Hospice for the Destitute
Director : Fr Pramod Dabhi, SJ
Jesu Ashram was born, like a lotus, from the muck and misery of war when every raindrop of the 1971 monsoon fell like tears from the eyes of millions of refugees fleeing to India before the army of East Pakistan. All along the border separating India and East Pakistan, from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas, camps sprang up to shelter the more than ten million refugees. They clustered in the paddy fields, clogged the highways and even tried to find a haven in the railway station of Siliguri, in North Bengal, the second largest city in the state. And there a haven they did find, and more than a haven – they found Jesus in the guise of a slim, middle-aged Jesuit brother, Robert Mittelholtz, who had come to India a decade before to serve the poor.
In mid-1971, when he was given permission to follow his dream, and moved from St Joseph’s School, North Point, to the plains to begin, he did not have any plan but realized that he would have to become trained for the work that faced him, and so he spent six months with Missionary Brothers of Charity outside of Calcutta and learned how to work with the poor, and then invited an MC Brother (Ignatius) to help him begin in Siliguri. The beginnings were simple: two rooms in a rented house – and a permission for the care of rejected men and boys only. Permission he had; patients he did but on the railway station platforms.
Finally, the inevitable happened, and a few in desperate condition – TB, malnutrition, festering body sores – allowed themselves to be taken to the verandah of the house near the river. Soon, others came from everywhere and soon, Bob needed an identity, a name for his work. He dreamed that many would walk again through the power of Jesus present in his work. And so, “Jesu Ashram” was born, to be an ‘abode’ where Jesus would welcome all searching for love and loving care.
When the neighbours complained about the proximity of seriously sick people and their use of the common well, he learned to adapt. It wasn’t long before nearby land was available, donations for a small building trickled in, and Jesus Ashram moved on. For his first Christmas on the job, Brother Bob invited the sick people including the lepers he had encountered since he had started six months before – June 1971. But these sick people brought fear in the heart of Brother Bob: he worried that the leprosy would spread to others. So he began the work of Jesu Ashram under a tree in an open field. Then roadside clinics were started. Today, roadsides clinics still operate; former patients are treating new patients, even handling minor operations and distributing medicines.
It wasn’t long before, a sixty-year old miracle of energy, love and no-nonsense devotion to the poor walked through the door; it was March 1972. She was Sister Ivana, FC, a compatriot of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She is now gone, but a community of the Daughters of the Cross, professional nurses, and student nurses now help to make Jesu Ashram the ‘haven’ of earlier dreams.
Brother Bob died in 2003 and is buried on the property, still inviting new generations of the young and old to find Jesus among the poor in this bustling part of new India. However, the vision and talent of Brother Bob lives on, guided by his successors - Fr Julius Kujur, S.J., from 2003 to 2014 and Fr Pramod Dabhi, S.J., from 2014 onwards.
In 1972, the rivers of refugees flowed back across the border to the east of Siliguri, and the fledging ‘Jesu Ashram’ moved west. Today, it is situated at Matigara, outside the city, near the Balasan River, beside a modern highway, on a large property with a hospital, nurses’ quarters, convent, and recently constructed Leprosy, TB and HIV/AIDS buildings, the gift of SOS India, a group of benefactors, under the guidance of Mrs Patrizia Biaconi, in Turin, Italy.
Bystanders will probably miss the small sign behind them, “Jesu Ashram, at the service of the destitute – sick and poor”, those left behind in the rush towards a future full of promise.
Click to know more about Jesu Ashram :