Indigenous Santal Catholics work in an agricultural field of Mariampur Catholic Church in northern Dinajpur district on July 1, 2020. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Albericus Khalko considers his connection to the Catholic Church a lifelong blessing.
“I cannot even imagine where I would be without the support I have received from the church since my childhood,” Khalko, 40, an ethnic Oraon Catholic, told UCA News.
Khalko, who works in a private organization Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, is a member of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Mariampur in the northern, predominantly indigenous Dinajpur Catholic Diocese.
Born to a poor family, Khalko stayed in and studied at church-run boarding hostels and schools, free of charge, yet was able to finally graduate in Development Studies from Dhaka University, the country’s top public university.
As a gesture of gratitude, he also extended hands to support the church economically on various occasions, but not anymore. He thinks the Church is not making adequate efforts to become self-reliant despite the options at its disposal.
“Decades ago, churches survived mostly on foreign donations coming through the diocese. Many things have changed, but the local churches remain the same despite having vast properties and land,” Khalko pointed out.
For example, Mariampur parish has more than 100 bighas (33.33 acres) of agricultural land, but it still relies on an allocation from the diocese to run its activities.
“While the church gets funds from diocese to run various programs including two hostels for boys and girls, it also charges fees from students, so children from poor families often cannot afford it. If the church used its own resources properly, it could support itself,” Khalko said.
Set up in 1930, Mariampur parish in Dinajpur district is among the oldest and largest in the diocese with about 7,344 indigenous Catholics, the majority of them illiterate, poor and landless farmers.
Father Samson Marandy, the parish priest, said that the local church needs about 100,000 Taka (US$ 1,176) per month to meet costs. He gets half from the bishop and the rest he makes up from the income of the church.
“The church is trying its best to utilize the land for income by leasing out 44 bighas (15 acres) and cultivating the rest itself. Production cost is high nowadays due to expenses for tilling, fertilizer, irrigation and labor,” Father Marandy told UCA News.
“We always prioritize local Catholics in the leasing process, but sometimes they are not able to take it due to a scarcity of money, so we also lease to Muslims sometimes,” said Father Marandy.
Lagging behind in creativity
Catholicism in Dinajpur has grown up thanks to the evangelization of European missionaries starting with Spanish Carmelites in the 17th century and followed by Italian PIME missionaries in 1855. The diocese has about 62,082 Catholics in 19 parishes, according to Catholic Directory 2019.
In order to create a steady food production line and a source of income for the church, missionaries purchased land, a church official said.
Santal Catholic and community leader Charubin Hembrom, from St. Francis of Assisi parish at Dhanjuri, also believes the local church should have been creative in utilizing its own resources.
The church, set up in 1909, is the oldest in the diocese and largest with about 8,155 Catholics. It has about 100 bigha land including 60 bighas arable land and about half has been leased out to poor local Catholics starting 10 years ago.
“Some local people have benefited from cultivating church land, but it could be better if the church itself could make money from their own properties. Not just agriculture, the church could easily start a cattle farm, poultry farm, and fish ponds. Such creative plans could not only bring money for the church but could also create employment for many people,” Hembrom, 63, father of four, told UCA News.
Hembrom has also studied in Church-run boarding and schools and is now employed as a medical assistant at Dhanjuri Leprosy Hospital. He says that on many occasions he advised church leaders in vain to take up income generating projects.
“Ages have passed since our ancestors became Christians, but yet the church continues to depend on donations to survive. This cannot go on forever,” he added.
Father Michael D’Cruze, the parish priest of Dhanjuri parish, said that the church is currently reeling from a fund crunch and is unable to pay the wages of schoolteachers and the diocese does not have enough funds to support itself in this time of Covid-19
Church land is being utilized as much as possible, the priest noted.
“The money we get from leasing the land is vital for the church, while the harvest we have from our land feeds the students in our two hostels. We don’t have the money, manpower or machinery to reap the benefit from cultivating all our land,” Father D’Cruze told UCA News.
“I agree that the church could become self-reliant if it could start cattle and poultry farms, but for a lack of funds and capable human resources we are unable to make such efforts,” the priest lamented.
Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur echoed similar sentiments.
Paddy is the mains cultivation. “But agriculture is not profitable enough because of expenses for labor, fertilizer and other things. The price of rice is low, so we incur a loss. Leasing out [the land] is a better option, which at least allows poor people to grow crops and gain some benefits,” Bishop Tudu added.
The prelate noted that the diocese is emphasizing vocational trade training in order to help the younger generation to become self-reliant.
Italian Father Michele Brambilla, regional superior of PIME missionaries, believes early missionaries purchased land as per the needs of the Church.
“The church needs land and property to run services like schools, boarding, and hospitals. Time has come to think about alternative ways to become self-dependent. As Bangladesh is a relatively poor country, becoming self-reliant is a bit difficult,” Father Brambilla told UCA News.
Meanwhile, Albericus Khalko suggested that priests need to get educated on development studies, so they can contribute better.
“Nowadays spiritual and pastoral care is not enough, socio-economic development needs more attention. Good leadership and management skills are vital if the church really wants to become self-reliant with what it already has.”