Brother Enrico: Hammer and Chisel
Serving the faithful of his remote Indian community for over 40 years, with the strength of his spirit and his hands, Brother Enrico Meregalli still starts his day with prayer: something that is still at the center of his work.
By Giorgio Bernadelli
In India since 1974, Bro. Enrico Meregalli, PIME Missionary Brother and soul of the technical school of Eluru, carves upon wood and also the hearts of his boys; but his day starts on his knees at prayer.
“They go to the carpenter and it is he who advises them: “I do not know how to make this carving, go to see “Uncle Beard”. They are referring to Brother Enrico Meregall, a PIME Missionary Brother born in Italy in 1948. Now in Eluru, the city of the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh where he has been living for more than forty years, everyone knows him for his precious hands, for the trade taught to many boys at the technical school of which he has been the soul of for a long time, but especially for the great heart of those who found this treasure hidden in this remote corner of India.
There are 150 boys between the ages of 15 and 18 in this renowned school, founded by PIME, alongside the other educational institutions of Eluru. Here, they study to become mechanics, adjusters, or electricians. The school has ten instructors and its workshops are the best in the area (so much so that there are state schools that send their boys there for a 15 day internship, to get a little experience). The students also come from villages 20 miles away to attend school. Openings are never enough to accommodate the requests: “The boys who graduate from this school are very sought after,” explains Meregalli, “especially the mechanics and drivers, who get their driver’s license from our school. Many go to work at the Road Transport Corporation, the bus company, which is a very coveted employer. Others leave for Kuwait and the Persian Gulf countries: there are many of our boys who work there today.”
There are benches, blackboards, and laboratories where one learns how to weld or create an electrical circuit. However, frankly, the real reign of Bro. Enrico is an “extra-territorial” area: his carpentry shop. It is not officially part of the technical school, but even here, there are always many young people who come to learn a trade from this good giant from Italy. “We make inlay and sculpturing; we work with teak wood and also with nim, which is another very resistant local wood: not even the red ants can eat it,” says Meregalli. “Our shop has become famous because our mortises are deeper than those dug elsewhere. We work for churches and religious communities, but also for individuals who come to ask for quality doors and windows. They know that our work is of quality, that our wood is good. And that they are not cheated.” Work ranges from crucifixes, statues of saints (“sometimes even here in India, I flick through relevant magazines for inspiration“), balustrades, doors, and windows all made with splendid workmanship.
He hasn’t stopped since the first of December 1974, when he arrived in Eluru from Cinisello Balsamo: a parish of Sant’Ambrogio a few miles north of Milan. Why brother Enrico? What prompted you to live as a PIME lay missionary? “I was a toolmaker for Pompe Gabbioneta (centrifugal pump maker)” he replies. “I was also involved in the local missionary group; but one day I realized it was too little. It happened to me as what the prophet Jeremiah writes about his call: ‘You seduced me.’ I told the Lord: ‘You called me; certainly I did not come on my own.’ I understood that I had to bring my joy of knowing Jesus to everyone.” For more than 40 years he has done so with the simple style of a missionary brother: time spent with the boys and manual labor in the workshop.
“When I entered PIME at the Busto Arsizio house, there was Fr. Severino Crimella. I looked at him and I thought that I would leave for Brazil, too. Instead, Bishop Pirovano assigned me to Eluru: the vocational school already existed, Bro. Bertoli had founded it; but he was already old, and they sent me here to help him. At that time our school still did not issue the state officially recognized diploma. We needed permission from New Delhi, which came in 1981 thanks to the commitment of Bro. Francesco Sartori, who is still here with me: he arrived in 1966; he has always worked in administration. That recognition was an important step forward for our young men.”
Bro. Meregalli became an Indian citizen five years ago, the push to request citizenship was spurned by the present situation of India. Foreign missionaries, because of the anti-Christian propaganda of Hindu nationalists, increasingly encounter difficulties in the renewal of visas. Even the beginnings of his missionary service, however, were not at all easy: “When I arrived I did not understand anything about the local language, Telugu.” He recalls, “So I started working in the workshop during the day and then in the evening I was studying the language with a teacher. It was tiring: it took years to learn it. But when the boys realized that I, although a foreigner, was speaking their language, they were happy.”
Yes, but where is Bro. Enrico’s treasure? Generally speaking, he never asks for anything for himself, while giving most generously right and left. “I joined PIME in 1968, ” he says with a smile. “Those who joined PIME with me in those years, even though they were better than I, they left. But I was lucky enough to remain a young man at heart, and this, thanks only to prayer. Our older confreres kept telling us: ‘Stay close to the pitcher…’ And they were right. Do you ask me if I also pray while I work? No, how could that be possible? I must keep an eye on the boys. To pray I get up early in the morning; and then, every evening, I have an appointment with adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Yes, I pray and I’m happy. Besides, I told you I’m a little crazy, right?”
In 43 years, he saw a lot of India passing through the doors and windows of his shop. Not only the India of the patrons of his work, but also that of the poor. The lepers whom he regularly visits, the middle school boys for whom he buys uniforms, the disabled for whom he builds (always free, of course) tricycles with left over material. “India,” he confides, “has given me the joy of meeting so many simple, poor, but happy people content with the little they have. Nobody here treats you arrogantly, you are welcomed by everyone. And the friendship remains. I also see it from the boys who have passed through my workshop: many, having learned the trade, have set up business on their own. But they come to see me, there is gratitude and here they are always welcome.”
His mission is to keep his hands busy: he rarely returns to Italy, “I do not like being a tourist”, but the Lombard imprinting has remained all there. Which is then, above all, his recipe to give dignity to every person he meets. “Here in Eluru, there was a boy who was a warehouse worker and had an accident. His name is Moses, he is disabled; he walks with his cane because he has a pin in his leg. He used to beg. I told him: ‘I’ll pay you, but you come to me at the carpentry shop to learn how to work.’ So he found out that he was good at carving; now he does some very nice jobs. And above all, he feels he is a man again.”
When asked how he had seen the country change since 1974, he answered: “India has opened a lot to the outside world from the economic point of view; yet there are still some problems: the sewers are missing; torrential rains are quite dangerous, as with them the dengue and the typhus spread. Thank goodness that here at our school we have a very good well and then we give water to two hundred families. But yes, India has advanced a lot, but not so from the spiritual point of view. Printing Bibles is forbidden, for years they had been waiting for the Telugu translation here and now they tell us that would be proselytizing… But I bought some copies all the same to distribute to my people.”
Donated with simplicity, but also with knowhow. “When I got to Eluru,” he still remembers, “I planted a hundred coconut trees, now they are big and bear many fruits. But they are not for me, I give them to the poor. I tell them, ‘Here are 200 coconuts; sell them and keep the proceeds, but use it to start your business and earn a living.’ There really are those who made it and now can stand on their own feet.” We lacked the money for the coconut, but we found Uncle Beard’s real treasure. Having arrived in India more than forty years ago, he is still a kid at