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A missionary who enlightened Bangladesh's indigenous people

American priest Eugene Homrich spent six decades improving the lives of disadvantaged people

A missionary who enlightened Bangladesh's indigenous people

American Holy Cross missionary priest Father Eugene Homrich is seen at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Madhupur of Tangail district in Bangladesh. He was a missionary in Bangladesh from 1955 to 2016 and died from Covid-19 in the US on July 26. (Photo supplied)

Father Eugene Homrich, a prominent American Holy Cross missionary priest who spent six decades serving and improving the lives of indigenous people in Bangladesh, has died from Covid-19.

He died at Old Holy Cross Priests' Home in the United States on July 26. He was 91.

From 1955 to 2016, Father Homrich was a missionary in Bangladesh and served people in the Madhupur sal (Shorea robusta) forest area of Tangail district in the central part of the country.

Born on Dec. 8, 1928, in Muskegon in Michigan, he entered Holy Cross Novitiate in 1946 and was ordained a priest on June 8, 1955. The same year, Father Homrich joined a contingent of 12 missionary priests and brothers to reach East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by ship and then by airplane.

He learned the Bengali language at Notre Dame College in Dhaka for a year. He then served in two parishes — St. Francis Xavier Church in Golla of Dhaka and St. Elizabeth Church in Biroidakuni of Mymensingh. He moved to Madhupur in 1959.

His dedication and hard work transformed the lives of thousands of indigenous people as well as Bengali Muslims and Hindus. He made outstanding contributions in the areas of education, healthcare, socioeconomic development, cultural conservation and human rights.

During the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence from Pakistan, the priest sheltered hundreds of internal refugees at his church and saved hundreds from genocidal atrocities by Pakistan’s army. He also secretly helped Bengali freedom fighter guerrillas at great risk to his own life.

Bangladesh’s government recognized his extraordinary wartime role and awarded him as a freedom fighter. In 2012, Father Homrich became one of five Catholic priests to receive the Friends of Bangladesh award for his outstanding contributions to the birth of the nation.  

Starting his missionary work in the area in 1959 at the small Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Jalchhatra that had about 2,500 ethnic Catholics, mostly Garo people, his great efforts in evangelization and enlightenment gave birth to two new parish churches — St. Paul’s Church in Pirgachha and Christ the King Church in Dorgachala. Today the three parishes have about 17,000 Catholics who belong to predominantly indigenous Mymensingh Diocese.

'A great missionary and visionary'

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Even before Pirgachha was elevated to a parish in 1992, Father Homrich made it his permanent base for missionary work until his return to the US for health reasons in 2016.

In 2015, the three parishes of Madhupur organized a three-day celebration to mark 60 years of Father Homrich’s priestly life.

He spoke to UCA News at the time about how he found his true missionary calling among Garo people in Madhupur.

“The faith of the Garos existed before they became Christians. They believed in the gods and we just baptized the society, their culture. We didn't destroy their culture, but we baptized it," Father Homrich said. "They believe in God and they are good Catholics — they are holy people.”

Some 99 percent of about 120,000 Garo in Bangladesh are Christians and 80 percent are Catholics.

On Jan. 10, 2020, Mymensingh Diocese opened a museum to preserve the culture and heritage of indigenous people and to pay homage to great missionaries including Father Homrich.

Holy Cross Father James C. Cruze, provincial of Holy Cross Priests in Bangladesh, described Father Homrich as “a great missionary and visionary.”

“Father Homrich loved his Bangladesh mission and the Garo people. He not only evangelized among Garo people but also made great efforts for their education, socioeconomic development, protection of land and human rights, and preservation of their culture and heritage. He is our model and inspiration,” Father Cruze told UCA News.

Father Homrich wanted to spend his whole life and even die in Bangladesh, but due to his poor health and a request from his family, he had to return to the US, Father Cruze added.

Eugene Nokrek, president of Joenshahi Adivasi Development Council, said the people of Madhupur would never forget Father Homrich.

“He touched the lives of everyone, not just Garo but also other ethnic groups as well as Muslims and Hindus. He set up schools and educated them, provided healthcare, introduced modern agriculture methods and taught them to save money in cooperatives. He also encouraged us to be united and stand against any form of oppression and injustice,” Nokrek, a Garo Catholic, told UCA News. 

“He loved us so much that he became one of us and even took up a Garo surname. He always advised and inspired us to fight for our rights.”

The organization was set up in 1962 with Father Homrich’s support to promote the land and human rights of indigenous people in the area, he added.

Sreekumar Guha Neogi, a Hindu and community leader in Madhupur, lamented the death of Father Homrich.

“Father Homrich was a family friend and my family was among those he sheltered during the 1971 liberation war. The military burned down our house and he offered support to us to rebuild the house. On many occasions my father and I collaborated with him,” Neogi told UCA News.

“I was speechless when I heard about his death. I have so many great memories of him that I will cherish as long as I am alive.”

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