A debt of gratitude

Only four Australian Jesuits remain at the Hazaribag Province. But the dedication and pioneering spirit of those who first went to the tribal area of India more than 70 years ago will never be forgotten.


By Fr Vincent Hansdak SJ, Hazaribag Provincial (as told to David McMahon)

The purpose of my visit to Australia last month was basically to acknowledge the umbilical cord that the Hazaribag Province has – and cherishes – to the Australian Jesuits. Most of the senior Australian Jesuit trailblazers there have now passed away and very few of the Indian Jesuits there really know about the incredible sacrifices and the pioneering spirit of the Australians who came and basically helped set up our province in 1951.

We must do everything we can to acknowledge, record and honour their missionary spirit that was so vital in the early days. When I took over as Provincial in January this year, I immediately began thinking about this, trying to determine how we can maintain and actually strengthen that link between the two provinces.

Leaving aside finances, it is much more important to remember the enthusiasm and the spirit that characterised more than 50 very young Australians who volunteered to go overseas, literally to unknown territory in eastern India. I’ve heard stories that when they left Australia, they were told they would never come back to the country of their birth. I was told that all the families would say their final goodbyes to their sons and their brothers.

These young men were literally going as missionaries in the strictest sense of the word, to a place in India that was very remote. Later, if the families of these young Jesuits wanted to visit them in India, they would have to go by ship to places like Singapore or other similar ports, from where they would fly to Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was known at the time. Then they would have to take a train to Hazaribag, almost 400 kilometres away.

Reaffirming the link between the two provinces is crucial. This is the most appropriate time because there are now only four Australians remaining in Hazaribag. In order to honour that extraordinary Australian missionary zeal, we must think in terms of spirituality, vision, ideas and perhaps – if possible – sharing of personnel as well. What the Australians did in our region will never be forgotten and perhaps now is the time when the Indian Jesuits from Hazaribag can repay that debt by serving alongside their Australian brothers.

As I said to Fr Quyen (Australian Provincial Fr Quyen Vu SJ) money comes and goes and Jesuits have to work hard towards our respective missions, whether we are in India or Australia or anywhere else in the world. But by far the most important factor is our vocation. It takes precedence over funding or budgets or planning. Our spirit lies in living a true religious life with full commitment to our work, wherever we happen to be based in the world.

Fr Vincent Hansdak SJ. Photo by David McMahon.

Understanding and honouring our history is vital, therefore. We are especially grateful to the young men who came out from Australia and transformed our province through their vision, dedication and tireless service. We acknowledge, remember, cherish and value all of the hardships that they had to confront in India in those early days. Hazaribag had no facilities, no roads, no vehicles, no transport and certainly none of the normal aspects of life that people would have been used to in Australia.

Yet those men had great spirit and they would traverse the province on foot or on bicycles or even sometimes on horseback in order to reach out to the poor people in far-flung parts of what was then a very remote province in a rural, impoverished area. Later, in the middle of all the social work they were doing from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, they realised that another aspect of importance was educating people in this backwater of India, shortly after the country had been granted Independence from Britain.

With that view, they started up the schools – St Xavier’s in Hazaribag, St Xavier’s in Bokaro, and many others. Inspired by their spirit, we Indian Jesuits can see the importance of their hard work and the amazing foresight they showed 70 years ago. They literally saw how the world would unfold and how the needs of this rural area could best be served. We constantly remind ourselves that we must follow the devotion and commitment of the Australians, always keeping in mind that we do whatever is needed by the people in the region. That spirit has inspired our Indian Jesuits, who go to the villages, to the people who need us the most. That is our motivation and our commitment.

It is very Ignatian to be guided and inspired by that spirit. Keeping that in mind, we go to the last person in the most remote area and we serve the most marginalised people in society, just as the Australians did.

When I started at Hazaribag in 1990, 33 years ago, there were three important lessons I learned from the Australian Jesuits. The first was simplicity. The second was their commitment to serving the people. And the third was their amazing work ethic. I noticed this immediately in the attitude of Fr Paul Horan SJ, who is now back in Melbourne. I met him yesterday and reminded him of his integrity to the mission and the hard work he put into the community. He and the other Australians worked in such a far-flung area with no facilities, yet they created such a lasting impact.