Strong bodies fight; strong bonds fight better

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


Another hot day in northern Bangladesh, the coming monsoon already heavy in the June air, and Father Leonard Shankar Rozario, CSC, was visiting a school in one of the rural parishes administered by the Congregation of Holy Cross. As a teacher by trade, Father Rozario’s task this day was familiar: Stand in the front of a large room bursting with children who strive daily to survive extreme deprivation, malnourishment, an often hostile climate and inadequate medical care, and present a lesson.

Keeping the students’ attention was easier than usual because Rozario had brought guests with him: Once-in-a-lifetime guests, foreign and fascinating. The excitement suffusing the village and the school meant the priest could have stumbled through his topic—boxing, and some faraway thing called the “Bengal Bouts”—and it would have been an unqualified success. What was even more touching to their village hosts, these tall, athletic Americans had brought a film crew with them and said that when they returned home, they would tell their story.

Before Rozario could even speak, the schoolchildren—girls, mostly, that day—offered flowers and ceremonial handshakes, traditional songs and dances. Much of the communication was non-verbal; very little English was spoken by anyone. Even Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh, is a secondary tongue in such remote villages. Rozario was, therefore, translator as well as guide for his entourage, the first delegation of Notre Dame boxers ever to visit the Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh.

“A lot of these people had never even heard of the Bengal Bouts,” says Mark Weber, the president of the Notre Dame Men’s Boxing Club, who had just spent his junior year pushing his dream of a deeper connection between the bouts and the missions one step toward reality. “They knew they had benefactors, and they prayed for their benefactors. . . . They knew what boxing was. So Father Shankar was explaining it, and he says, ‘Their motto is, Strong bodies fight, that weak bodies might be nourished. And they are the strong bodies and we are the weak bodies.’”

Weber pauses, a smile broadening across his determkned face. “And all the girls in unison go, ‘NA!’ Because they’re not weak and they didn’t view themselves as weak. They view themselves as strong, and that was a big, eye-opening experience.”

Distilled to its essence, that is what Weber learned during his summer vacation. As he dedicates his senior year to leading the boxing team and producing what he calls a “Sundance-quality” film out of the two-week trip he took with Notre Dame film professor William Donaruma ‘89 and cinematographer John Klein ’06 and four other boxers, he believes that lesson may profoundly strengthen the relationship between a unique, 78-year-old Notre Dame tradition and a mission field on the verge of an important transition. He believes the Bengal Bouts can do more than send a five-figure check each year from donations and the gate. And he’s quite prepared for it all to change his life.

It already has.

The boxer who could

Those skeptical of the abilities of a student Mark Weber’s age to produce a Sundance-quality anything—Sundance is the largest independent film festival in the United States—should know this: Weber is a double major in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre and the Program of Liberal Studies (you know, great books, the biggest ideas and homework due on the first day of class). Emails from Weber’s student account carry this weighty quotation from Aristotle: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”

He’s already won over some well-credentialed supporters. Thomas Suddes ‘71, who has coached the boxing team since the retirement of the Bengal Bouts’ legendary founder, Dominick J. “Nappy” Napolitano ‘32, ’33M.A., over 30 years ago, owns an Ohio-based consulting firm that deals all day in entrepreneurial visions. "I’m a little upset with myself that Weber’s outthinking me," he says, chuckling.

“He’s a good boxer. Not a great boxer, but he’s a great kid. . . . He does life like he boxes. He never takes a backwards step. He just keeps bangin’ ahead. And obviously it’s worked,” Suddes says, referring to the boxers’ embassy to Bangladesh. Just transporting seven people to South Asia meant navigating a logistical labyrinth of low expectations, legal concerns, release forms, travel visas, fundraising and preparations to haul cameras, cables and computers across a country with unreliable infrastructure. “He worked his way through RecSports, the Notre Dame athletic department, the Center for Social Concerns, Student Affairs and the Holy Cross Missions. And he got over there,” Suddes adds.

The team mentality and tough workouts that distinguish Notre Dame boxing drew Weber to the Bengal Bouts as a freshman, but it was the mission that made him passionate about the program. As a sophomore he began thinking about a way to take the bouts to a new level. It bothered him that not a single boxer had visited Bangladesh in the program’s eight decades. Suddes stopped there briefly in 1997 and Father Rozario, visiting the United States a few years ago, had said a few words one night at the fights. That was it. “We would receive the funds gratefully,” notes Father Frank Quinlivan, CSC, ’66, ’69M.A., the Holy Cross provincial for the country, “but there was little follow-up.”

Mentors had advised Weber to pick a passion and pursue it, and his evolving work in film production already had him thinking about a way to tell the story of Bengal Bouts and the missions in a documentary. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. By fall break of his junior year, Weber was chatting up Donaruma, his filmmaking professor, and knocking on doors around campus with notions of a month-long film-shoot and service trip.

The idea was ambitious, and a few advisers told him so. One was Father David Schlaver, CSC, ‘64, ’69M.A., the assistant director of the Holy Cross Mission Center at Moreau Seminary. As director of Student Affairs in the 1970s, he had seen many big efforts fall flat for lack of continuity from year to year. So he preached pragmatism to shape Weber’s raw determination. He advised Weber to talk to the Center for Social Concerns about the prospects for service work but, during this trip, to focus on the experience of being there. “You knew it was going to work with him,” Schlaver recalls. “You just had to make sure all the ducks were in a row.”

Over time, the plans pared down to a smaller contingent of boxers, traveling for two weeks to see the missions and meet priests, bishops, students and villagers, and to work on the film as both subjects and crew. Holy Cross agreed to cover travel expenses for Donaruma and his former student, the cinematographer Klein. Donaruma obtained a grant from Notre Dame’s Center for Creative Computing to buy a high-density digital video camera to add breadth to other equipment he borrowed from the University.

Meanwhile, Suddes attached a cover note to a budget he’d asked his young boxing captain to draft and sent it out to several hundred Bengal Bouts alumni. The response was swift and netted almost $15,000 to cover additional expenses. The boxers selected to join Weber—Tomas Castillo, Patrick Martin, Leo Rubinkowski and Patrick Ryan ’08—did a little fundraising of their own to cover their travel.

That, Suddes says, is the power of the Bengal Bouts and its alumni. “These guys are absolutely, unbelievably successful,” he explains, adding that his definition of success isn’t merely financial. “They’re living life and they’re giving back and they credit the Bengal Bouts and boxing for a lot of that.”

An unwanted mission

Bangladesh was “the mission that no one wanted,” Father Schlaver observes of the first group of Holy Cross missionaries who arrived in Bengal in 1853, a few years before violent rebellions ended the control of the British East India Company and left governance in the hands of the British crown for the next 90 years. The missionaries found a largely Muslim land wracked by floods from rivers flowing from the Himalaya Mountains, as well as by famine and disease; these problems persist today.

Now, as Holy Cross mission materials point out, Bangladesh is a young, politically unstable and chronically poor nation roughly the size of Wisconsin with a population about half that of the entire United States. Dhaka, the capital city, is home to some 15 million people crammed into a metropolitan area of slums and shanty houses comparable in size to South Bend-Mishawaka. Ninety percent of Bangladeshis are Muslims and most of the rest are Hindus, with a small Buddhist community, just under half a million Roman Catholics and a remarkably high level of religious toleration.

Catholicism first came to Bengal with Portuguese traders in the 17th century, accounting for the Portuguese surnames of many Bengali Catholics in the cities. But when Holy Cross re-committed to the missions after a 12-year hiatus in 1888, it reached into the countryside to work among welcoming tribal peoples who had never embraced Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam.

Conversion from Islam, the state religion, is illegal in modern Bangladesh, and recruiting new Catholics is not the focus of the missions, which serve the spiritual needs of the Christian faithful and the dire material needs—especially educational—of all Bangladeshis.

One story captures the missions’ spirit. In 1971, when the people of what was then East Pakistan declared their independence from West Pakistan, persecuted Hindus came to Father Edmund Goedert, CSC, ‘39 seeking protection from the genocidal campaigns of the Pakistani army. Goedert distributed crosses to save their lives, telling them, “If you still want to become Christians when the war is over, then we can think of it.” In the end, Goedert’s biographer wrote, no one converted, but locals still speak of his old mission at Nagari as “God’s place.”

Arriving at Rampura seminary in Dhaka on May 31, the seven ND travelers were greeted by dozens of Holy Cross seminarians who sang a Bengali song, gave them flowers and challenged them to a game of basketball. “It was fun interacting and hearing them yell at each other and really try to beat us, which they eventually did,” boxer Tomas Castillo remembers. “These new seminarians are the future, and it is important that we get to know them because that is how the connection between Bengal Bouts and Bangladesh will grow.”

Notre Dame College, founded in 1949, is a walled oasis at the heart of downtown Dhaka and the flagship ministry of the province. The college’s 4,000 male students study science, commerce or the arts, and they dream of attending the national university. At a time when fewer than half of their peers can read Bangla and only 40 percent of all children complete primary school, they have already attained a rare level of education. Father Schlaver says some 10,000 would-be students, “all totally qualified,” lined up outside the school’s walls in July to obtain applications, but not enough resources exist to meet the demand.

The college walls also enclose a special dormitory for boys from the distant Holy Cross parish schools; a medical clinic; a technical school where boys learn basic trade skills; a piano-tuning workshop founded by Father James Banas, CSC, ’53, ’59M.A. to meet the demand among foreign diplomats; a night program for English instruction; and basic literacy programs open to children from all over the city, most of whom work during the day.

It’s hard to say how much of this has been funded by the Bengal Bouts, the largest single benefactor for the missions, but by no means the only one. A lot of money has come from the families and friends of the U.S. priests over the decades. Therein lies a major problem: At 65, Father Quinlivan, the elected provincial, is the youngest of the five remaining American priests. Father Boniface Tolentino, CSC, a Bengali recently charged with expanding development efforts, says the challenge is inherent to the process of a native Church coming into its own. The work expands and homegrown hands are training and ready to do it, but the financial need remains.

Until recently, even the boxing money was a “modest” contribution, Quinlivan says, and it mainly provided emergency food, clothing, medicine and shelter to people whose lives were threatened by floods, cyclone damage or slum fires. Sometimes the Holy Cross passed it on to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Always, Quinlivan adds, “there was a special emphasis on helping children.”

More recently, proceeds from the bouts have grown substantially. The province channels the money to projects with a lasting impact in its eight tribal parishes, scattered across four dioceses, Quinlivan says. “We have used the funds to, for example, support a primary [boarding school] in a very rural area, allowing 80 young boys and girls access to education. We have built small primary schools in some villages. We have provided fresh water wells and latrines. We have helped fund dispensaries.” Still, Tolentino reports, many other rural schools hold classes outdoors and the province is struggling to provide spare salaries to the 400 lay teachers who make the educational outreach possible.

Everywhere the boxers and the filmmakers went, guided by Father Rozario, they encountered the hardships of the people: venomous spiders in bathrooms; constant brownouts that added tension to filming efforts; a stomach virus that prevented Castillo and Rubinkowski from making the trip to the tea-growing districts; a mysterious leg ailment Martin apparently picked up while crossing a river on foot. “I had to back off some of the food and start taking antibiotics just in case,” says Donaruma, who adds that he was shocked that Weber didn’t get sick “because he threw caution to the wind a lot.”

The hardships, however, were overpowered by the consistent warmth of their welcome, even among strangers to the missions. “We had five cups of tea in one afternoon,” Donaruma says with a laugh. He says he will never forget the Hindu instrument maker he met in a Dhaka market who, deeply moved by the idea that people would visit from so far away, said simply, “Thank you for coming.” Donaruma had brought lollipops to hand out to the crowds of children he knew they would meet, and Rozario warned him to put them away lest they be overwhelmed. The children swarmed them anyway.

“We stood out,” Donaruma says. “We were like a parade. And staring’s not a rude thing to do in Bangladesh. And especially when you’ve got guys like Pat Ryan, who’s like 6-foot-5, just towering over everybody. People would touch him just to see if he was real.”

The boxers tried to reciprocate, offering boxing demonstrations at several parish schools and inviting volunteers to try on their gloves. Twice, to the glee of the children, groups of nuns put on the gloves and pretended to spar. The five fighters also took to wearing lungis, traditional cotton wraps for the legs worn by wealthier Bangladeshis as undergarments, but by their poor and rural countrymen as everyday clothes. Wearing them was an important statement, Weber says, because it showed where words could not that they had embraced the culture of their hosts.

Those bonds were sealed during the first week of the trip in a village known simply as “Heaven” because of the beauty of its location in the hills. The villagers came out to the large wooden gates to greet them, Castillo says, encircling them and dancing to a song accompanied by drums and the village piano. The children took their hands and kissed them and touched them to their own foreheads, then bowed and touched the boxers’ feet, a customary sign of respect.

The pastor of their parish, Father Alex Rabanal, CSC, explained that Bengal Bouts money had funded the entire village, including school buildings, land improvements, six new solar panels and a span across a stream that the priests jokingly dubbed “Bengal Bouts Bridge.” The real bridge, Father Rozario elaborated, was being built by the boxers’ journey. “So now that a bridge has been formed across the world, it will be easier to understand the impact we have,” Castillo says, “and give people a chance in both places to travel back and forth, because we know that we are welcome there, and we are sure to welcome them here.”

Future plans

“The idea of running a service program over there is one of the neatest things that came back,” Suddes says of the prospect of a potential partnership between the Bengal Bouts, Holy Cross and the Center for Social Concerns (CSC). “I think we’re going to turn this into a very compelling, unique experience” for Bengal Bouters each year.

Before the trip, Weber had taken Father Schlaver’s advice and introduced himself to Rachel Tomas Morgan ‘98M.A., director of the CSC’s International Summer Service Learning Program. Tomas Morgan says 38 Notre Dame students traveled to 15 countries through the program this summer, earning theology credit hours while examining the complexities shaping global poverty in the light of Catholic social teaching—and lending a hand where help was needed. The program sends students to neighboring countries such as India, Thailand and Cambodia, but to date hasn’t piloted anything in Bangladesh.

Tomas Morgan believes the time may have come. She is evaluating the feasibility of a Bangladesh project next summer. “We’d like more and more Notre Dame students to learn about the good work that Holy Cross is doing globally, and this is one way to do it,” she says.

Weber considers the annual service trips essential. “We say we’re training for the missions and we’re fighting for those people, but until now we didn’t know what that meant. And all of a sudden we’re going to bring back those faces, and I think it’s really going to change the program for the better.”

Bringing back those faces depends, too, on the success of the film project. Over the summer, Weber and Donaruma hustled to craft more than a terabyte of video, sound and still images into a 21-minute short version of Strong Bodies Fight, a feature-length documentary they hope to complete in time for the Sundance Film Festival in January, or at least before the bouts begin in March. Meanwhile, Donaruma taught summer classes and Weber readied himself for an NBC internship supporting the boxing coverage at the Olympics in Beijing. By mid-summer they had posted works in progress on Donaruma’s faculty web page, a Facebook group site that Weber and Pat Ryan set up, and YouTube.

Donaruma was once one of those Notre Dame sophomores Coach Suddes has in mind when he gives boxers his annual “19-minute” spiel to put things in perspective. The team trains three-plus hours a day between fall break and the bouts in late February or early March. The best boxers in the single-elimination tournament compete for a total of 18 minutes and 45 seconds across the five fight nights. Half of the fighters, though, are eliminated on the first night. As a student, Donaruma fought one match against the bruiser who won their weight class. That was the end of his boxing career, but he never lost his connection to the Bengal Bouts or his respect for what they represent.

Making it to Sundance is a filmmaker’s milestone with a gigantic promotional payoff, but that’s not what’s driving the production team. They want to inspire their audience to use their gifts to make an impact. If not in Bangladesh, then somewhere—anywhere—else.

“I knew it would be an important project to take on,” Donaruma says. “The easy part going into it, too, was you knew it would be a great piece for Notre Dame. . . . The hard part was making sure it wasn’t a Notre Dame commercial. It wasn’t just going to be that.”

Among his goals as director, Donaruma wanted to convey what it is to be a missionary. So, he asked every priest, brother and sister he met, what have you sacrificed? What is the hardest part of your life and work? The question fell flat.

“As much as you hear about the trials and tribulations, you couldn’t get them to ever admit to that part of it. It was all about the reward for them.” Living among scenes of what others might call futility, the missionaries—both the aging Americans and the younger Bengali and tribal religious—speak only of hope and progress. “We’re trying to chart some of that progress,” Donaruma concludes.

Weber’s independent study with his professor-slash-co-producer gives them time to work on the film through the fall. Donaruma says “the best-case scenario is that we make the movie we set out to make, [one] that helps Holy Cross, helps the Bengal Bouts.” He’d also like “a movie that touches people and that people enjoy and that gets seen in film festivals.”

Weber isn’t dwelling on what he’s accomplished. He knows the trip to Bangladesh was itself something special. “But more special than that, really, is what these priests have done and what the Bengal Bouts have done,” he says. “We went in there saying this is a story that needs to be told, and we’re doing our best to tell it.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.

Photo of Mark Weber with Bangledeshi children