Miraculous Discovery of the grave of Fr Peter Vanderstraten SJ (1818-1860)
The cemetery of a pioneering Jesuit of the Bengal Mission was miraculously discovered and renovated after about one and half centuries in Kolkata, Nov. 2, 2020.
Among those who were present during the blessing of the renovated grave of Fr Peter were Archbishop Thomas D’Souza of Calcutta, Fr Raphael Joseph Hyde, S.J., provincial superior of Calcutta and Fr Jeyaraj Veluswamy, S.J., Rector of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata.
Looking back at the pages of history 161 years ago,it was the wintry dusk of 28th November 1859. Night was slowly enveloping the banks of the Ganges.The place was BabuGhat, time was around 5pm. The people at the Ghat were staring at 7 White Europeans in contrasting Black Robes setting foot on the land of Bengal.
These were the first 7 Jesuit Pioneers who founded the Bengal Mission . They were 4 Belgian and 2 English priests and 1 English Brother. The 3 English Jesuits were a sort of reconnect with the Earlier Mission of the English Jesuits in Kolkata from 1835 to 1844.The very next year, rather within one and a half months, these pioneers founded St Xavier’s on 16th January 1860, opening a new chapter in the history of education in Bengal.
Fr Henri Depelchin SJ was the Superior of the Bengal Mission as well as the First Rector and First Principal of St Xavier’s(Later he was the Pioneer Missionary in Midnapore and Orissa in 1871, co-founder of St Xavier’s College Bombay 1873-76, Leader of the Virgin Mission in Zambezi in Africa, sent by the Pope in 1877-1881, founder of North Point, Darjeeling in 1887).
Fr Peter Vanderstraeten SJ was one of the four Belgian Jesuits, born on 15th December 1818 in Eyne, East Flanders, Belgium. He was the Prefect at the new born St Xavier’s .He was very enthusiastic about learning Bengali but could not sufficiently take care of himself. Bengal was infamous for its hot and humid climate, cholera and malaria. Sadly Peter fell victim to a liver sickness that carried him off on September 11, 1860 at the young age of 42. He had worked in Bengal Mission just for10 months and became the First among good many Jesuits who will lay down their lives for the Bengal Mission as victims of climate and illness.
Thus 162 years ago ,Fr Peter was buried in the Lower Circular Road cemetery, the First and the only Jesuit to be buried there. Later, Jesuits were buried in St John’s Sealdah. Time passed on and somehow Fr Peter was almost forgotten!
Not really though. He did live on in the memory of many Jesuits. We turn the pages of history to 28th December, 2019 when Fr Etienne Degrez and myself set out from St Xavier’s College at 10am, heading towards the Lower Circular Road Cemetery with Late Fr Peter, his history and grave in mind, from our studies of the Jesuits of that period.We said , ‘Let us give it a try,even If we don’t get to see anything, it doesn’t matter. We could enjoy a nice morning walk together.’ All we took along was a paper with one name and one date: Fr Peter Vanderstraeten SJ, died 11thSeptember,1860.
At the entrance of the cemetery,the caretaker after a little search said that the name was not there in the Register and that such a person was not buried there. Though Fr Etienne and myself were very disappointed on hearing this, we did not lose hope. We told him we had documentary evidence that this Father was buried there in 1860.
Then we ourselves went about in the old section of the cemetery,looking at numerous old and abandoned graves, their tomb stones, names of the dead etc with some hope to get some signs of the abandoned grave of Fr Peter somewhere. It was a four hour search, going from disappointment to disappointment. We were almost giving up…then with God’s hand directing us we came upon a grave dated 11 August 1860! The revived our hope and our tiredness disappeared. We looked more intently all around. Another surprise, the next grave in ruins had the date of 25 September 1860. Our hope now shot up very much. Because the date of Father Peter’s death was 11th September 1860! Close to these graves he must have been buried.
Then finally the Eureka moment came!Fr Etienne and myself came upon a slanting and abandoned tomb stone cross, the engravings on it read : SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF REV PETER VANDERSTRAETEN, SJ, OF ST. XAVIER’S COLLEGE, BORN IN BELGIUM, DIED IN CALCUTTA, 11TH SEPTEMBER 1860, AGED 42 YEARS.
Fr Peter was buried in which later became the famous Lower Circular Road cemetery. The road leading to it (present day Park Street) was then known as Burial Ground Road (there were 3 Burial Grounds…Lower Circular Road cemetery; South Park St cemetery- opp AG school, where is buried Derozio,the father of intellectual revolution in Bengal, the Young Bengal Movement, in 1920s) and the French cemetery (near Apeejay school). 250 years back the Lower Circular Road cemetery was at the farthest end of the city, in the midst of thick jungles infested with snakes, wild animals and even tigers roaming around at times. So, burials took place at noon time. To ward off the animals, various types of noises were made, crackers were burst and so on. Similarly even the present day Free School Street areas were no safe place at all at that time.
Fr Jeyaraj Veluswamy, S.J.