around with the people in them.
Well equipped with the theory, he was now able to get back and try his hand out on the rich soil of the mission field. There was no point, he felt, in going to the people let the people come to him. On the other hand, he, like the other families, worked on the piece of land that was under his care and work he did. That piece of land was soon changed. ” It was now time for Father Joe to show the fruits of his hard labour, the long training and the truth of his theories. The nearby villagers looked at his field. The products of this soil was far superior and questions began to arise in the minds of these men who also worked very hard on their own fields. Father Joe was always ready to meet them. His doors were open, and his hands heartily welcomed each and everyone of them. Sure he could help them too, to bring about the same results from their fields and hard work. It was for this he was sent to help them. It was for this that he went out for his short training.
A Silent Christian Revolution had gradually but firmly started spreading not only in Ashta itself but also around the neighbouring towns and remote villages. Having done the digging, prepared the soil, levelled the hills and valleys, Fr. Joe realised the need for more hands and minds to serve the people around Ashta. An invitation -was sent to the Congregation of St. Joseph of Chambery’ to send a group of sisters to help sow the seed. In October 1972, the first batch of sisters was welcomed to the village led by Sr. Emmarentia, now called Sr. Sachita. Sr. Peter Mary and Sr. Stephen were the other members of the group. Bro Ubald Joseph ofm Cap, Sr. Conrad, Sr. Sophia, Sr. Benigna and Sr. Emily joined the community soon. With the help of these sisters, Fr. Joe Gnarakatt took initiative to start the ‘Pushp Kalyan Kendra’. A small dispensary, a three bed dormitory and a tiny consultation room are all that it had for the structure. In them, however, were the willing souls of the good sisters.
Well trained in nursing these sisters had soft spoken voices, patient ears to go with their Christian Hearts. On an average of about 50 patients per day visited them initially. There seemed to be no fixed time for visiting, no limited distance from where they might come or any particular cast or creed for their visitors. Patients would often say that they preferred to visit this dispensary because while they received medical care and medicines in all places, they received ‘God’ in this place. It would also be true to say that patients came not only for their medical care but also for family problems, emotional worries and social pressures. Often the sisters in their modesty and humility were confused at the fact that they were called upon to attend to all this.
Again, the sisters did not limit themselves to work in the safety of their four walls. They organised, on their own, a mobile clinic. Every week they went out to villages to offer their assistance. They included hundreds of villages in their programme. An old jeep was placed at their disposal. In this, they carried all their equipment, medicines, food and bedding. It was necessary at times for the team to spend days and nights outside their home.
The nearby homes were not neglected. They visited homes, made new friends and shared their joys and sorrows over a cup of tea. How long would these sisters be able to carry out this task? The more they went out, the more they saw the need for more people helping out. Realizing this, they planned a ‘home nursing course’ offering a certificate recognised by the government. Sister Emmarentia held the classes – theoretical and practical for willing young women who were presented with a certificate by the Red Cross Society after the completion of the course.
That is not all. Sister Conrad had an added talent. She had an interest in Tailoring. This art could be shared with other young women. Regular classes were held in the corridor which served as their ‘Craft Centre’. Limited Funds permitted them to purchase just one sewing machine while place limited them to hold classes for just 25. Many more were asking to be included and all the 50 hands wished to try their skills at the sewing machine. In a couple of years they were able to procure a few more machines and expand this training programme to many more interested young women.
The younger children, girls and boys were not forgotten. The energetic sisters found some time, dust off their bicycles, mounded on their seats and off they went to catch a few children. Having gathered a few’ around them, they would try and teach them the need for cleanliness, self respect, basic hygiene, love of God and Neighbour, besides the basic ABC and 123.
Under the leadership of Father Joseph Gnarakatt and the supervisory assistance of Brother Ubald 21 acres of land were put under the plough, the soil was nurtured, doctored and fed to produce 100% fruit. All through the year the fields were green with pulses, or grams, sunflowers, wheat, sugarcane or a variety of vegetables.
Nature was benevolent to the workers by providing a small rivulet running along the border of the land. Fr. Joe used his creative power in scientific agriculture and made arrangements to direct the water for his own use. With the help of a powerful pump he lifted the water to a reservoir and used the water for the irrigation of his own land.
Following this bright idea the neighbouring villages sought Fr. Joe’s advice and asked him to make similar arrangements for them. Here was an opportunity for Fr. Joe to go out to them. Very willingly, he sought out the most economic way of getting some pump sets on long-term-loan basis for some. For others, he constructed a tank on his own piece of land for the sole purpose of distributing the water to the fields nearby through canals. These hundreds of villages, who years ago depended only on the seasonal rains, were now able to irrigate their fields when necessary. This too needed basic education and Fr. Joe was the willing expert, on the spot to satisfy this need.
Besides soil, seed and water, we all know that scientific agriculture does not mean sitting back and waiting for results. Necessary fertilizers, special cycle of sowing, timely weeding and reaping ought to be done, to attain maximum output, from God’s given nature. Here again, Fr. Joe with his, expert knowledge not only supplied the villagers with the know-how, but also gave them the necessary equipment.
It was strange to hear the reaction of these villagers. Initially they did not believe that Fr. Joe was doing his agriculture in a scientific manner. They simply believed that this was a Man of God who was working wonders on their land. His quiet life of prayer and an unassuming and unselfish manner has added to their belief. Fr. Joe was not satisfied with just working on his and their land alone. The questions of: what to do with their produce? how to take it over to get a proper price? the best means of receiving an equivalent for their hard work, were to be thought of. To solve this he has first of all thought of building good roads for the villagers. Here he had to get Government approval. This was no problem for “Fr. Joe”. Most willingly they gave him their consent and offered him full support. He got busy with the construction of roads. His first achievements in this direction include roads in Kachipura, Kumar Mohalla and the one to Jagnathpura. On 10th January 975 Mr. Umrao Singh, the then Minister of Forests of Madhya Pradesh sent a letter of appreciation for the great works done by Fr. Joe Gnarakatt and offered him full support and co-operation. He was able to accomplish all these with the blessings of the Archbishop and with the support of OXFAM, Caritas, Swiss Lenten Fund and some individuals.
Then came the ‘Surpanch Father’ Fr Edwin. He too did a lot in the agricultural and social field. Reading the signs of time he opened a Hindi Medium School under the name Pushpa Vidhyalaya. It was beyond oneâ€™s imagination then to understand the need of a school in a small town like that. We cannot today call it by any other name than discernment. Fr Edwin is very popular among the people in and around Ashta. He rendered his services to the villages in making roads, digging wells, reaching electricity and uplifting the poor . The Archdiocese under his leadership started the regional Minor Seminary at Ashta under the banner of Khrist premalaya which has grown to the Regional Theologate today. Fr. Edwin left Ashta in April 1987.
In 1983 the Krist Premalaya Madhya Pradesh Regional Orientation Seminary was closed down by the bishops of Madhya Pradesh who decided to begin diocesan minor seminaries in its place. This necessitated the purchase of 9.5 acres from Mr. Khalji Patel for Bhopal Archdiocesan Minor Seminary. Fr. Edwin Mathias constructed the simple seminary buildings in this campus. Later the seminary was shifted to Bhopal. After reserving an area of 2 acres for the parish 7.5 acres with the existing structures was sold to the Indian Missionary Society.
Fr. Xavier who was the parish priest then was accommodated by the IMS house temporarily. Fr. Xavier T. Daniel constructed a presbytery in the land reserved for the parish and moved into the new campus.
After Fr. Edwin Mathias Fr. Samuel Kavil, Fr. Ravi Selvam, Fr. Xavier T. Daniel and Fr. Sunny Sebastian served at Ashta as Parish priests. Fr. Selvam, Fr. Xavier T. Daniel and Fr. Sunny Sebastian were also Principals of Pushpa Vidhyalaya.
Fr. Antonisamy was transferred from St. Patrick’s Church, Sohagpur to Ashta on 11th May 1997. He took over from Fr. Sunny Sebastian. He served as Parish Priest of St. Theresa Church and Principal of Pushp Vidhyalaya until 30th April 1998. Fr. Antonisamy then opted to start a new mission station at Nagpur Kala, near Itarsi and handed over charge to Fr. Joseph P.P. who was transferred from Harda
Fr. Joseph P.P. brought great discipline in the school. He brought 20 boys and 20 girls from Avelikheda, Namonia and Shampura and started a hostel for tribal children. He purchased a bus for the transportation of the School children. He added four classrooms to the existing school building and initiated the process of building a boundary wall around the school campus. He also revived the Dairy Farm purchasing more cows. He served the parish for 3 years and handed over charge to Fr. Johnney Pulloppillil.
Fr. Johnney Pulloppillil was parish priest from 2001 to 2003. Towards the end of his tenure in January 2003, he began the construction of a more spacious church on Seminary road in the plot which had been reserved for the same. Although Fr. Francis Scaria took over as parish priest in May, at the request of Fr. Francis Scaria, Fr. Johnney continued the construction of the Church and handed over the completed Church in December 2003.
Fr. Francis Scaria was transferred to Ashta. He came to Ashta on 20th May and he took charge of St. Theresa’s Church officially on Sunday 25th May 2003. He concentrated on development of the mission station. He organised the parishioners and motivated them to be active in the parish. With a view to make the station self-sufficient, he improved the Diary Farm and Agricultural Farm. With the help of Caritas India and Archdiocese of Cologne he built Theresa Sadan Hostel for Tribal Girls at the farm and invited the Sisters of Deena Sevana Sabha to help in the administration of the same. With the aid from Kindermissionswerk, Germany and German Province of the Jesuits he built up the Vianney Sadan Hostel for Tribal Boys. With the help of Archdiocese of Cologne he also attended to the construction of a new presbytery in view of the expansion of the ministry in Ashta.
He took interest in village work especially among the Barela tribes. He revived the Avelikheda mission which Fr. Edwin Mathias had started as a substation in 1979. After Fr. Edwin this mission was neglected due to heavy workload of the priests in Ashta especially in the School. Fr. Francis Scaria began celebrating the Holy Mass in one of the families of Avelikheda on a weekly basis. To accelerate our ministry among these people, the archdiocese purchased 2.4 acres of land in June 2007 from a tribal and registered the same in the name of Fr. Issac Ekka. He then began construction of a few living rooms and a multipurpose hall.
Bro. Ubald was a constant supporter to Fr Gnarakat and Fr Edwin. Later he worked in Budgeri and in Bhopal. He volunteered to look after Archbishop Eugene D’Souza after his retirement. Later he came back to Ashta where he spend his last days until his death onâ€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦.. His body was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Ashta, next to the grave of Mr. S.N. Gupta, the first Catholic of Ashta.