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India's northeast Catholics look to French missioners' canonization

Bishop George Palliparambil of Miao diocese in Arunachal Pradesh is the postulator of the cause for the beatification of the Paris Mission Society missionaries Nicolas Michaël Krick and Augustin-Étienne Bourry, who are inseparable from the history of evangelization in the region, one of the most remote areas in north-eastern India.

The French missionaries were murdered in 1854 by local tribal people on the Chinese border. More than a century and a half later, the local Catholics claim their spiritual patronage to the missionaries and work for their beatification. Fathers Krick and Bourry were declared "servants of God" in 2010.

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The cause of sainthood started when the Diocesan Commission of Inquiry was opened in 2019 by the Diocese of Miao. Salesian Bishop Palliparambil, 69, followed the process as postulator of the cause for beatification of the missionaries. The bishop, who served this border region with China and Burma for over 40 years, tells about these two central figures for the local Church.

As a postulator of the cause of Fathers Krick and Bourry, can you tell us about their history?

Father Krick was already a priest and had pastoral experience in France before he left for India and Tibet. So there's a lot written about him. But Father Bourry left immediately after his ordination to join the mission in Tibet. Their final mission was in Tibet. Father Krick made his first journey to Tibet in 1851, with the help of tribal people living in Arunachal Pradesh, where our diocese is located.

He arrived in Tibet, a kingdom then called Rima, and had positive exchanges with the king. Then he returned. In 1854, on his second trip, he was accompanied by Father Bourry, and they were killed on the way. We have the last letter written by Father Krick, on July 31, 1854, in which he says: "I am well, but my companion is ill. I think he will be all right in a couple of days and we can go on."

This letter was written from a village called Sommeu, where the Mishmi tribe lived. After that, there were no more letters. Experts estimate they were killed on August 2. The news reached the British administration in September, and they took action against the people who killed them. That's what we know historically. At the time, all the English-language newspapers in India wrote about it, the Archbishop of Calcutta informed the Paris Mission Society in Paris, and then they were practically forgotten. But in our region, the missions continued to talk about them.

Have people stayed attached to the missionaries?

Yes, in fact, when we were novices, there was a little booklet about them, and we studied it. Everyone who was in priestly or religious formation in north-east India heard the names Krick and Bourry, but we only had a vague idea. Then, in 1991, with Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, when he was bishop of Dibrugarh in Assam, we decided to make a pilgrimage in the footsteps of their journey.

We were surprised to learn that there were still people who remembered them because their stories were passed on orally. These stories told of two strangers who came, were killed and buried in the village of Sommeu with all their belongings. One of the things they had was a sprinkler to sprinkle holy water on, and people say there's a spring that still flows from the sprinkler.

Unfortunately, today, this village is located in Tibet, in China, so no priest can go there. But those who have been able to visit have assured us that the tombs are still intact. We're waiting for the day when someone will be able to go there to verify this, to take photos, and maybe take some of the mud back to India.

Portraits of Fathers Krick (left) and Bourry, who were murdered in 1854. They were declared "servants of God" in 2010. (Photo: missionsetrangeres.com)

How did the beatification process begin?

We started talking about these missionaries because our Church is very young, in the whole region. But their arrival in Assam in 1851 and in Arunachal in 1854 gives us a history and martyrs. So we're trying to revive their memory to show that our Church has really grown with the blood of the martyrs and that it's not just a new Church. That has been very well received and people are very proud of it. When we mentioned it to the Northeast Council of Bishops, they immediately authorized us to continue the process.

After our trip in 1991, Bishop Thomas wrote an article entitled "On the Trail of the Martyrs." It was published in English and later in Italian, and Father Raymond Rossignol, then Superior General of the MEP, contacted him and us. He came with Mme Françoise Fauconnet-Buzelin, a historian who was in charge of research at the MEP headquarters. She had written about the lives of Krick and Bourry in a book titled Les porteurs d'espérance, la mission du Tibet-Sud (1848-1854) and this was translated into English as The Mission and the Martyrdom.

It was much appreciated, so we decided to try to introduce the cause for beatification. I went to Rome after I was appointed bishop, and they authorized us to open the cause. We lost three years because of Covid-19, but finally, we finished collecting all the required documents, and we concluded the diocesan phase on April 30.

What are the next steps in the process?

The whole region is praying and hoping that the beatification can take place soon. By the end of the month, we'll hand over the documents to the Nunciature, then it may take some time. But I was able to speak with the previous prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (now the dicastery), and according to him, it shouldn't take long. As they are martyrs, there's no need to look for miracles.

Was not Arunachal Pradesh long off-limits to missionaries, until the 1990s?

Indeed, I myself was not able to go there until 1992. And Saint Mother Teresa couldn't come until 1993. But people decided to try and make her come, and she did. The Christians really suffered. Churches were burnt down, many Christians were imprisoned. So for them, these missionaries are a great source of inspiration and an example. Today, some 40 percent of around 1.5 million people in the state are Christian, and my diocese has around 100,000 Catholics. [The only other diocese in the state — the diocese of Itanagar — has some 85,000 Catholics.]

Has a real bond developed between the local community and Fathers Krick and Bourry?

Yes, really, there's even a non-Christian author from Arunachal who started researching in Calcutta and at the MEP archives in Paris, after hearing about them. She wrote a book. There's also a Muslim woman who contacted me and said, "Bishop, I'd like to make a film about it." And some of our Catholics have named their new stores after Fathers Krich and Bourry. When we created a new hospital in our diocese in 2015, we also named it after them.

Today, their stories are well known and we've published their lives in many other brochures. Of course, there are people who ask why we support their cause when they didn't come to be missionaries in Arunachal Pradesh but in Tibet. But I tell them that in the Catholic Church, sanctity is universal. A person can be a saint in India, but it's for the whole Church.

*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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