Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Legacy of a Sterling Missionary

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By Barnes Mawrie

 

This year 2012, is the 25th anniversary of the translation of the mortal remains of the Servant of God, late Bishop Stephen Ferrando SDB from Genoa to Shillong. Older generations of Khasis will definitely have his name still on their lips. Stephen Ferrando was born on 28th September 1895 in Rossiglione, Genoa, Italy. As a young man he served in the national army during World War I as a lieutenant. This military training would stand him in good stead later on as a missionary on the hard terrains of North-east India. He was sent to North-east India in the year 1923 belonging to the second batch of Salesian missionaries who came to this region. He proved his stint as a novice master and a formator and was soon elevated to the rank of episcopacy. It was in 1934, the year that Don Bosco himself was canonized by Pope Pius XI, that the Episcopal ordination of two great Salesian missionaries, Mgr. Louis Mathias as the first bishop of Shillong and Mgr. Stephen Ferrando as the bishop of Krishnagar, took place. As fate would have it, Mgr. Louis Mathias was soon transferred to the archdiocese of Madras due to the sudden demise of Archbishop Mederlet. So the lot fell on Mgr. Ferrando to become the second bishop of Shillong (of the entire North-east in those days). He took up the Episcopal See of Shillong on 14th March 1936. He had a long innings of 34 years as a bishop and during these years he had contributed immensely to the growth of the Church in the region.

When on Good Friday 10th April 1936 a fire devoured the old cathedral, Bishop Ferrando blessed the remaining ashes and said, “from these ashes a big cathedral will emerge”. He spared no effort and left no stone unturned in order to find means and resources to build the present gorgeous cathedral of Mary Help of Christians on Lum Tyngkong. Under the supervision of an able architect, Bro. Santo Mantarro, the cathedral surged up as a monument of hope. Today it still remains as an exquisite work of art, the pride of Shillong and an irresistible tourist attraction but above all a fountain of faith for the Catholics of the entire North-east region. As for me, this cathedral alone is enough evidence of his mighty contribution to the Church in this region.

Bishop Ferrando will also be remembered as “a person with a large heart”, a “good pastor” and “a gem of a missionary”. I have often heard old people, including my parents, speak highly of him especially of his charisma and ability to welcome everyone with open arms. His love for the tribal people of the region speaks volume of his missionary commitment. Wherever he went he carried with him an air of solemnity and grace. I still remember as a small boy, how I used to watch with a sense of awe at him while he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament during the annual Eucharistic Procession in Laitumkhrah. He was a zealous missionary, bold and daring and with a predilection for the poor and rural people. Even as a young priest he would venture out with his novices into the surrounding villages of Shillong. He would walk with them to Mawpdang, Umpling, Mawshbuit and other places ever ready to spread the good news of peace and love. Later on as a bishop he was fond of visiting remote villages of his vast diocese. In spite of poor transport and communication in those days, he was able to reach as far as Nagaland, Manipur and Assam during his pastoral visits.

Bishop Ferrando was a man of the people and he had many winning ways to get people over to his side. His simplicity and cheerful attitude were so spontaneous that he could unnerve even a hardcore cynic. He was fondly called by many people as “u bishop jong ngi” meaning “our bishop”. At times his simplicity and unassuming attitude would draw criticism from his own clergy who misinterpreted it as inefficiency or indecisiveness. But if greatness lies in “being” and not in “doing” then Bishop Ferrando is undoubtedly a great person for he inspired thousands of people with his simplicity and friendship. He had a people-oriented approach and this was evident in his usual manner of welcoming the faithful at the door of the Cathedral on Sundays and feast days. He knew many persons by names and he would talk and joke with them like a friend. The people in turn loved him and this was clearly revealed on the day of his departure for Italy in 1970 when thousands of them turned up with tearful eyes to bid farewell to their beloved father.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bishop Ferrando to the Church of North-east India and to the whole Church at large, was the foundation of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (MSMHC), popularly known as “Peach land Sisters”. This is the first indigenous congregation founded in North-east India and therefore it speaks volume of his great love and vision for the Church of the region. The educational, social and pastoral services that the sisters of this Congregation render to the people of the region is admirable. Their service in the rural areas is even more laudable. Today they are a formidable congregation with 1091 members, 5 provinces, 1 delegation and having presences in Africa, Europe and USA. Their miraculous growth stands as an enduring testimony of the greatness and holiness of this Bishop who started the Congregation with only 6 village girls.

On this occasion of the 25th anniversary of the translation of his mortal remains, it is opportune that due homage be paid to this great son of Don Bosco who had ably shouldered the responsibility of guiding the Church in its infancy stage. It is right that the people of our region who have benefited from his goodness and are still benefiting from the service of his sisters, know about him and his great feats through this timely article.

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