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French missionary's legacy lives on among Kolkata's poor

Father François Laborde dedicated his life to disadvantaged slum dwellers

Eglises d'Asie reporter, Kolkata

Eglises d'Asie reporter, Kolkata

Updated: January 13, 2021 10:32 AM GMT
French missionary's legacy lives on among Kolkata's poor

Father François Laborde (R) of Prado Institute in India's Kolkata city with his successor Father Laurent Bissara from Paris Foreign Missions Society (Photo:Eglises d'Asie) 

When Father François Laborde died at the age of 93 in India's Kolkata's city on Christmas Day, many close to him recalled his often-repeated words that the Indian poor evangelized him to be a better Christian.

After his arrival in India in 1965, the priest of the Prado Institute dedicated his life to the poorest, the outcasts, and the handicapped youth of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the capital of West Bengal state in eastern India.

"I had gone to India to evangelize the poor, but it was they who evangelized me," he used to tell his confreres and friends.

He founded and directed Howrah South Point, Kolkata’s well-known non-governmental agency. He was its director until last year when the mantle was handed over to Father Laurent Bissara, a priest from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP).

"We were expecting to see Father François Laborde leave because for the past few months his health had been giving signs of alarm and his strength was slowly giving way. In July, feeling his end approaching, he came to me to prepare his funeral," Father Bissara wrote on his blog.

"His departure, however, unexpectedly resounded in my heart like a joyful note, a thanksgiving for this luminous life dedicated to the poor."

Father Laborde was born in Paris in 1927 in a pious Christian family. He used to say his love for the poor began at nine while visiting his best friend's family, who lived in a poor and precarious situation.

"From that day on, I understood that it was necessary to go to the poor to understand them," he once said.

A religious vocation seemed incompatible with his "rebellious and undisciplined spirit," in his own words, and his outbursts of indignant anger.

"But perhaps we can call them holy anger because in them he found the energy to fight for justice and to help the poor," said Father Bissara at Father Laborde’s funeral on Dec. 28 in the Church of St. John in Kolkata in the presence of Archbishop Thomas D'Souza of Calcutta.

A mystic and a contemplative

Father Laborde saw "a third way between anger and resignation. He will first try a stay of several months in the Carthusian monastery, an experience that will remain in his eyes. Father Laborde was also a mystic and a contemplative," recalls Father Bissara.

He joined the Paris Foreign Missions Society, dedicated to the poor, and was ordained a priest in 1951. After studying canon law and theology in Rome, he studied philosophy in Lyon in France and came to India in January 1965, aged 37.

Father Laborde first lived in the slums of Pondicherry and Bangalore in southern India before moving to the slums of Pilkhana in Howrah in Kolkata.

During his work in Kolkata, he often crossed Mother Teresa's path. "They did not have the same perspective because Father Laborde saw above all a work for the laity and with the laity," explains Father Bissara.

But they collaborated on several occasions. "Soon, Father Laborde's exemplary action made him famous. Various personalities wanted to meet him.”

Former French president François Mitterrand visited him and described him as a "skinny man with a strong jaw, well-combed grey hair, a fresh, almost childlike laugh, iron glasses. He only travels by bicycle or train. He knows how to do everything, but is humble."

Inspiration for a novel

In 1976, Father Laborde decided to leave Pilkhana to escape the celebrity status that he distrusted.

Cardinal Lawrence Trevor Picachy transferred him to a parish not far from Pilkhana, where he stayed for 17 years. He worked there to support the excluded, the sick and aboriginal families.

He founded Howrah South Point, a home for poor and disabled children, to which other projects were added over the years: a dispensary for leper children, a medical center and a clinic for tuberculosis patients.

Father Laborde also opened a rehabilitation home in Jalpaiguri district.

During that time, The City of Joy, a best-selling novel, was published. One of the main characters in the novel is inspired by the actions of the priest.

During the latter part of his life, Father Laborde was appointed to various parishes in West Bengal. He continued his mission among slum dwellers and leprosy-affected children, particularly in Shantinagar, near Asansol, some 200 kilometers northwest of Kolkata, where he also started a center in 2013.

Nevertheless, he continued his Howrah South Point work and was worried about its future, which was facing administrative and financial difficulties. In 2018, he urged Father Bissara, designated to succeed him, to hasten to leave the Foreign Missions' headquarters in Paris to join him in India.

"Try to come before I am dead!" he wrote to him with humor. Upon his arrival, Father Bissara saw a man on the road to retirement. The two men then managed to connect and complement each other, faced with the urgent need to organize food distribution amid the spreading Covid-19 pandemic.

Challenges ahead

Howrah South Point has seven centers and nine homes for more than 500 poor and disabled children in Howrah, Asansol and Jalpaiguri.

Besides, there are also physiotherapy centers, a dozen schools, workshops to help young mothers and the elderly, a care center for children with tuberculosis, and four itinerant dispensaries. The NGO employs some 360 people of different faiths.

Father Bissara says the financial concerns are now over but the challenge is to restructure and modernize the agency.

"Howrah South Point was founded at a time when we were operating in an emergency. Today we must adapt and provide more technical assistance. Poverty is also changing and is more difficult to identify," the priest said.

"My role is to keep the spirit instilled in me by Father Laborde and those with whom he worked."

Father Bissara, who has already learned to celebrate Mass in the local Bengali language, described Howrah South Point as “like a big family, and I want to ensure the unity of this family."

He added: "The legacy of Father Laborde is a source of inspiration that goes beyond the borders of the Church and helps us become more human.

"It is impossible to mention all the people he helped, nor to recall all the beautiful stories hidden in the hearts of so many poor, handicapped, destitute or marginalized people."

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.

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