From mind to heart

The campus of Xavier College in Fiji. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

The campus of Xavier College in Fiji. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

One of the first commitments the Columbans took on after arriving in Fiji in 1952 was the administration of Xavier College in Ba, some 40 kilometres from the current international airport at Nadi. Located in a predominately Indo-Fijian populated area, it was seen as a suitable apostolate for responding to the need for both primary and secondary education, as well as establishing a profile for the newly arrived missionaries. Columbans continued running the college until 1989, when it was transferred to the Kerala Province of the Brothers of
St Gabriel of Monfort.

In their turn, the Monfort Brothers ran the school until the end of December 2020, when they passed it on to the Archdiocese of Suva, which in effect, meant the parish of Ba, a long time Columban responsibility. As the parish priest, I engaged Margaret Muller as the executive live-in manager, a function she has fulfilled with great enthusiasm and a high level of staff support. Then, just as the college was settling as a parish school under lay management, Fiji was struck with its second wave of COVID-19. It was the Delta variant and far more severe than the first wave.

All schools closed on April 19 and have remained shut ever since, as have the airport and hotels, places of worship, dine-in restaurants, cinemas and other public places. The tourism industry, which had provided 40 percent of gross domestic product in 2019, shut down overnight and many thousands lost their jobs. The knock-on effect has been devastating, with many students living in families that had lost their income, were in quarantine, or mourning the death of a loved one.

Packing relief parcels at Xavier College. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

Packing relief parcels at Xavier College. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan SSC

Margaret Muller, with the cooperation of the principal and staff, appealed to the teachers to donate a portion of their fortnightly income to the support of a grocery drive to help needy students keep going while the school is closed. Former students, both in Fiji and overseas, were also asked to contribute.

The operation is now in its third distribution round. Those receiving assistance include two families in home quarantine, as one parent is hospitalised with COVID-19, six that have lost all income and four on reduced salary. There is also one family referred from Social Welfare, and three unemployed single mothers each with a child attending the college.

In thanking those who donated to the project, Margaret Muller spoke of the gratitude the people she visited expressed, before giving a rundown on what she had discovered. “I also learned many of our students struggled with the daily commute to school pre-COVID-19, due to their isolated location. Their struggle is now compounded by this pandemic. Your support has somehow given them a glimmer of hope in humanity. We continue to receive support from our former students and the most notable donor is Dr Hari Lal, a former General Counsel [to the Office of Administration] of President Bill Clinton, who has pledged to stay with us and see this pandemic through.”

A teacher, Purnima Badlu, spoke of the effort made by one of her students, Manasa Saukuru. “He has been struggling with submitting his assignments online. Sometimes he is late, because he does not have a smartphone at home. He was asking his neighbour to send in his assignments. His whole village was in quarantine. He has been cutting sugar cane in order to buy himself a phone and, since he got one, has been catching up on submissions. His English lesson had all correct answers!”

Dr Hari Lal is now living in Los Angeles. He was a student at Xavier in 1969 from an extremely poor family. The Columbans waived his fees, but he also did a milk round in the village to contribute towards his tuition. After graduation, he and his 16-year-old brother left for Canada alone, without relatives or money. They worked 16-hour days in a bakery for 28 cents an hour to support their university studies. Dr Lal completed an arts degree and was offered two scholarships in Canada, one to medical school and the other to the Law Faculty at the University of Toronto. He later did doctoral studies at the University of London and became an associate professor of law in Los Angeles. In 1992, he became the Assistant General Counsel to President Bill Clinton. He wrote to Xavier College:

To all my dear colleagues at Xavier:

We may be comfortably living in our apartments or houses. We may not be getting affected by hunger during this time of despair. But there are so many people out there who may not have eaten a proper meal in the last few days. The turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is playing havoc in the lives of millions of people from all around the world. We are all in this together. We all can do our bit... Today I accompanied a local pastor and we fed 97 homeless in Los Angeles downtown area. My heart swelled with joy as each hungry homeless, regardless of colour or creed, gave blessings for feeding them. Shred the labels and rise as a human being – a human being of compassion, a human being of kindness, a human being with real sense to a member of the human race to help in needy times… Don’t shy away from giving, because God will return you with tenfold provided you do it unconditionally and with no expectations. A gift that touches the heart ignites the soul with flames of passion.

The Columbans of old can be proud of the seeds they planted all those years ago in the hearts of the Indian children of the cane fields of Ba!

Columban Fr Pat Colgan is the parish priest of Christ the King, Ba, Fiji.

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