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Catholics Rejoice As Century-old Tribal Mission Produces First Priest

Updated: June 08, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Tribal Catholics in an eastern Indian village sang and danced with joy as the 128-year-old local mission produced its first priest.

Archbishop Telesphore P. Toppo of Ranchi ordained Michael Nag a priest May 11 in Khunti diocese´s Maranghada parish. Some 10,000 tribal people attended the ceremony, punctuating it with characteristic drumbeats, songs and dances.

Ranchi is considered the mother diocese of the tribal-dominated dioceses in Jharkhand state including Khunti. The archdiocese is based in the state capital Ranchi, 1,160 kilometers east of New Delhi.

"This is a unique occasion for this unique place," Archbishop Toppo said as he was received by tribal elders and Church people on the road close to the village church.

He noted that the people of Maranghada "were overjoyed" because their parish has produced its first priest. But he termed the 128-year wait "surprising." He noted that the mission has been on the map of the Church ever since Anglicans created a mission station there in 1869.

The first Catholic missioner to reach the tribal area was Jesuit Father Augustine Stockman, who traveled by bullock-cart from Midnapur in what is now West Bengal state, east of Jharkhand.

The priest arrived in Chaibasa, the southeastern part of present Jharkhand, in 1868. As a result of his work, all 28 members of six Munda tribal families in the Khuntpani locality were baptized in 1873.

This is widely regarded as the beginnings of the Catholic faith in the Jharkhand area. More missioners joined Father Stockman the following year, and they moved farther west. By 1875, missioners reached the Maranghada valley, home primarily to members of the Munda and Ho tribes.

Archbishop Toppo told UCA News there are reasons for the slow growth of the faith there. He said early missioners found the Oraon and Kharia people "more open" to the faith and chose to work with them rather than the Munda and Ho.

Jesuit Father John Guria, the first residential priest in Maranghada, also said early missioners "abandoned this part of the valley" after planting "the seed of faith here." The priest added, however, that they should not be blamed as "they did what was best in their times."

According to Father Guria, the Catholic Church did not want to interfere in Maranghada, considered a center for Anglican mission efforts. "But they weren´t a success," he said, adding that in 1983 he was appointed to revive the Catholic mission there. The mission was elevated to a parish in 1986.

Jesuit Father Victor Surin, the present parish priest, said active Catholic missionary work started there only in 1983, with Ursuline nuns managing a middle school. Most of the people are poor laborers and their children illiterate because of the lack of schools, he said.

Peter Sanga, a local Catholic teacher, sees Father Nag´s ordination as having "opened the door of vocation" in the western valley. "The ordination ceremony surely has been inspiring our people. It will draw many boys and girls to work for the service of God and people," he said.

END

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