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India

Jesuits look back on 150 years of Bengal mission

Updated: November 27, 2009 09:34 AM GMT
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Belgian Jesuits are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of their Bengal mission in eastern India.
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Belgian Jesuit missioners of Calcutta province have a chat over a cup of coffee at the Jesuit provincial house in Kolkata. From left: Father Jean Englebert, a liturgist, Father Charles Pollet, a theology professor, Father Albert Huart and Father Andre Bruylants

The order has had a big impact on lives in the region through education, literary contributions and a translation of the Bible into Bengali. Father Andre Bruylants, 83, former headmaster of the Jesuit-run St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata, has been working in the mission for 60 years. He is one of seven remaining Belgian Jesuits in the religious society’s Calcutta province. Jesuit teachers had educated thousands of people and become icons of Catholic education in the region, he says. Others have influenced the region’s socio-cultural leaders through scholarly interreligious exchanges, and reached out to Indians through the study of Hindu scriptures and engagement with Hindu intellectuals. Jesuits have influenced literary thinking through publishing and translating Western Christian classics into Bengali, and also helped locals use their own language in worship. Father Christian Mignon, 85, came to the mission at the age of 25. He was to make a unique contribution to religious life in Bengal, translating the Bible into Bengali over 40 years. The job, in which he was helped by Hindu poet and teacher, Sajal Banerjea, was completed in 2003. He had previously translated liturgical texts after the Second Vatican Council, which opened the way to the use of local languages in the Mass. English Jesuits first came to Kolkata in 1833 and started St. Xavier’s but left the country in 1849 after a conflict with the local bishop. The Belgian Jesuits, who arrived in the city in 1859, were invited to restart the school, which they did within two months in January 1860. Belgian Jesuit Father Albert Huart, 85, who translated a book on the Jesuits’ Bengal-mission history, is former vice-principal of St. Xavier’s College. He said that the Belgians expanded from the English educational base to probe further the possibilities of village missions. Initially the Jesuits’ focus was on the Chotanagpur area, in the present state of Jharkhand. This was where Jesuit Father Constant Lievens (1856-1893), whom the tribal Church reveres as the "apostle of Chotanagpur," had worked to restore tribal dignity. By 1869 the Jesuits were entrusted with the Bengal mission, at the time consisting of the present Indian states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

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