History of Darjeeling Province
The First Arrivals
(1) Maurice Stanford (2) William Mackey (3) William Daly (4) Paul Robin (5) John Prendergast
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE DARJEELING JESUIT PROVINCE
The first Jesuits arrived in the town of Darjeeling in January 1888 when Fr Henri Depelchin led a group of five to replace the Capuchin Fathers (O.F.M.Cap) of the Vicariate of Patna in the parish and school (St Joseph’s Seminary), which, as St Joseph’s College, was later transferred to its present site at North Point. In January 1889, twenty-four Jesuits arrived in Kurseong from Asansol, to continue their theological studies, first in temporary quarters and then in the newly constructed St Mary’s College, which was blessed and inaugurated on July 31st of that year.
It is from those two dates that the Society gradually expanded into the hills and plains of north Bengal, to the State of Sikkim, and to the neighboring country of Bhutan. In the hills, parish work was intimately linked to the schools and colleges: at North Point a nearby small chapel later became Sacred Heart Parish in 1898; near St Mary’s College, the first parish in Kurseong was started in 1890 (St John Berchmans) and another near the town of Kurseong when St Paul’s Parish was started in 1905.
In the meantime, tea had been introduced to the Himalayas around Darjeeling in the 1850’s and that in turn brought migrant workers from NepaI. They would become the dominant group in the hills in the years to come, while Lepchas, a large local group, lived in far villages. Both groups would be prominent in the parishes and schools of the Society in the new diocese of Darjeeling which was created in October 1963
After the arrival of the Society in the hills in the 1880’s, it took another fifty years before the Jesuits were able to move down to the plains. There, migrant adivasi tea workers in their thousands had arrived from central India in those same 1880’s in what can only be understood as miracle of evangelization.
In the Darjeeling area of North Bengal where they settled on the tea gardens, there were no parishes, no priests except visitors from St Mary’s no schools or churches – until 1933 when the mother parish of the Terai was started, at a place called Gayaganga. From there, at least seventeen parishes have branched out, most with religious sisters, schools and convents. The Society has high schools for boys in two parishes, one of which is of higher secondary level with girl students.
In the 1963, the Society went international with the invitation of the then Prime Minister, Jigme Dorji, to open “another North Point” in eastern Bhutan, far from the developed west of the country. From that time until the Jesuits left Bhutan in 1989, many Darjeeling Jesuits worked in three places to develop education in that country: especially Fr William Mackey, who lived there until his death in October 1995, and Fr Gerald Leclaire who set up the first college in the country, and Fr John Coffey who pioneered in Punaka, the summer capital of Bhutan.
The Society moved east from the Darjeeling Terai in the 1990’s when one Jesuit was appointed a parish priest, and later Director of the Minor Seminary of the Jalpaiguri diocese. He returned to the Terai in 2000, but once again, the Society settled down in that diocese, with the founding in 2007 of North Bengal St Xavier’s College.
Over the years, the Society has endeavored to bring the gospel to other groups wherever it has put roots: in Darjeeling, Hayden Hall, an offshoot of the North Point Alumni Association, where in-house training in weaving, mother-child care, basic education is based and carried to far villages by trained workers; in Matigara, through Jesu Ashram, basic health is provided to the destitute and leprosy treatment provided at outstation leprosy centres; a recently started centre, namely Human Life Development & Research Centre (HLDRC) for social action will deal with tea garden labor problems and legal aid; a centre for Indian music affiliated to Varansi is attracting a large group of young people.
They say that God never closes one door without opening another, and when the last Jesuit in Bhutan, Fr William Mackey, died there in October 1995, it looked like the international apostolate of the Darjeeling Province was over. Within a few years, however, two Jesuits, Frs Mike Parent (Darj Prov) and John Bingham (Jamshedpur Province, ascribed to Darjeeling Province) were in Lhasa. Fr Parent studied Tibetan and Chinese at the University of Tibet in Lhasa for two years and later teamed up with an NGO working with the blind, Braille Without Borders, and at present in Shigatse working with the blind.
The international outreach continues with the presence of Brother Broney Chettri in Rome at the Gesu, two priests in studies in Spain and Rome and three scholastics in London and Canada.