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Cover of the book, Father, by Deborah Bedford

Mother Teresa – a guiding light for James Stevens

Photo of Mother Teresa by Túrelio

Mother Teresa of Kolkata in 1986

Mother Teresa is synonymous with Kolkata. Her work there for the poor and destitute started when she was a young nun. Born in Yugoslavia, she travelled to Kolkata in January, 1929. She had sailed far from her home and arrived in Kolkata not knowing what lay ahead for her, except her commitment she made to her mother: ‘Only, all for God and Jesus’.[1]

James Stevens arrived in Kolkata quite a while later in 1968 with the same intentions. Initially, James came to Kolkata from the UK as a volunteer with a French organisation, Freres Des Hommes (Brothers in Arms) for a two year stint. However, thanks to the support of Mother Teresa, he ended up calling India and the Kolkata region his home.

It wasn’t long after James arrived that their paths crossed, in fact, almost immediately. James arrived during a devastating monsoon that morphed into an equally devastating flood that brought death and destruction to large parts of Kolkata.

Mother Teresa and her nuns from the Missionaries of Charity were there wading through the stinking waters, rescuing people, bringing food, water, medicines and clothing for the living, blessing and burying the dead. She asked the Brothers for assistance and it was at this time that James met Mother and recognised the dedication and tireless energy of this small woman with the twinkling eyes.

Mother would play an important part in James life and his own commitment to helping the poorest of the poor, those people suffering from leprosy. It was something that Mother was passionate about; she had set up a Leprosy Fund and leprosy outreach clinics to provide medication, the dressing of wounds, food and succour for those afflicted.

When someone remarked to her, ‘I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds’, Mother Teresa replied, ‘Neither would I, but I would for the love of Christ.’

Leprosy is curable but the stigma that is associated with the disease is not so easily eradicated. Even those with missing limbs have been treated and cured; but their deformities remain and they are condemned to live in some of the worst slum areas.

As James’ time with the Brothers was coming to an end, looking for something that he could do to continue his work in India helping the poor, James asked Mother for guidance. What came out of their meetings – and the advice of others working in Kolkata – was the establishment of a home/school for the children of lepers, a place that would provide a home and an education so that these children could help their families escape the poverty that comes from having leprosy.

As James said of Mother Teresa:

A pillar of compassion, a voice for the poor, a modern-day saint – Mother was all these things and much, much more. To have known her has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

With Mother’s help, James had found a purpose to stay in Kolkata. That was over 50 years ago. The home/school that James established became known as Udayan. It has seen thousands of children pass through, children who went on to jobs undreamed of who were now able to help their parents escape the slums and shame. Many have given back to Udayan so that others may get the same opportunities.

The book, Father, by Deborah Bedford tells the amazing story of Fr James Stevens. Mother Teresa was significant, but so too others such as Steve Waugh and the Steve Waugh Foundation. It is a truly inspiring story.

Read more about the book and buy one or four to help the work started by Fr James continue.

 


[1]Sprink, Kathryn, 1997, Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography, HarperCollins, New York.

Why I wrote the story of Fr James Stevens

Author Deborah Bedford with Fr James Stevens at the launch of the book, Father, in Kolkata September 2018

My name is Deborah Bedford and I am the writer of the book, Father. What an amazing experience it has been to delve into the life and motivations of this man who has done so much for children who, before he intervened, had no hope, no future, no ability to get out of the slums of Kolkata.

I had always wanted to write a book but I had no idea about how, where or why. I just wanted to write a book. At the same time, I somehow knew that one day this opportunity would present itself to me and that I would feel compelled to tell the story, whatever that story was. This is exactly what happened six years ago.

On my first visit to India, I travelled to Kolkata to see friends. One friend had already been involved with Fr James Stevens and his work at Udayan finding children of leprosy sufferers in the Kolkata slums and giving them an education and much much more at the haven he called Udayan.

On my friend’s suggestion I travelled out to visit the place, about one and a half hours by car from Kolkata at a place called Barrackpore. It’s a dusty hot road that is one continuous traffic jam the entire route.

Father James with some of the children at Udayan, Barrackpore near Kolkata

Father James with some of the children at Udayan

When I arrived at Udayan, the large metal gate swung open to reveal a peaceful and colourful residence for the children who are living and learning there. I was so moved by the scene of happy, smiling, laughing children, topped only by the pleasure of meeting Fr James. I was not sure what I was expecting him to be like. By now, he had been running Udayan for nearly 50 years. So here he was, still engaged and utterly engaging. In his 70s with white hair and beard, this Englishman was right at home in his adopted country. I sat with him and had a thoroughly English afternoon tea. Fr James told me he had started the place with 11 boys and girls in 1968 from the Pilkhana leprosy slums in Kolkata. Sad to say, there are many slum areas in the city. Now, I sat in this place with new buildings housing the children, beautiful gardens which the children help maintain and the grounds full of the children laughing and playing. I was gobsmacked.

I left Udayan that day knowing I would be involved with Udayan and Fr James. I had no idea where this would take me, I just knew I couldn’t turn down any chance to be involved.

The Steve Waugh Foundation in Australia supports this wonderful project – that’s a story in itself which is covered in the book. It was initially through the Foundation that I started thinking about documenting the story of Fr James’ life. I talked this over with Father and we started the long and sometimes daunting process of writing the book.

The book, Father, written by Deborah Bedford about Fr James Stevens

Father is published by Saffron & Gold, 2018. It tells the wonderful story of Fr James Stevens who founded a home and school for some of the poorest children in Kolkata.

I had found my book to write – a book about extraordinary conviction and belief that led to a home and school that has seen thousands of children get a chance at living a better life. I’m delighted that Fr James loves the book as I know the readers will.

And Udayan? The more books we sell, the more financial support Udayan receives.

I am very proud to have written the biography of Udayan’s founder, Fr James Stevens. As the book says, James is ‘a ripple who created a tsunami of change’.

Buy a book now – or three and give two as presents to friends or family.

Visit Udayan’s website.

The early days at Udayan

Early days at Udayan

The name Udayan which means ‘rising’ was not applied to the first home that James Stevens set up for the children of leprosy sufferers. More important things were at stake: he needed to find some premises and set them up to accommodate children who were living in the worst slum conditions.

Mother Teresa played a major role in helping James. She was inspirational and kept James going no matter how grim things were.

In the chapters, ‘A new beginning’ and ‘Setting up the home’, readers will get an understanding of the magnitude of the exercise. James was starting from scratch. He had no idea where the home would be – it had to be something that was affordable and a place that could accommodate children, a cook and other helpers and be in a location where the children could easily attend school. That was only one of the challenges ahead for him at this time.

But the day came when he collected 11 children from the slums in Pilkhana. That was certainly a traumatic experience for parents – who knew that this was the right thing to do for their child – and for the children who must have been extremely nervous to be leaving their homes even if they were in the worst areas of the slums. People who had leprosy were shunned even by others living in the slums. It was and still is a place where disease and death are commonplace.

The first days at the home in Barrackpore, just out of Kolkata, were challenging. The children didn’t speak English and James didn’t speak their native languages. However, the universal language of song and laughter got them all through.

As James recalled of the first night:

Once I had fed all of the children and put them into their beds [the first they had ever slept in], I created a sigh of relief. I still don’t know who was more frightened about the future, the children or me. I sang to them; this was for my benefit as much as theirs.

It was the start of 50 years helping children from the most dire of circumstances to take their place in the world that would have been unimaginable and certainly unattainable without Udayan.

Read the book, Father, and be inspired by the life of this remarkable man, Fr James Stevens. You can buy copies of the book right here. Profits from the sale of books goes to Udayan, the home/school that is still helping children of leprosy sufferers in Kolkata.