By Theresa Carson
Divine Word Father Manuel Antao, administrator of Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral in Basseterre, St. Kitts, is a long way from his homeland in India, but he carries the value of a good education with him.
In addition to pastoral responsibilities for the Co-Cathedral parish, Father Antao also serves as head of the school, accountant, fundraiser and plant manager for Immaculate Conception Catholic School, one of the most advanced school facilities in the Caribbean.
"My major challenge is to keep the school going," Father Antao said. It cannot survive on tuition fees alone, he said.
On an island the size of St. Kitts with a population of about 40,000, finding a qualified maintenance engineer is a challenge. "You put out a classified ad and not one shows up, but the biggest challenge is to find teachers," he said.
Ordained in 2003, Father Antao’s first assignment took him to Budapest, Hungary, followed by three years as a vocation promoter in India. During the summer of 2007, he was sent to Jamaica and the following year went to Sint Maarten, where he was assigned to St. Martin of Tours parish. In 2012, he became the administrator of the Co-Cathedral in St. Kitts.
What drives him? The quest to answer one question: Why does poverty exist?
Father Antao studied sociology and psychology because he wanted a better understanding of poverty and why people do the things they do.
"I’m struggling with that question," he said. "The earth has abundant resources and yet poverty still exists."
It’s a query with personal implications. Father Antao grew up in Goa on India’s southeastern coast, an area traditionally influenced by Portuguese settlers. The priest’s own great-grandparents were wealthy, but when his grandfather chose to marry a maid, the older generation disinherited him.
He had married beneath his social class. Father Antao’s father, who was an only son, grew up with very little material wealth, yet he and his wife worked hard and gave Father Antao and his five siblings basic necessities and good educations. The six children made the most of their educations. Today, Father Antao’s brothers are fairly well off, he said. Father Antao’s wealth is spiritual in nature. As a Divine Word Missionary, he is devoted to helping the economically disenfranchised gain an education, so they too can share in that wealth.
Built in 2010, Immaculate Conception consolidated two schools with noteworthy histories at a time when both schools were crumbling. More than a century ago, religious sisters on the island opened St. Theresa’s Convent School to educate Catholic children and youth from well-to-do families. After establishing St. Theresa’s Convent School, the priests and nuns found it necessary to establish a more universal school for all the children who desired to be taught in a Catholic school.
They opened St. Joseph’s Primary School. That school catered to economically disenfranchised children in St. Kitts and was the first school on the island that provided hot meals for the students.
The new school project began when Laurie Mezzalingua, owner and president of Kajola Kristada Ltd., recognized that many of the employees in her factory were single mothers. She wanted them to have a school in which they could place their trust and know that their children would grow and mature in a safe environment.
She partnered with Divine Word Father Bernard Latus, administrator of Immaculate Conception Co-Cathedral at the time. With financial assistance from her parents, Daniel and Kathleen Mezzalingua, Laurie Mezzalingua made the multi-million-dollar school a reality. Sadly, a year before the school was completed, she lost a long-fought battle with breast cancer at age 41.
Thanks to Father Antao and the Immaculate Conception School community, Laurie will be remembered in a special way each June. On June 10, they celebrated the first Laurie Mezzalingua Day.
"Her sense of humor and compassion resulted in instant connections with people she knew and those she just met," Father Antao said. "Laurie’s devotion to God and her enduring faith brought her peace. Her daily prayers always began with an expression of gratitude for all her blessings and acceptance of her disease."
The school that she built thrives. Immaculate Conception is one of the best schools in St. Kitts and its sister island of Nevis, Father Antao said.
The school building— equipped with a computerized heating and cooling system, Internet access in every classroom, and an elevator that makes it handicapped accessible—continues to be one of the best academic facilities in the Caribbean. The primary school offers courses that other schools on the island do not, such as performing arts, audio-visual, religion and music.
Like Laurie Mezzalingua, Father Antao has dreams for the school. Born, raised and educated in Goa, India, he knows of many Divine Word schools in his homeland that are self-sufficient. That’s what he wants for Immaculate Conception.
A few years ago, the school had a $600,000 XCD (about $225,000 US) deficit. His goal was to make the school financially stable and sustainable.
With the help of Daniel Mezzalingua, Father Antao has succeeded. They eliminated their debt through a series of steps: inviting four nuns from India, which lowers operating costs; installing solar panels, which improves energy efficiency; and raffling a car, which raised $80,000 (XCD).
Now that the school is back in the black, he wants to build an auditorium and a cafeteria. He hopes to build the additions in the next two years. The original cafeteria, built by the St. Kitts and Nevis government and the World Bank, is in disrepair, Father Antao said.
"What we have now is not very good, and the students love to eat on campus instead of going outside. The mothers prefer that their children not eat fast food," he said.
Parents want to send their children to Immaculate Conception because of the superior facilities, strict discipline and good security, he added.
"I want to put forth two criteria for students: discipline and percentage," said Father Antao, who holds a master’s degree in sociology.
Percentage measures students’ academic performance much like grades in the United States. Father Antao expects his students to score at least a 60 percent. "Few are passionate about learning. The majority come from single-parent families. Most stay with grandparents."
Of the 450 students, 70 are Catholic. The Society of the Divine Word gives financial assistance to 20 students who are from Catholic families who cannot afford full tuition. Divine Word Missionaries pay half, and the family pays half.
St. Kitts is one of eight Caribbean islands served by Divine Word Missionaries of the Chicago Province. On each island, they care for the particular needs of the people in those communities. Many of them serve as parish priests; others are involved in Hispanic and communication ministries; and some missionaries focus on humanitarian efforts.