The children who live at Assisi Snehalaya, a ministry of Catholic Franciscan friars in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, are almost all infected with HIV. Most are orphans, whose parents already have died from AIDS and who passed the infection on to their children before birth.
Assisi is a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, whose teachings guide the Franciscans — and who was transformed when he encountered a leper, got down from his horse and kissed the despised man’s hand.
Snehalaya means “a house of love,” said Fr. Ferdinand Melappilly, the friar who directs the ministry, which currently houses about 40 residents, most of whom are Hindu children. “We don’t call it an orphanage,” Melappilly said. “This is a house of love . . . they are part of the family.”
Melappilly said he was challenged to move into AIDS ministry after meeting a friar who worked in international relief who encouraged him to “do something at the grassroots level for people who really need you.” He went to Mumbai to learn about HIV, spending three months at a care center.
“I had never seen any patients with HIV,” he said. Serving at a 150-bed center for those with late-stage disease, he saw infected people dying alone. Aside from those working at the center, “nobody is there to care for them, they are abandoned, they are very sick with lots of infections,” he said.
At that time, Tamil Nadu was experiencing high rates of HIV infection, as people from other parts of India came south looking for work, leaving their families behind. He decided to build a shelter, a place to give those who fell ill “a dignified death,” providing food and medical care. The friars collaborated with an order of nuns who provided nursing care, and soon found parents who were ill arriving with their children.
Since the beginning, around 200 people have died of AIDS at Assisi Snehalaya. Things are different now. With current treatments, people infected with HIV often can live long, productive lives. But more than a decade ago, when Fr. Ferdinand began this work, those infected with HIV were treated like lepers too.
At first, it was a challenge to get the children in to the nearby schools — some parents from the nearby villages were apprehensive, but the teachers proved welcoming and in time the mood shifted. Now the school collects soap, hairbrushes and other supplies for Assisi Snehalaya, and the people from the nearby town — people with little money to spare — provide three new sets of clothing each year for each child living there. The friars work with local hospitals and community organizations. So far, only four of the 120 children who have lived at Assisi Snehalaya have died.
“We try to make them understand it is not a killer disease any more,” but a manageable condition, Melappilly said. Still, there are challenges. Some of the medications cause hyperactivity; some of the children, having lost their parents, suffer grief and depression.
For the friars, some of the most important work with the children comes from simply being present, Melappilly said. “That is our major mission of evangelism: being the presence of God in their lives.”
In 2010, Melappilly had surgery for a brain tumor. While being ill “what gave me strength was the moral strength of the people with whom I could be at the moment of their death,” he said. “Those moments of grace.”