St. Thomas Mount, situated near the Chennai airport, is the closest historical site to the Radisson Blu Hotel, where we spent the first five weeks of our stay in India. Having visited sites all over the city, it seemed obligatory to tour the Mount before moving to our apartment an hour away.
Accordingly, Brianna and I booked a cab and set off for the hill which is said to be the place where the Apostle Thomas often spent time in prayer and where he was martyred. We shortly turned off the busy six-lane street that runs past the hotel and into the tree-lined winding lanes of the army cantonment first established by the British.
At the top of the Mount, we stopped first at the 16th-century chapel, built by a Portuguese vicar over the foundation of an ancient church. We sat among worshipers in one of the fifteen or so wooden pews lined up down the center of the chapel. I couldn’t help noticing the numerous autographs of visitors scratched into the glossy varnish of the pew: “S. Suresh,” “S. Narmadha,” “Benny,” “Aboul,” “Elisha loves Raaj” (circumscribed by a heart), and “Sifaan Loves Jesus.”
We contemplated for a while and drew in our sketchbooks, amidst thick plastered-over walls hung with paintings of the twelve apostles and granite sconces surmounted by fluorescent lights. Then we wandered out, past the cross carved in stone that is said to have sweated blood multiple times over the course of some 150 years (the last time was 1704) and dozens of chips of various saints’ bones, encased in reliquaries.
It was after emerging into the courtyard that we stumbled upon something that truly caught our attention. A plastered archway bore the words “Holy Apostles Convent,” and off to the side was the following placard:
A sign advertising beverages for sale invited us through the archway, so we ventured into another courtyard overlooking the city and a gift shop stocked with religious articles and handicrafts. The young woman cashier didn’t seem to speak much English, but she disappeared and, a few moments later, reappeared with an older woman wearing an unadorned, peach-colored sari and a warm smile.
Sister Geema explained that the baby house has beds for sixteen infants up to five weeks of age and a total of forty children up to four years. Abandoned children from hospitals and other locations throughout the city are taken to what I understood to be a government home—CWC in Changalpet. Whenever the sisters have an empty bed they go through the proper governmental procedures and retrieve a baby.
The sisters in the convent are members of the order of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, established by the French nun Mary of the Passion (1839-1904), whose portrait hangs in the gift shop. This convent was established in 1901; there are three or four others of its order in Chennai.
Eleven sisters care for the children, with the aid of nurses and kitchen staff. When the children turn five they must return to the CWC home. However, Sister Geema said many are adopted before then.
The Mother Superior, Sister Leema, joined us and offered a tour of the premises. As we walked through the gift shop into a dim but cool living area, we encountered a couple preparing to take home their eight-month-old adopted daughter. It was a privilege to witness their happy occasion.
Sister Leema then guided us to another building where the children were housed. It was just after noon, and most of them were napping. Those who weren’t lay contentedly in their beds. The low metal cribs of the older children were not far off the floor, and the sides were such that they could easily crawl out, if they were so disposed. (Why, I wondered, couldn’t Brianna have drifted off to sleep as cooperatively when she was that age?)
The one exception was the toddler room, where one bright-eyed butterball stood proudly supporting herself on a walker. Another nestled in the lap of a woman seated on the floor, and a third rolled about gleefully in his crib. Sister Leema told us he is more than two years old, but judging by size I would have guessed him to be no more than one. She showed us his hands, which bore only a thumb and pinkie, and said he is undergoing physical therapy. If he maintains the energetic outlook suggested by the gymnastics he was executing in his crib, I’m guessing he’ll find a way to overcome his obstacles.
Sister Leema said a number of the children at the home come to them with birth defects. Several of the infants had had recent surgery for cleft palate. One was awaiting treatment.
The children were allocated to rooms according to age: infants, older babies, toddlers, and three- and four-year-olds. The floors and walls halfway up were tiled with immaculately clean, pink-flowered ceramic tiles. The walls were painted with cheery Disney scenes, and a fresh breeze circulated through the rooms.
Sister Geema told us the baby home functions entirely on donations. Some donors give monetary sums on a regular basis, some bring supplies for the infants and children, and some, like us, simply happen upon the home while visiting the Mount. Sister Geema accepted our entirely unsolicited contribution almost reluctantly, entering it carefully in a ledger, along with our address.
By that time the sun was high and the temperature higher. We hurried through the rest of the Mount, pausing a few minutes to take in the view of the vast city of Chennai spread out below us.
Certainly Thomas’s bringing the gospel to India nearly 2,000 years ago was a noteworthy event. But the sight of women carrying out Jesus’ commission in the present was at least as compelling as the memorials to those who have done it in the past.