History of the Province
The present Bengal Mission began with the arrival of the Jesuits of the English Province in 1834. They started the first St Xavier’s School shortly after their arrival. However, quarrels over jurisdiction made it impossible for them to stay; in 1846, the closure of St Xavier’s and the departure of the Jesuits were decided.
However, Mgr. Oliffe, the next Vicar Apostolic of West Bengal was planning the return of the Jesuits. He applied to the Superior General who entrusted the responsibility of the Mission to the Belgian Province. The first batch, headed by Fr Depelchin, five Belgians and two members of the English Province landed at Calcutta on November 15, 1859.
Beginnings were very humble: the fathers were entrusted with St Xavier’s School, St Thomas Church and the spiritual direction of the Loreto nuns in Calcutta. They took up their residence in Park Street in the former Sans Souci Theatre with its monumental colonnaded entrance, on the grounds that haave remained ever since the Mother House of the Jesuits in Bengal.
With the steady arrival of new recruits from Belgium, the Mission developed. The first developments took place in the 24 Parganas, under the direction of Fr Delplace, who answered a call of some Protestants from Basanti and went to live in their midst in 1873, from whre the word spread to Boddipur, Khari, Morapai and Raghabpur.
By 1880, the initial momentum had slowed down. In 1882, Fr Delplace had to return to Bruges in Belgium, where he died in 1927.
Two mission stations were established – Morapai and Raghabpur, which were kept alive or rather vegetating till the second renascence under Fr Ruwet and the Yugoslav Fathers from 1927 onwards.
In the West, a German Fr Schaff, travelling from Midnapur along the ‘Bombay Road’ settled down at Jhargram where conversions were made among Bengalis of the Hari caste. A large tract of land was bought a few miles away, at Jualbhanga, with the intention of running it as a zamindari. A similar idea led the same Fr Schaff to Krishnachondropur in Mayurbhanj, where a huge plot of land – 16 square miles of forest and rice land, was leased from the local Maharajah.
Alas, future developments showed only too well that running a zamindari and a parish leads to endless troubles: Jualbhanga, Krishnachondropur, and much later Boddipur in 24 Parganas had to be closed.
We are now in the 1880’s. Mgr. Paul Goethals became the first Archbishop of Calcutta with the establishment of the Hierarchy in India in 1886.
It was at that time that an exceptionally gifted missionary, Fr Constant Lievens in the full strength of his youth, began the conquest of Chota Nagpur to the Church. He saved the lands of the Adivasis form the clutches of the petty landlords by his way of winning lawsuits against them. He was acclaimed as a liberator, and people flocked to him in their tens of thousands.
Starting from Torpa in the Munda country, Lievens met with an overwhelming response among the Oraons of the Barway, which practically became a Catholic country. Unfortunately he contracted tuberculosis and had to be repatriated to Belgium where he died at Louvain in 1983; streptomycin had not yet been discovered.
By then recruits from Belgium were coming in steadily. With men like Frs. Cordon, Dehon and others, the work was consolidated. Mission stations were established, churches were built, schools opened. Manresa House, Ranchi became the headquarters of the Mission.
By 1900 large numbers came over in the Biru, and a mission station was opened at Samtoli, which became the centre of a new district. Fr E. De Gryze, a second Lievens, opened with tremendous success a new district in the territories of the local Rajah of Gangpur, where thoushands of Oraons, Kharias and Mundas came over. He also died young.
Later on, another friendly Rajah, the Rajah of Jashpur, allowed and even called in the missionaries to preach in his territory. Thousands of Oraons came over. This movement was to develop later on among the Oraons further West, in what became the Dioceses of Raigarh and Ambikapur.
A new conversion movement among the Santals of North Bengal had been started by the indefatigable Fr Knockaert, who had initially succeeded Fr Schaff at Jhargram. The 24 Parganas were languishing.
The Theologate of St Mary’s Kurseong, started in 1889, had to be provided with a staff, so also St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling and St Xavier’s in Calcutta. With foresight, Fr Veys applied to the General for help from other Provinces.
Correspondence began in 1923 with the Sicilian and Yugoslav Provincials. Response was generous: the Sicilian Fathers were directed to the Santal apostolate and the Yugoslav to the 24 Parganas.
With the arrival of the Yugoslav Fathers, Fr Mesaric and his companions inujected new life into the 24 Parganas. Basanti and Khari were started; Morapai and Raghabpur began to flourish. There was a movement of conversions. Among the Santals, Frs. De Bono, Gauchi and others started Majlishpur, north of Ganges, and Mongolpara in the Santal Parganas.
In 1922, Frs. G. Dandoy adn Pierre Johanns who had been in Oxford to study Sanskrit and Oriental subjects, started the Light of the East, the first attempt at reaching the educated classes of Bengal.
Came independence in 1947. Fr Schillebeeckx succeeded Fr Moyersoen at the helm. During this time the American Jesuits of the Maryland Province took over Jamshedpur and Dhanbad, while Darjeeling with St Joseph’s College (not St Mary’s), Darjeeling and the adjoining mission of Gayaganga went over to the Canadian Fathers.
Owing to the difficult political situation of their country, besides one priest and two brothers, Yugoslavia was unable to send new missionaries. Belgian and Indian fathers worked hand in hand in the 24 Parganas.
When the popular Fr J. Henrichs ended his term, the mission became a Vice-Province, taking orders direct from Rome, and no more from Brussels.
With Fr Antoine at the helm in 1959, a process of inculturation was ushered in, not without reactions from the old guard. Perhaps the pace of inculturation was too fast for many Calcutta Jesuits. By 1963, back went Fr Antoine to Shanti Bhavan where he carried on with Fr Pierre Fallon and others the intellectual apostolate of contact and dialogue planned by the short-lived Oriental Institute.
With Fr A. Wautier at the helm, things were stabilised. Two English medium schools were started at Burdwan and Durgapur. New land was acquired along with future Prabhu Jisur Girja.
With time, the Vice Province became a Province with two regions, the Santal and Dargeeling Regions, loosely connected with Calcutta. Small parts of the Mission territory were entrusted to the Jesuits. Bankura district and Kalna sub division, Raghabpur with its incipient High school in the 24 Parganas.
Under Frs. Noel D’Souza, Alphonse D’Souza adn P. C. Mathew, the Dhyan Ashram was developed as a novitiate and retreat house, Chitrabani was built on the premises of Prabhu Jisur Girja. In 1989, the Santal Region became a Province and its connection with Calcutta terminated.
(Abridged from The Calcutta Province : A Short Historical Sketch, by Fr Yves de Steenhault. In Calcutta Jesuits, Year 36, No.2, (Sept.-Dec. 1990), pp.4-6.)