Maliapota (Nadia), Dec. 25: The gang that plundered Maliapota Catholic church minutes into the midnight mass had done its homework. The church is not just the spiritual repository of the sizeable Christian population in the Tehatta area of the district, but a depository of their valuables, too.
“This has been a regular practice for the past several years as many of us do not want to go to a bank to deposit our valuables,” said Placid Mullick, a local youth who was trained as a carpenter by the church. “All the families used to think that it was a safe place and no one would dare take things away from such an imposing institution, the largest one here for miles,” he said.
A mud-and-tin affair since 1951, the church had a grand revival in 1985 when a huge 50-ft Gothic structure replete with stained-glass windows and cavernous entrances came up in its place. The hall inside is 200 feet long and 150 feet wide with rows of polished wooden pews and candelabras at the altar.
Overall, an imposing structure with no match for miles, enough to impress the poor villagers in the CPM-dominated block, most of whom scratch a living through small trading with Bangladeshis, to “safe deposit” their lives earnings with the church.
Farmer Bisu Mondal, who was at the midnight mass, said residents of 13 villages often deposited their valuables in the church office for safe-keeping.
“It was safe and when we came to take money or jewellery, the Fathers wanted to know why we needed them. If they found out we wanted to sell them or use them for unfruitful purposes, they counselled us to take to productive pursuits,” Mullick said.
The “deposits” in the church had grown over the years. When villagers, who had been stopped from frittering away their hard-earned money by the priests, told neighbours how their valuables had been saved, more and more people turned to the church for a service banks provide.
“We cannot tell you how much of our hard-earned money and jewellery — made by many for their children’s wedding — have been lost in last night’s raid. But let me tell you many families must have lost their life’s possessions,” Mullick said.
For many years, the church has not just been a place of worship for the Christians in the area. Situated barely a few kilometres from the Bangladesh border, the church has emerged as a lynchpin around which the lives of the people revolve.
Affiliated to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the church has about 65 organisations that work in fields like education, farming and vocational training in its hinterland. The area here is largely Muslim-dominated, but a sizeable section of the 5,000 people looks upon Jesus Christ as their saviour.
The church, which has provided succour and training in vocational skills to many poor young men and women, has become a popular attraction for all during Christmas. This year, too, the huge 30-bigha compound surrounded by high walls had been decorated with coloured bulbs and strings of twinkling lights were strung on the trees and shrubs inside.
But the sparkle went out of Christmas and the villagers’ lives as they watched in mute horror the criminals plunder the church and their savings.
However, true to the spirit of forgiveness preached by their lord, the community here calmed down soon after the incident. The additional superintendent of police, who was gheraoed, was soon allowed to get back to combing the area.
In the morning, a large crowd milled about in front of the church, watching the comings and goings of senior police and civil officers. Most of them were at a loss for words and still trying to come to terms with the catastrophe that hit them on their saviour’s birthday.