Das flew in from Kolkata to attend the funeral of Father Thaiparambil, who rescued him from a street in the eastern Indian city when he was barely six years old. “I have not seen God, nor have I seen my parents. But if God is there, I am sure he looks like this man,” he said after the ceremony.
The priest helped at least 80,000 children like Das to leave the streets and secure a decent life, Salesian officials said. Father Thaiparambil began his work with street children in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, three decades ago in 1985. Das was one of the initial beneficiaries of his mission.
The 84-year-old priest died in New Delhi of an age-related illness on March 19. About 500 people including former street children attended his funeral officiated by Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi and retired Archbishop Vincent Cocessao of Delhi. Condolence messages recalled how Father Thaiparambil witnessed the misery of children wandering the streets of Kolkata, particularly near Howrah railway station, and decided to work for them.
He opened his first night shelter for 14 street children in a slum area near Howrah and began to live with them. St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata blessed his second shelter, which he named Ashalayam (house of hope), in 1991. She also blessed his third shelter in 1995. About 500 street children now live in 23 Ashalayam shelter homes in Kolkata and Nadia district of West Bengal state.
After moving to New Delhi in 1995, Father Thaiparambil opened three shelter homes in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Das said the priest gave him “a life, an identity.” He had no name. Children around him called him by nicknames they liked, he said while trying to control his emotion.
“I hardly remember when I was rescued because I was too young, barely six years old, and was wandering with other children there,” he said. “My name and age were given by father [Thaiparambil]. But not just that … my entire life is his gift.”
Das now works with the government’s “Child Help Line”, a project to help street children. He continues to live in the shelter where he grew up in Howrah. Father Thaiparambil, from the southern state of Kerala, joined the Salesian congregation in 1950. After he completed a master’s degree in social work, he was assigned to work for youth and children at risk in Kolkata.
Deepak Kumar Johnny, a street child rescued by the priest from New Delhi railway station, said he used to sell popcorn on the railway platform, where he also ate and slept along with other homeless children. “On a cold winter day, I was sleeping on the platform covering myself with newspaper. I felt someone cover me with a blanket. That was my first interaction with father,” he recalled.
Johnny, who uses the name the priest gave him, is now 35 and married with two children. He said Father Thaiparambil started to visit the station regularly with food and clothes and slowly the children agreed to go to his ashram. “I am lucky and privileged that I was the first person to enter Ashalayam in 1991 in New Delhi,” he said.
The priest educated Johnny and trained him to be a social worker. He now works in the church-run Holy Family Hospital and volunteers to help Ashalayam rescue children from Delhi’s railway and bus stations and streets.
India had about 11 million street children in 1994, according to UNICEF, but activists say this number is a gross underestimate.
Das said he would have led a miserable life but for the intervention of Father Thaiparambil. He said he had wanted to become a Catholic. “But father told me this: Follow any faith, but first of all you have to respect yourselves and fellow brethren because service to humanity is the biggest religion in this world.”
With teary eyes, he added: “Sad that father is not with us but I will never starve in life because God has blessed me.”
Salesian Father Nirmol Gomes, the provincial of Kolkata, in his condolence message said the “inspiring vision and decisive initiatives” of Father Thaiparambil “was able to rescue and rehabilitate thousands of children from the street and set them on the path to a purpose-driven life, giving them hope and a home.”
Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, the apostolic administrator of Jowai Diocese, said the priest was “always a source of encouragement to me, never even once exchanging hard words. He had a positive way of looking at things. I never found him upset or angry.”