Address on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Death
of Mother Marie Gertrude Gros
Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate
Nagpur, March 18, 2005
Some months ago, when Sr. Monica and I first talked about today’s celebration, she suggested to me that the special contribution I might make would be to share with you my experiences of the sisters and with the sisters in the Mandla District. I am very happy to do that today because as many of you will know, Jabalpur is not Nagpur. I often tell people that I never compare the flowers in my garden and I am truly not doing that now. But there are some things about Mandla that I believe are worth telling you about in the spirit of Mother Gertrude and the earliest Indian sisters. These are things that I believe should be cherished and carried on and thus my comments.
I must give you some personal history to make these points clear. In 1938 I went as a boy to St. Aloysius School in Jabalpur as a boarder after the death of my father. The Dutch Norbertines were in charge there and of the diocese itself. While the school was very much an Anglo-Indian operation, the thrust of the Norbertines was clear. Bishop Conrad Dubbelman of happy memory insisted that in all things the culture of the tribal peoples of the diocese had to be respected and built upon. Even prior to him, the Norbertines resisted what we today call the mission compound method approach. They traveled often by foot, from village to village, committed to going to the people and not requiring the people to come to them.
This going out to others pervaded much of what we were about in the school, including even our Saturday collections of newspapers, the proceeds from which were to be taken to the people in the mission stations. Only when the Second World War started and Bishop Dubbelman’s funds from abroad dried up, did he move toward amalgamating schools and other services. But in 1947, when I had finished Senior Cambridge and told him that I wanted to be a priest, I can see him yet telling me that I would be a priest for Mandla, for the tribals. It was even clearer to me then than it had been before that his heart was still in the going out to others, I believe, in the spirit of Jesus himself, who spent so much of his time walking about the villages of the Galilee and avoiding the cities until the very last months of his life.
My first appointment after my ordination was to Junwani where the SMMI sisters were and still are. For only nine months I walked to the mission stations associated with it and came to know well the sisters at Junwani and other parts of the diocese, all Indians by the way, and many of the older ones filled with delicious stories of their earliest adventures. What I was hearing from them reminded me so much of the hopes of myself and my own classmates at Propaganda Fide when we committed ourselves to being “people’s priests”. These women were committed to being “people’s sisters”!
When I was not making the rounds of the missions I worked with the boys in the boarding at Junwani who were having trouble keeping up with their lessons. The sisters who were educators were very willing to help me with ideas about these slower students. They and the fathers, especially Father Piemans, listened to my enthusiastic suggestions about how to enhance a variety of things including the schools and the potential in the mission stations.
Above all, what I witnessed in Junwani and lived there was a unique cooperation between these sisters and the Jabalpur fathers. There was truly no competition but first order collaboration. I know now that this was the direct result of the pioneering work of Mother Marie Gertrude Gros and the first sisters who went to Mandla. It reflected in a special way the vision of Father Henri Chaumont and his closest collaborators, that male and female, cleric and lay, single, married, widowed, needed to work together to make mission a lived reality. His mission method was friendship. He was a great admirer of both St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. And perhaps we need to remember that he did not want a traditional religious order, but women without any vows or habit who would be auxiliaries for priests especially as catechists for women. In many ways I see his vision as a model for our time and place as well as his own.
The SMMI sisters who were the Indians had many adventures and some of these involved challenges from their French superiors. In the early days the Indian sisters did not make vows but had a consecration ceremony. The French sisters, incidentally, were the CMMI. It was later that they became one community of both French and Indian sisters. Sr. Solange was probably among the best raconteurs that the SMMI sisters have ever had but these sisters in Mandla had had their own adventures and they relished the recounting of them.
They remembered when they were finally given permission to ride horses but that had to be side saddle in good ladylike fashion. Imagine riding side saddle along Indian pathways? They remembered the numbers of petticoats and black serge that they were required to wear until they finally brought their superior general to India in the heat of our summer and she and the council relented about the wearing of that unsuitable fabric and colour in the Indian situation. They remembered sleeping in the open to beat the heat and sometimes sharing those sleeping spaces with a variety of animals. As they made their way into the villages, the Indian sisters remembered eating varieties of food they had never dreamed possible although they themselves were Indian. They remembered seeing diseases and suffering which they did not know existed. They remembered the absolute delight of the villagers whenever and wherever they arrived and the trust that the people put in them.
How much my own experience was like theirs in those wondrous months I had in Junwani and its mission stations! It became clearer and clearer to me why many of the tribals, while not willing to be baptized themselves, were willing to have their children baptized and put into the hands of these kind and loving women and their priestly collaborators.
In so much of what they were about, it was clear to me that the SMMI sisters in Junwani and elsewhere saw their apostolate in going out to the people and their joy came from that. They were with the people in every possible time and way. They did not want to separate themselves in any way from the ordinary lives of those whom they wished to serve. I suspect it was with some regret that they eventually took over the boarding schools which Bishop Dubbelman deemed necessary during World War II. But they brought their dedication to this work and that of dispensaries as whole heartedly as they had undertaken anything in Mandla.
As I mentioned, I was in Junwani for only nine months when I was called to New Delhi to be personal secretary to the pro-nuncio. It would be 1964 before I returned to Jabalpur as its coadjutor bishop. A new phase of involvement began then with the SMMI, even moreso after Vatican Council II. I held what we called the Monsoon Lectures for any and all sisters, working with them through the documents of the Council. I had attended its fourth and final session and wanted to make clear to myself and to others what it was that I had signed!
I also undertook whenever possible, working with the sisters mostly in terms of English language instruction, the work they needed to do for advanced studies which then began to be the norm for their training. I remember that we talked then about the need to take even more seriously perhaps than they had in the past, the upliftment of women and of the girl child given the thrust of the documents connected with mission, the laity, and the role of religious. We talked about why the SMMI had been founded and who they were especially to serve. We learned much together. We dreamed much together about how this might happen.
When I came to Nagpur in 1975 I met the sisters again and came first hand to learn of their ministries here. I respect and admire what they did and do. Some of the sisters whose work had originally been in Mandla were assigned to Nagpur and we continued to talk about different ways to effect this upliftment of women and girl children in particular, without turning their backs on the maintenance ministries which were their priority here. It was, of course, in 1981 that the only gift I asked for from the archdiocese on the occasion of the silver anniversary of my priestly ordination, was that small groups of priests and sisters would make it their life’s work to go and live in our villages, to be God’s presence to people there. When people asked me what qualifications these missionaries would need, I replied, “Strong hands, strong hearts, and strong feet.” Frankly, my inspiration for this was the Dutch fathers of Jabalpur, and the SMMI sisters of Mandla. Many of you will have read my letter to you on the occasion of my retirement in 1998 and why I continue to believe in this approach. We need both maintenance and mission ministries or as we are now wont to call them, ministry ad intra and ad extra. But at the present moment I think in India the ad extra ministry is the more urgent need. We must get over our present preoccupation with our internal institutional selves and move in the direction of all who are on the margins of our social, political, and economic lives.
I have experienced this going to the people with the SMMI sisters in Papua, New Guinea. I have seen it at work in PEN. I hear about it from the young women who are coming to this congregation from North East India. I hear about it in connection with the work of your sisters in Chile. It was in fact what your sisters did in Nagpur for the first 70 years of their existence here, living with the poorest of the poor in mud huts along the walls of the Rajah’s stables.
Please understand me. I am saying that our work must be for people. Brick and mortar projects may not be our priority. I applaud what your sisters have done and continue to do. But there is so much left to be done. I think, for instance, of what the Grameen Bank is doing now to help women to help themselves. I think of some of the outstanding projects of NGOs in India, and the programmes in place for women under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme. I want to urge your congregation and, indeed, every community present here, to ally yourselves with women and men of good will everywhere who are committed to the empowering of women and to do this primarily with the resources you have here. Contributions from abroad create new and different kinds of dependencies. Even the record keeping associated with grants often keeps us from the real presence to people needed so desperately.
And, please don’t continue to work in isolation from each other but collaborate at all levels so that you are not re-inventing the wheel or resting on your laurels.
Ask the women with whom you work what it is that they want and need and help them to make that happen. Please do not go to them with pre-packaged programmes but go to them believing that they know what they need for themselves and those for whom they are responsible. I would ask you also to go where you are not wanted but needed and leave when you are wanted but no longer needed. Do not create new dependencies in any way, shape, or form. Work toward interdependence and then you will serve not only women and the girl child, but all of India, so desperately in need of this kind of collaboration across every caste, creed, and community.
When you are working toward food, clothing, shelter, education for work, education to keep work, some leisure for reflection (religion), some part in the making of the decisions affecting their lives, and the cultural liberty of women – and of men – you will truly be making the reign of God a reality among us.
When you do this you will be helping to make real the abundant life which Jesus said his way is intended to bring not only to us who say we are Christians, but to all. When we can say with him – “This is my body being given up for you and for all....” his vision will truly be ours.