Charismatic Renewal history
The Divine Retreat Center has its origins in the “Catholic” Charismatic Renewal, an import of a modified Pentecostalism into the post-Vatican II sect. The first form of this modified Pentecostalism is the Anglican Charismatic Renewal. Until then, when people converted to Pentecostalism, they left their original sects and joined or formed Pentecostal sects. However, the Anglicans began a new trend by remaining within existing Anglicanism, and taking the new name “Charismatic Renewal.” This trend was then adopted by members of other sects, so that there are now several different “streams” of the Charismatic Renewal: the Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, post-Vatican II “Catholics” and other sects.
The “Catholic” Charismatic Renewal began in 1966 at the Duquesene University in the U.S.A. and was imported into India by Minoo Engineer, a Parsee (Zoroastrian) who married a Hispanic American, Luz Maria, and “converted;” husband and wife have together spread this ideology in India (Origins of the “Catholic” Charismatic Renewal). The movement quickly caught on in the disruptions caused by Vatican II, with people desperately seeking “safe moorings.”
Foundation of the Potta Ashram
The Potta Ashram was founded in 1977 as the Popular Mission Center. The directors of the Center, Frs. George Parackal and Romulus Nedumchalil, etc, used to conduct Popular Mission retreats and visitations from there and they also made it their residence and headquarters. A few years later Fr. Naickomparambil was transferred to Potta. Naickomparambil was involved with propagating the Charismatic Renewal. Fr. George Panackal became impressed by Naickomparambil’s sermons which were the result of his involvement in the Charismatic Renewal. Niackomparambil’s propagation of the Charismatic Renewal drew in thousands of people. After a few years a three storey building was put up to conduct the retreats, primarily intended for the people coming to the Ashram for further consultations from places where the Vincentians’ Popular Mission Retreats were being conducted. But as Naickomparambil’s Charismatic Renewal retreats grew in popularity, the Potta Ashram itself became a center for numerous retreats.
Facility at Muringoor
As the Potta Ashram was inadequate for the increased numbers, under Fr. George Vempilly, the new director, a sprawling new site was acquired at Muringoor, on the banks of the Chalakudy River, six kilometers away from Potta, and Fr. Jacob Athickal was tasked with preparing a new and more extensive facility. This was given the name of Divine Retreat Center, and as inaugurated in 1987. At this new site, as increasing numbers visited, retreats were begun in six other languages besides Malayalam: English, Konkani, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi.
The Potta Ashram quickly set up branches in other cities and regions of India, including one in the Chembur suburb of Bombay (St. George’s Ashram, Chembur), and Tabor Ashram near Kalyan, an ancient city to the immediate east of Bombay (Tabor Ashram). However, as the popularity of the Ashrams grew, controversies also began.
Today, the Divine Retreat Center is allegedly the largest retreat center in the world. Since 1990, over 10 million pilgrims from all over the world have attended retreats here. Weekly retreats are held back-to-back non-stop every week of the year.
DRC: Hope for the abandoned
The Divine Retreat Centre, an organisation in India, becomes the axis on which many lives revolve.
Every day, thousands of abandoned people cry out for a place to live, three meals a day, someone they can call family, skills to procure them a job and hands to fold for them in prayer.
The Divine Retreat Centre (DRC), located in the southern tip of India’s Kerala state has been a place of solace for many from all parts of the country since 1989.Vincentian priests and volunteers from around the country help preach the word, educate the young, care for the elderly, feed the hungry and offer support to the sick and the disabled.
The director of the centre, Fr Augustine Vallooran, says it all of it began in prayer in 1991.
“We got a Bible verse, Matthew 25:40 — ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ God was asking us to serve millions as they served Him. That weekend, our volunteers found two elderly persons abandoned by their families. The two women suffering from acute kidney failure were accepted into the Divine family — that was how the Vincentians started the Divine Mercy Home for the Aged, a home for the elderly.”
Today, the centre has two homes for the aged — the Mercy Home and the Maria Shanthi Bhavan — where residents are cared for round the clock by a dedicated staff of nuns and attendants.
For the younger women, DRC set up the St Mary’s Home for Abandoned and Destitute Women, which helps young mums find a job within the campus and earn a living. A full-time créche takes care of the toddlers while their mums are at work. The women and their babies have survived poverty, abuse and neglect in their families. More than 300 of them have been helped so far.
At DRC’s homes for children, abandoned children with stories of broken homes, alcoholic parents, starvation, poverty and strife look on the positives.The Samaritan’s home has children ages 3 to 17. Children study in a school run by DRC. They are given safety and a roof over their heads lest they begin to call the streets their home. While child prostitution and illegal work are victimising many all over the country and many never learn to read or write, these young ones are cared for by DRC as their own. They are helped to live their lives like children.
DRC’s dream of opening a home for the mentally ill became a reality in 2001. Bernard Nigli has been one of its residents for the past eight years. He has worked for Ford Motor in Australia and hotels in Abu Dhabi. After struggling with acute schizophrenia for years, Nigli has now found a home.
“The reality of having about 2,000 mentally deranged people wandering around our campus unnerved us, but we went ahead in faith,” Fr Vallooran says.”What we practise here is love therapy. Volunteers and inmates interact with others, the people here pray together. None of these people need sedation to sleep today. Once when I joined them for prayers, I heard one mentally challenged man praying: ‘Lord, bless everyone who called me mad.'”
Daily activities include newspaper reading and yoga. Eight nurses, doctors and therapists care for these people in the age group of 25 to 80. So far 125 inmates have been sent home.
DRC’s institution for the mentally ill, named Santhipuram Care Centre, today has a waiting list of 5,000. The centre’s bakery is run by inmates who have been healed. The one thing that bothers the staff and the religious there is that many of these people are healed, but their families do not want them back.
“Many of these people were brought here by their families and once their parents pass away, their siblings do not want them back,” Sr Polly SJC, the nursing supervisor, says.
The Divine Deaddiction Centre, a government-approved home, helps people who have been fighting a losing battle with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Biju Thomas, 27, was brought to the centre by his friends in a wasted state.
He says life in the centre and the daily peaceful routine of prayer, therapy and medication has helped him.”I used to wake up with a hangover, now I just do not seem interested in such things anymore,” says Thomas.
DRC also provides free meals at the local hospital. There is a self-employment scheme for poor uneducated youth, a Bible college and a dairy farm. And not one person who turns to the centre is sent away empty-handed.
When the DRC was established 20 years ago, the Vincentians aimed to preach the word of God. Its help is now reaching millions.
Thousands come every week to the largest Catholic retreat centre in the world. Every day 3,000 persons turn to the DRC for their daily bread.
At the side of the centre rests a home for the abandoned of society — St Vincent’s Aids Home. In 1996, a young mother with her two children knocked on the gates of the DRC at midnight — all of them were HIV-positive and had been chased out of their village.
The home which offered them comfort – it today has several HIV-positive men and women surviving the hard knocks of life through prayer and love.
If you visit the home you may cry or get angry, but you will learn important lessons from a bunch of people who are broken and have nowhere to go.
Latha Anil Kumar got the illness from her husband who passed away years ago. Her in-laws snatched her children away. They are not willing to let the two young daughters of Latha visit her.
“I used to be treated badly — people would not let me help in the kitchen or use the bathroom I used,” she says. Latha today finds comfort in helping raise 2-year-old Glory, who lost her own family to Aids in the home.
Sr Mary Manjooran DC, who is the Superior, says: “Many of our children are born here and most lose their parents and siblings here. But I have never seen a more loving group of people even though I have served all around the world. This feels like a big family.”
The Aids home has men who have slogged all their lives for their families — now even their spouses do not want them. And the women beading the rosaries — they seem to be really skilled.
M. Sundaran is one among the many faces there — he used to be a reputed tailor in Deira. He now lives in seclusion in the home.
“I helped build my home in Kerala, took care of my siblings and their financial needs. A moment of weakness led me to a brothel. Now I have no one. But these nuns care for the inmates here like their own. I was a wreck when I came here and weighed barely 30 kilograms. Now I weigh 70 kilograms and I have made peace with my lot.”
Volunteering and me – Linda hand to charity
Volunteering comes easily to me supposedly because I was born into a family full of priests and nuns. The one trip I remember making as a teen volunteer was to an orphanage run by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. It was lunchtime and children with special needs were feeding each other; the older ones had been trained so well that they fed the little ones methodically and tidied them up as well.
The children loved each other, too — every candy, every ribbon, every toy was shared happily, even with the guests who came in. The love that surrounded me was so amazing that I ended up becoming a visitor to that place every weekend for as long as I was in that city. It was that memory that I carried in my heart when I went to DRC for a month to have a taste of volunteering this summer.
Going to Santhipuram care centre, the orphanage and the Aids home in particular was a unique experience because I was able to see a different, unexpected side of what the society labels mad, ill or orphaned.
I saw highly qualified professionals, fathers, sons, brothers, mums and toddlers who had all suffered a blow in life and had struggled to recover; and innocent babies born with HIV and dying soon after. But not one of them seemed sad.
Prayer does that to people, Sr Polly said. One man I met had an MA in German and was trained in one the best universities in the world. Another had suffered from depression after losing his lady love. Many had struggled with suicidal tendencies.
I expected to see madness and grief but I saw friendships and a lot of love. Sr Polly told me: “We ‘normal’ people struggle to forgive grudges and gossip, but these people do not. They take responsibility for their actions, forgive each other and move on. That factor has never ceased to surprise me.”
This vacation was one that was moving — one that gave life some meaning. I met some dedicated staff who have given up a comfortable life to serve the poor, the ill and the downtrodden. It was a humbling experience in many ways.
Its been a month apparently. And where did all the time go?
Some still pull my leg, asking me if I have practically become a nun. Friends wonder why I put in time and effort at a place where grief and ill health prevails. True, vacations have to be vacations and I did get affected by the pain I saw there. I did not get the complete healing I saw many people seek either. But I saw peace and acceptance.
I met a man in the cancer ward who had been abandoned by his children. He is caring full-time for his wife, who is dying of a tumour. When he wanted to kill himself, she stopped him and when she wanted to, he stopped her.
No, people like that man have not received everything the world might want for him. It is not healing but the fact that people can be in the depths of misery, yet be so happy and at peace in their pain.
That is what DRC is all about. It is what God is all about.
Divine Retreat Centre, Muringoor, Kerala
The Divine Retreat Centre is so popular world over that it needs no introduction. Hundreds of thousands of people of all races, religions, and ages, and from different countries, have attended the retreat programmes at DRCM, learning the true meaning of life.
The Divine Retreat Centre is part of the Renewal Movement led by the Vincentian Congregation in India, founded by St Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. The programmes started in 1987 in Malayalam. Subsequently, retreat programmes in six other languages – English, Hindi, Tamil, Konkani, Kannada, and Telugu were initiated.
The Divine Retreat Centre is located at Muringoor, a small town about 2 km south of Chalakudy. It is by the side of NH 47 and roughly 50 km north of Cochin. The centre is blessed with a picturesque location with lush, green surroundings and large expanses of paddy fields.
Weekly retreats in seven languages: Malayalam, English, Hindi, Tamil, Konkani, Kannada, and Telugu
Timing: Sunday 10 am to Friday 1 pm
There will be other special retreats occasionally.
Divine Retreat Centre, Muringoor, Chalakudy, Trichur Dt, Kerala – 680 316
Tel: (0480) 2708413 / 2708098 / 2739591 / 2708193
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Text and photos by Linda George