Daring heart

By Philip Marwein

Fr Alfred Marzo came to India from Spain in 1968. His first assignment was at Nongpoh Mission Centre (Parish) in Ri Bhoi where he spent his youth helping the down-trodden. Fifty-two years on, the Salesian missionary continues his selfless service to ensure the welfare of thousands of Khasis, Garos and Mikirs.
The 84-year-old missionary is a known name at Shallang, his current address, in West Khasi Hills where he has been living for over two decades now.
Fr Marzo is jovial and energetic and shows no sign of age other than the wrinkled skin and grey hair. He talks with enthusiasm and never stops smiling. The octogenarian still remembers the days spent in Nongpoh and he took his Royal Enfield bike to the back of beyond. And when roads vanished, he would trek through the hilly terrain without any hesitation.
During his stay at the Nongpoh parish, Fr Marzo had toured the entire district, including many villages on Mikir Hills bordering Ri Bhoi and areas under Rmen Jyrngam in West Khasi Hills. He did it to spread the light of life, hope and confidence among the neglected and dejected people beset with tribulations and vagaries of life.
“To dare and not to yield” has been his motto and he lived up to it, facing all odds fearlessly and serving people in the most obscure villages where poverty, ignorance and diseases reigned.
The father recollects how in his mission to eradicate poverty and spread education, he was accompanied by dedicated social workers, Sr Pauline Basumatary among them.
Sr Pauline helped Fr Marzo with health education, medical care to the sick and the infirm, awareness on cleanliness and hygiene, besides making people aware of the path to salvation of souls. On the other hand, Fr Marzo engaged himself in building schools and making villagers aware of literacy and the ill effects of superstitious beliefs.
Fr Marzo also remembers Fr Joseph Arminia from Spain, who joined him at the Mission station in Nongpoh in later years.
Between 1974-75 and 1988-89, Ri Bhoi saw a rise in literacy rate all thanks to the dynamic leadership of the Spanish missionary. However, his social work was halted for some time after he met with a bike accident and was hospitalised. After a few months, Fr Marzo’s superiors sent him to 3rd Mile, Upper Shillong, for a year and a half for complete recuperation.
But Marzo’s heart was in Nongpoh and he was restless to complete the unfinished work. He came back to Ri Bhoi and started work with renewed vigour and dedication.
Though the pastoral work at Nongpoh Mission was started by Fr Marzo’s predecessors — like Fr Victor Muorie, SDB, Fr John Mary Premoli (though for a brief period), Fr Michael Balawan, SDB, and Fr John Marie, SDB — the major share of the work was accomplished during his tenure.
The missionary does not forget to mention the names of “field soldiers” Terencious Dkhar, Marcius Pilat Shadap and Andreas Maruli, among others, when talking about the success of the mission. The field works were fine-tuned and transmuted to action by Catechists like Timothy Makri, Silvester Syngkli and Dolin Malai.
“The field works were so tough and trying that many foot soldiers were mercilessly persecuted so much so that one Bau Francis Jal Syiem has to face martyrdom at Khuswai village in Ri Bhoi near Assam border,” says W Syngkli, who also helps Fr Marzo in his field work.
From Ri Bhoi, Fr Marzo was transferred to Nongstoin-Pyndengrei Mission, another fertile centre in West Khasi Hills. A man with a mission and a zealous worker as he is, Marzo quickly picked up where another zealous worker, Fr George Vannis, had left for Rambrai Mission.
During the eight years at the mission, Marzo expanded the works and built schools and churches in many villages where there was no education. The locals remember his pioneering work with much gratitude even to this day.
Shallang, about 80km from Nongstoin, was his next station. He shifted to the new mission centre in the remote western part of the district in June 1999. New challenges were awaiting him in the barren land.
Today, after 21 years of dedication and ceaseless work, Fr Marzo has transformed the barren centre into a fertile mission station. This centre has spread its wings to 45 villages with a population of approximately 20,000 people, of whom 12,000 are Catholics.
The Parish has 10 lower primary and eight upper primary schools, besides a higher secondary school at Joplang.
“The scope of work in the mission is vast and very challenging. I have no time at all to relax because there is too much work to be completed and tasks to be accomplished which demand that I should always be on the move to ensure early completion,” says the daring missionary, who shows no sign of fatigue and his voice trembles with excitement and energy.
Shallang being an active insurgency point at that time was a major challenge for the Salesian missionary. Most of the localities were remote and backward owing to years of neglect by successive governments.
The backwardness was despite the rich coal deposits in the rural belt there. The mines belonged to coal barons from outside the district and sometimes outside the state. Nearly 60 per cent of the deposits in West and South West Khasi Hills came from Shallang. Prior to the NGT ban on coal extraction and transportation, the Shallang areas were flooded with migrant labourers from Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and even illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
But an unstoppable Fr Marzo visited every village under his jurisdiction with his mission.
Majority of the people living in the village under Shallang Mission Centre are Garos and only about one per cent are Khasis (Lyngngams). Garo vernacular is used for all communications, including religious functions. Khasi vernacular is sometimes used in religious functions and in business transactions.
The villages in the area have undergone drastic change all thanks to Fr Marzo’s hard work. His selfless service has brought hope among the marginalised and the light of education is gradually illuminating lives. But the missionary has miles to go. So he stops the conversation to continue with his work.
“I did not forget my motto. Yes, I came here to dare and not to yield,” he says, particularly emphasising on the word “dare”, as he gets up from his seat.

(The author is a senior journalist)

Photo by Philip Marwein

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