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Sister Maria Philo, wearing a green surgical mask, is busy tending to the poor, injured fisher folk who until the day after Christmas plied the shallow waters off Nagapattinam for prawn and other fish. This city of 200,000, adjacent to the again—placid Bay of Bengal, has turned into an open-air morgue.

As Sister Maria moves purposefully amid the rubble, the odor of decaying flesh and the choking smoke of pyres from mass burials and cremations prompt nausea. Christian volunteers and pastors bury all the dead. Government workers have refused to touch the badly decaying corpses. Before the bodies are disposed of, pastors take their pictures, to be used later to identify them.

Sister Maria struggles to convey how she copes. "I couldn't pray for two to three days. Now, slowly, I am beginning to accept God's will."

No Escape for Indian Believers

The tsunamis following the massive December 26 earthquake off distant Indonesia's coast hit some areas of South Asia harder than others. In southeastern Tamil Nadu state, rotten corpses continue to surface, and hundreds of people are still missing. With the death toll in India surpassing 10,000, Tamil Nadu has 7,707 dead officially, of which 6,000 were in Nagapattinam, famous for the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Vailankanni. Locals say the true figure is much higher.

As you enter Nagapattinam in the early morning, you will see masked health workers sprinkling disinfectants from tin boxes on the roadsides. Hundreds of homeless people sit on the roads all day long.

Local Christians, many of them Catholics, did not escape the mindless fury of the tsunamis.

  • Eight miles away from the shrine, the 3,800-member Church of Our Lady of Lourdes lost 36 members—33 of them children. Two nuns visiting the church also died. Several more fisher-folk church members are missing. Many of the area fishermen belong to the country's despised Dalits.
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February 2005

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