Montfort Brothers in the North East India
A Brief History of the Province of North East India.The Beginning:
Landing at Silchar airport the six missionaries found themselves in a totally alien soil. They were earlier sent off affectionately by the Brothers at Yercaud much in the same way as mothers in olden days sent off their beloved sons to the battlefield. Good wishes and prayers in full measure accompanied the six men who were chosen to implant Montfortian foundations in the far off land of Mizoram. The affectionate and warm welcome they received from His Lordship Bishop Denzil Souza who had invited them to lend a helping hand in his diocese, was indeed quite reassuring.
To the north east of India, bordering Bangladesh, Myanmar and China lie the seven sisters - Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. Connected to the rest of the country only by a narrow goose neck stretch of land, these States greatly felt neglected by the rest of India. The natural consequence showed itself in the simmering anger of the people that gave rise to myriad self-styled underground movements. Born on the ostensible ideology of freedom and the right to self-determination, their very existence have now become a way of life giving rise to chaos and anarchy, hampering the growth and development of the Region.
The warm welcome that the missionaries received at the Bishops House on the outskirts of the town soon melted away their initial trepidation. The affable and cheerful ways of the young Bishop bowled them over. The priests and other religious appeared to be equally simple and endearing. After the lunch and some rest they proceed to Kolasib in Mizoram. After an exhaustingjourney that lasted about five hours, along NH 54 serving as the only artery that connects Mizoram with the rest of the country, meandering along the picturesque hills and valleys, they reached Kolasib to spent the night there.
(Photo no.7.Montfortians in Mizoram in the year 1980)
The Mizoram Saga:
With a population of about ten thousand inhabitants then, Kolasib is one of the Principal towns in Mizoram. It had played a pivotal role in the insurgency that had plagued Mizoram for several years. The disturbance had its origin in the great famine that afflicted Mizoram around the year 1966. The struggle that lasted over 20 years gave expression to the pent-up feelings of continued neglect experienced by the people at the hands of the Government.Many people lost their lives as the Government ruthlessly tried to suppress the violent uprising. Education and Social life were much affected. Many villages were regrouped. Curfew and restrictions became the order of the day. Among the several measures adopted by the Government was one that required all the foreigners to leave Mizoram. The Canadian Missionaries had to leave too at short notice, leaving the Church and the educational institutions that were under their care to fend forthemselves.
Rt. Rev. Bishop Denzil D Souza who began his episcopate at Silchar in 1969, riding a bicycle,had to bear the brunt of it all with a few volunteer priests. Sensing that he required additional hands to man the educational institutions left by the Canadian Holy Cross missionaries, he had approached Rev. Bro. Antony Francisco, then Provincial Superior of the Montfort Brothers, tobail him out of the bad times. He in turn looked towards Region of North India to accept the appeal of Bishop Denzil. When due to shortage of personnel they declined the offer, Bro. Anselm, who was at that time the Regional Superior at Yercaud bravely accepted to send zealous missionaries to the northeast India. Bro. Anslem hand picked six young men under the leadership of Bro.P.J.Abraham to carry the torch to the northeast. The others who were found worthyof the mission were Bro. Devassy Madavana, Bro. C. J. George, Bro. K. V. Mathew, Bro. K. U. Mathew and Bro. P. K. Cyriac. Young and energetic, they accepted this challenge with a rare sense of fervour and eagerness.
After a good nights rest they proceeded to Aizawl, continuing their journey on NH 54. The narrow winding roads with deep gorges and steep hills covered with acres and acres of bamboo, evoked frightful feelings among the missionaries. Every time the jeep had to pass another vehicle coming in the opposite direction, they held tightly to the handle in front of them, murmuring Hail Marys, for, even the slightest mistake on the part of the driver could send them hurtling several hundred meters to the bottom. The green countryside was however a treat to their eyes. The air was free of any pollution. The people attired in their work clothes were simple, carelessly going about their work. A little after Kawnpui another town, the sight of the narrow road that runs down to a deep ravine only to climb up to the top of another hill unnerved the new missionaries. After five long hours of fretful and uneasy journey through the hills and valleys they finally reached Aizawl town were they were welcomed enthusiastically.
Aizawl, the Capital of Mizoram has a history going back to more than a hundred years. The British had set up Fort Aizawl as the headquarters of North Lushai hills. With a population of about one lakh people, Aizawl was a picturesque town nestled between hills. The new missionaries were taken straight to the Parish House where they stayed with the priests for a couple of years before they moved to the new house built for them further up the hill. On the same day, 4th June 1975, they were entrusted with the responsibility of St. Pauls High School and St. Josephs Press.
On the following day, three of them with Bro. Devassy Madavana in the lead, proceeded back to Kolasib, with Bishop Denzil to take over the administration of St. Johns High School. The beginning was tough. The pioneers however held on. Through all the difficulties Brothers like Devassy and Abraham succeeded in making great impression on the people, winning their admiration through their piety, simple life and hard work.
In 1978, the Brothers were entrusted with another school at Chhingchhip, about 80 kms further south of Aizawl. A small village with strong Catholic presence, this village boast of many religious from among them. To the Brothers this place has a special significance. In the yard in front of the Brothers house is the tomb of Bro. Alex Thomas who was killed in a road accident. He was 34 years old and was the Local Superior and Principal. His death coming only a week after the death of Bro. Antony of Padua, who pioneered the mission at Chabua, the first outside Mizoram, was indeed shocking.
A Time of reckoning:
A number of Brothers who were initially sent to this new mission found the going tough. A host of problems and difficulties overwhelmed them. In addition to the difficulties related to a bloody insurgency, the not so hospitable geographical conditions and the lack of communication facilities robbed them off their zeal. They found themselves aliens in their own country, faced with the challenge of learning new languages, adjusting to new customs, traditions and lifestyle. Many among the Brothers themselves doubted the wisdom of continuing with this mission. Few of them, found the demand more than they had ever bargained for, and said good bye. The new mission area thus became a point of much debate and it is to the credit of the ones like Bros. P .J. Abraham, K. V. Mathew, Thomas Plathottam, Jose P.J. and Alex Thomas that the challenges and the lingering pessimistic attitudes were finally overcome.
More young men came, much in the same way as their pioneers. It took over a decade for the Brothers to come to terms with several factors that forced them to remain confined to Mizoram. The reality of being part of a Province with its headquarters far away had its effect on the life and mission of Brothers.Frustration ran high among them as they felt their legitimate concerns were not understood and cared for by those in the Province. It was at this juncture that the visionary in Bro. Antony of Padua, reached northeast. His mission was clear: take Montfortian presence to the plains of Assam.
Responding to the request of Bishop Thomas Menamparampil the Brothers set out to begin an academic school and an ITI at Chabua in upper Assam. They ventured to set up a mission outside the comfort of familiar surroundings. In many ways the decision to go to Chabua had much resemblance to the decision to begin the northeast mission. The new centre was far away from the existing Communities. For the Brothers the new land, its people and customs were all new and unfamiliar. Bro. Antony however, was fortunate to find in Bishop Thomas a generous benefactor and a friend.Staying at the Bishops House in Dibrugarh, he laid the foundation for Montfortian presence at Chabua. Initial days were tough. With militancy related to the foreigners issue raging at its height, the Brothers were faced with lot of suspicion and the exploitive attitude of their neighbours. Bro. Antony and later Bro. Martin, through their perseverance, courage and great faith, and with the encouragement and support of Bishop Thomas; won them over, but not before spending many sleepless nights.
Known for its tea gardens, Chabua is a small town between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. The railway lines that connect the two towns pass along the national highway through the entire length. With the school located on the other side of the railway line only a temporary road and an unmanned railway cross connect the school to the national highway. The desolate area that Chabua was when the Brothers initially went there has since been transformed into an important centre bustling with many institutions.
Nagaland had always charmed the Brothers. When Bishop Abraham of Kohima offered a thirty acre plot of land to the Brothers to set up a school, the bid was irresistible. A new Community was set up at Baghty in the year 1987. Reaching Baghty is a formidable task. The only road is almost nonexistent. Whatever is left of one of the best roads in the area a few years back, is at the mercy of the gushing waters during the monsoon. With the government turning a blind eye to their plight, the people walk several kilometres to reach the nearest market at Merapani at the foothills. A malaria infested area, it is the sick that bear the brunt of the apathy of the various government agencies. Their only chance to get any medical help worth the name is to trek toGolaghat several kilometres away. Within the first few years itself certain unpleasant incidents forced the Brothers to abandon the school and go away to Chabuato return only after a month, after the people sent several teams requesting the Brothers to return; promising to stand by them in all their difficulties. The genuineness of their assurance was put to test several times since those initial years and on each of those occasions they overwhelmed the Brothers with their unflinching support.
New found Buoyancy:
The presence of senior Brothers like Bro. Antony of Padua, Thomas More and Martin provided the much needed fillip to the Brothers. There was now a renewed enthusiasm among the them to reach out to new centres. They now looked towards Tripura. The Holy Cross missionaries who were pioneers in Tripura welcomed the Brothers. Bishop Denzil was very enthusiastic about this new project and lent his wholehearted support. Initially the Brothers stayed with them while work started on a new plot of land 30 kms away. The primary school was later shifted to the new campus at Champaknagar. Situated in the tribal heartland, this is a mission entirely devoted to the tribals.
Over the last few decades, the largely poor tribal communities of Tripura found it literally outnumbered and politically powerless. The hostilities between the tribals and the Bengali dominated non-tribals have given birth to several underground groups. Large scale killings, burning of villages, kidnapping for ransom are all now become common place. With the economic and political power in the hands of the non-tribals, the tribals are fighting a losing battle. In this context, our mission with the tribals is looked upon with a lot of suspicion by powers that be. Among the many off-shoots of the underground movements is the unchecked spread of militancy and harassment. Even educational institutions are not spared from the fallout of this form of bullying. Demand for huge sums of money to fight the cause of independence- the like of which the institution has never even heard of - that too at short notice; insistence on admission to the child of such and such official to a higher class, when the child does not have the required qualification for that; demand for out-of-turn promotions are all ways in which this bullying can reveal itself. Any refusal can result in threat to your life, physical violence and abusive languages. Almost everywhere in the northeast the self-proclaimed freedom fighters or men under the garb of such outfits make you live in constant stress. Added to this state of affairs is the prospect of Malaria. Over the years it has kept faithful company with many Brothers.
Tura in Meghalaya is one such place known for its high incidence of malarial cases. The dreaded malaria can leave you exhausted and weary. It has now become second nature with people here to rush to the nearest chemist at the slightest sign of any sickness to ask for a course of capsules for malaria, even before any test is done to establish that it is malaria. Montfort Centre for Education at Tura, dedicated to the care of disabled and the training of the teachers in Special Education of the blind and the deaf; relive the experience of fighting a valiant battle, year after year, with malaria. During summer, when malaria spreads extensively, dozens of our students end up in the hospital and few of them in the graves.
Bro. Thomas More who had spent his entire life in the care of disabled was possessed with the call to set-up a centre that is devoted to the education and rehabilitation of the disabled children. He received much support and encouragement from Bishop George Mamalassery who helped him in many ways to realise the dream project. Over the years that Bro. Thomas More spent at the Bishops House, Tura; he did develop an enviable relationship with the Bishop, the clergy and other religious of the diocese. Both, Bro. Thomas and Bishop George found in each other a friend, philosopher and guide. In his turn the Bishop doubled as the architect, engineer and builder of the many buildings that would come up at the Centre with the generous help from Misereor.
The integrated and inclusive education provided at Tura affords the children with special needs to attend school with other kids of the same age group, thus promoting self-reliance and active participation in society with dignity. Montfort Centre also caters to the training of special education teachers. One of the very few places in the northeast where such facilities is available, it provides a one year diploma in the teaching of visually and sensorialy challenged.The tragic road accident that claimed the life of Bro. Thomas More was a great blow, not only to Montfort Centre, but more for the mission of the Brothers in the northeast, as it robbed them of one its dynamic visionaries. He mortal remains lay buried in front of the grotto of Blessed Virgin Mary, continuing to inspire everyone at the Centre.
Bishop Thomas Menamparampil, upon his transfer from Dibrugarh to the newly created diocese of Guwahati extended an invitation to the Brothers to have a mission centre at Guwahati. He pledged a 10 acre plot of land, 23 kms away from the city, on NH 37. With a rubber plantation, this plot of land was acquired by him from the Silesians. Bro. Martin and Bro. Leopold who was the District Superior at that time moved to Guwahati to stay at the Bishops House and develop the newly acquired property. It took several hundred truck loads of earth and the magic of Bro. Martins dedication and hard work to turn the fish ponds along the highway to usable land. The administrative office of the District Superior also was shifted to this centre at Guwahati from Chabua. Eventually, the school would become another centre for the inclusive education of children with disabilities.
Shillong the picturesque and scenic land of the east is also known for its educational institutions. St. Edmonds College administered by the Christian Brothers is one of the famous institutions of great repute. When Brothers thought of their higher studies they naturally thought of Shillong and St. Edmonds. During the first few years the Brothers stayed in one of the hostels and later on in a rented building. It was however felt that a house of our own would help in the formation of the Brothers and afford better facilities for the Brothers to carry on their studies without the hassle of living in a rented house. After a long search a small, old house was purchased close to the college at Dhankheti. After some repair and a little modification the Brothers moved in there early in 1997.
The latest centre is the Montfort School at Jonglapara, in Garo Hills. InFebruary 2002, Bishop George Mamalassery handed over the administration of the small primary school to the Brothers. With many villages around, this centre has great prospects in reaching out to many peoplewho are from different tribal backgrounds.
Today the 10 Centres, which includes a technical school; a centre for the education of the disabled; a modern printing press; three Hr. Sec. Schools; five hostels for the boys; one hostel for girls; six high schools; two primary schools and a scholasticate spread over five of the seven states of the region provide an eloquent testimony to the enthusiasm and dedication of the first batch of six missionaries and others that followed.
The northeast mission was raised to the status of a District of the Congregation in 1978 with Bro. P. J. Abraham as the District Superior. He had Bros.Devassy Madavana and Joseph Thadathilas his Councillors. Bro. Abraham continued as the District Superior till 1986 when he took up the responsibility of the Novice Master. Bro. Antony of Padua succeeded him as the District Superior. In 1989, on his appointment as the Provincial Superior of the Province of South India, Bro. Thomas More succeeded him. When he moved to Tura, on completion of his first term, Bro. Leopold was appointed as the District Superior. In 1995, Bro. Thomas Plathottam succeeded him.
Tura was chosen as the venue for the First District Chapter that was held from the 4th to the 6th of January 1997. It was indeed a milestone in the history of the development of this District. Bro.Jean Friant, Superior General; Bro.Mani Mekkunnel, the Vicar General; Bro.Jacob Ezhanikat, General Councillor, Bro. Ignatius, Provincial Superior of South India; Bro. Augustine Novello, the Regional Superior of Yercaud Region with all the members of his Council werepresent at the Chapter. With all the Brothers of the District participating, the Chapter drew up ambitious plans to develop itself into a full-pledged and administratively independent Region and gradually a Province.
In 1993, when the Province of South India was divided into the two Regions of Trichy and Yercaud, the District of North East India remained with the Region of Yercaud. At the time of the division of the Province, the Brothers were given the option to belong to any one of the three Provinces of their choice, with the understanding that they will have the opportunity to make a final choice of the Province in the year 2003.
Reorganizing the erstwhile Province of South India, the General Council raised the District of North East India into a Province on April 28, 1998, along with the Provinces of Yercaud and Trichy. In a solemn ceremony at Chabua, presided over by Bishop Lumen Montero of Agartala, the inauguration of the new Province took place. Bro.Thomas Plathottam became the first Provincial Superior with Bros. Varghese Mandapathil, Jose Thekkedam and P.K.James as the Provincial Councillors. The First Provincial Chapter took place at St. Johns, Kolasib from the 4th to the 6th of January 2000. Bro. Mani Mekkunnel, the Vicar General, represented the General Council. All the Brothers of the Province were members of the Chapter. Bro. Jose Thekkedam succeededhim as the Provincial in April 2001 with Bros. V. K. George, P. J. Philip, M. K .Devassy, Joy Alex and P. K. James as the Councillors.
(photo no.1. Bishop Denzil with Bro.Mani, Vicar General, during the First Provincial Chapter)
Twenty eight years have passed since the first Montfortians set out from Yercaud, for a new mission territory. There was much anxiety in their minds. They knew what to expect in the Promised Land. Their actual experiences were far more harsh than what they had ever bargained for. With commendable fortitude worthy of their founders indomitable spirit, they kept alive the Montfortian spirit. The Silver Jubilee of the Montfortian Presence in North East India was indeed a celebration of their dedication and resoluteness as it was of the celebration of the innumerable blessings that the Brothers have received from the Lord. In a grand commemoration on the 5th,6th, and 7th of November 2000, at St.Pauls, Aizawl - the first mission that the Brothers accepted they gave a fitting tribute to their pioneers and thanked the Lord for the extraordinary way in which he has guided the Brothers. Bishop Denzil D Souza, Rev. Bro. Rene Delorme, Superior General and Rev. Bro. Paulose Mekkunnel, Vicar General and a number of Brothers from other Provinces joined the celebrations along with a large number of clergy, religious and well-wishers.
Though, much has changed since the days of the first Brothers who came to the northeast, life here still throws up many challenges. The very same problems that the first batch of Brothers encountered continue to torment. The language and culture barrier remain as a hurdle even today. Doubts and setbacks continue to bother them. Lack of vision and commitment shows itself in self-destructive attitudes. But in all these there is the hope in the minds of the Brothers that one day they will break free and set out like the apostles, always ready for action, always prepared to suffer any trial men with the freedom of the Lord Jesus Himself(Montforts prayer).