Remembering a true holy man


An Indian hero has died.

Brother Jose Vetticattil of the Montfort Brothers of St. Gabriel, of Hyderabad in Central India, was not nearly as famous as Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Gandhi. But their spirit of peace, grace and charity was alive in him.

Word reached me recently of the death of Brother Jose, as he was known to some of the most vulnerable and abused of Hyderabad's citizens, whom he helped. He died last month at age 49 after a massive heart attack.

The date of his death was exactly one year after I met him in Hyderabad, where I had gone to visit a project he had founded 10 years earlier to rescue and restore children who were the victims of horrific abuses of sex traffickers. His partner was a diminutive and astonishing woman named Sunitha Krishnan, a former Hindu holy woman who was constantly harassed by authorities in league with the sex traffickers.

Their project was named Prajwala, which means eternal flame.

It started in 1996, when Hyderabad's teeming red light district was cleared for development and the city's prostitutes and their families were left without a home.

"Sunitha and I went to them and asked what we could do," he told me in that interview in 2004. "They said there is nothing you can do for us, but please help our children. If they are educated they will not live like us."

There began a small school that grew into a school system now populated entirely by the children of prostitutes. The schools have acquired such a good reputation that others would like to enroll their children, but the admissions committees are made up of prostitutes and none but their children are permitted to enroll.

At the time I visited, about 2,500 children were enrolled in the schools, Brother Jose told me. He estimated there were 20,000 prostitutes in the Hyderabad area.

Later, Prajwala expanded, taking in children and young girls rescued from sex traffickers, sometimes in daring escapades led by Ms. Krishnan.

Prajwala added vocational training schools to the program and expanded to deal with the harshest consequences of sex trafficking: the tortured minds and HIV/AIDS found in rescued girls who were as young as 3.

"We were dealing with two tragedies now," Brother Jose said. "One that they have been sexually abused, two that they had become victims of HIV infection. We had to find a place for them.

"Today we have nearly 100 HIV-infected children. Our mission is to make them happy. We cannot restore their childhood. We cannot restore their lives. All we can do is supply them as healthy, as secure and as promising a life as possible."

That day, in the blistering heat of Hyderabad, Brother Jose took me to visit the school where the AIDS children were living.

There were 92 girls at the school inside a tidy, simple walled, whitewashed compound. The youngest girls swarmed around him when we entered, gleefully calling "Brother Jose, Brother Jose" as they dashed forward to hug him.

We sat and spoke with two of the girls, Angeli and Sarisha, both 4. They had been raped by their keepers, or purchasers, as some of the poorest families sell their children. Both were HIV-positive, Brother Jose said. The deadly disease was not evident in their cheerful faces as they leaned against the priest. But the chances are they are not alive today, if his prognosis was accurate.

It was a heartbreaking encounter, and I admired Brother Jose for the cheerfulness he brought to his astonishing mission. But he had devoted his whole life to helping the most vulnerable of his people, directing a Boys Town school patterned after the American version of the same name, running relief for the victims of a deadly earthquake in 1993 and facing down the demons that plague society.

His own heart broke last month. With that, the world lost a truly holy man who brought comfort and dignity to a vast number of young people who would have perished without his help.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

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