Father Otto Hopfenmüller of the
Society of the Divine Saviour or
Salvatorian was the pioneering catholic missionary to the Khasi Hills. Lorenz Hopfenmüller was born on May 29, 1844, in Weismain, Germany. He became a priest of the Diocese of Bamberg and was ordained on October 6,1866, at the age of twenty-two.
After completing doctoral studies at the University of Würzburg, he was appointed to St Martin’s Parish in Bamberg. In 1872 he became editor of the Bamberger Volksblatt, a Catholic newspaper. As a direct result of his involvement in the apostolate of the press, he came into conflict with the anti-Catholic authorities and was imprisoned several times. After the death of his mother, he felt able to fulfil his long term plan of joining a religious community, which would enable him to go to the foreign missions. In 1887 he went to Rome and became a member of the Catholic Teaching Society. In the noviciate he took the religious name Otto. The founder, Father Francis Jordan, soon entrusted him with the formation of the candidates. He also used his skills as a journalist for the benefit of the Society. He was sent, together with the twenty-three year old Father Angelus Münzloher and Brothers Joseph Bachle and Marianus Schumm, to Assam in North East India, where he became the first Superior. The work of this new mission was carried out with great zeal and energy. Father Otto wrote both a catechism and a life of Jesus and Mary in the Khasi language, and he had begun to translate the Schuster’s Bible Stories. However, he fell ill with meningitis as a result of a heat stroke and died on August 21,1890.
These extracts about his pioneering mission to Khasi Hills are taken from his biography in German written by Fr. Dr. C. Becker in 1923. It was later translated into English by Society of the Divine Saviour in India and titled, Father Otto Hopfenmuller of the Society of the Divine Saviour. A german pioneer in an Indian mission.
On Assam Bengal
Railway to Gauhati
By February 16, 1890, the missionary superior had finished his courtesy calls and they missionary team was able to continue its journey to Assam that same evening. An overnight train ride brought them to Goalundo. Here they boarded a steamer to go up the Brahmaputra River. Until now the four missionaries had been in a third class compartment on the train from Bombay onwards, despite this being usually out of the question for Europeans. To get by as Christ’s apostles in the most simple and cheapest way (even on a steamer) the superior decided not to share in the available meals. He wrote to the superior general, Fr. Jordan:
Daily meals would have cost 4 Rupees (5.60 Mark) per person on board. Therefore, I decided to take the kind of meals according to our way of living, since Bishop Pozzi had said that this was possible. At first, the servant in charge of the meals did not want to hear of it. He called the ship’s officer. I talked to him and straightened things out. On the first day, I tried to take tea and coffee in the morning. These cost two Rupees. This was still too expensive for me, so for four days we lived on bread, cheese, butter, and wine, and by doing so, we ate for very little money, which would otherwise have cost 64 Rupees. Our health was excellent and we are all well. We still had butter, cheese and wine left from our trip from Bombay to Calcutta. On the way we bought bread. When we finished it, we bought it on the steamer. In Dhubri there was no more bread left on the steamer. A salesman brought us some bread (called ruti in Bengalese) but it was a type of thin, unleavened cake, just like German dumplings. In the absence of other bread we ate this and it tasted delicious because hunger enhances the taste of food.
All the while the steamer brought the expectant group closer to Assam. On February 8, they reached Dhubri, the first city of Assam. One companion, Fr. Angelus Münzloher, gave us an insight into the superior’s heart when he wrote the following about him:
The closer we got to our destination, the more visible Fr. Otto’s eagerness became. When we arrived at our Prefecture he consecrated himself to God and completely sacrificed himself to Him. I remember very well how he fell on his knees on deck. Fiery prayers welled up in his heart to bring about the grace of conversion to pagans.
Because the steamer stopped in Dhubri during the day, this provided an opportunity for the new missionaries to set foot on Assamese ground for the first time.
Fr. Angelus Münzloher wrote:
When one is led into such a city for the first time, one instinctively wonders: “Where is this city anyway?” One hardly sees anything apart from huts, which are hidden beneath trees on both sides of the road. As we walked around Dhubri and looked at the houses and people, we met two natives, one of whom approached us. This good man did not even think of the fact that we did not speak Bengalese. Luckily his companion was able to speak English. Both of them scrutinized us from head to foot. They were especially interested in the crucifixes that we carried on our breasts. They even took them in their hands.
The journey continued in the evening, but they soon needed to stop again. The water level of the Brahmaputra was so low in this “dry season” that the boat could not travel during the night so as to avoid the risk of running aground somewhere. That is why they didn’t reach Gauhati until the morning of February 21. To the missionaries’ delight they were received by Fr. Broy at the gangway. He led them to their mission station where they said Holy Mass in Assam for the first time.
And they reach Gauhati
With years of hard work, Fr. Broy had built a chapel with a sacristy and a few rooms in Gauhati – all under one roof. He had prepared everything to receive the newcomers because he believed they would settle there. And in any case, this would have been a relief at the start.
The chapel was fine, equipped with the necessary items so the two priests could immediately say Holy Mass. The spacious apartment consisted of six rooms and would have been more than sufficient. There was also a small community of Christians— 32 Catholics, Europeans and half-castes.
But tempting as it was and despite the fact that it would have been more than suitable for their headquarters, Fr. Hopfenmüller could not stay in Gauhati. For it had been Propaganda Fide’s wish to establish the headquarters of the apostolic prefecture of Assam in Shillong, the state’s capital, where the state government also had its seat.
The diocesan administrator of Dacca as well as Bishop Pozzi had also pointed out that the mountain tribesmen living there would be much more open to Christianity than those living in Assam. So the path to be taken was set for them. They could not remain in Gauhati.
Horse Cart or Walk to Shillong
To save money, the superior had sent the heavy luggage by freight train from Calcutta. So they now awaited its arrival. Fr. Angelus recounts:
Because I lived in a room in Gauhati from which I could see Fr. Otto well, I often saw him throwing himself on the floor and remaining in this position for a long time. Tears ran down his face. His main thought was, how can I best help the pagans? He probably consulted often with God about this in such moments.
The stay in Gauhati only lasted a few days. As soon as the luggage arrived they continued their journey from the Assam valley into the Khasi Hills.
The superior thoroughly described this last part of the journey to his “good and helpful friends at home” to whom he had promised at his departure to publish his travel report in Bamberger Volksblatt. In those days it took about four days to reach Shillong from Gauhati by oxcart. With a horse-drawn carriage (a two- wheeled tonga) the city could be reached in about one day by frequently changing horses. But Fr. Hopfenmüller did not approve of this.
The horse tonga would have cost 120 Rupees – about 170 Mark. We took the oxcart holding three people for only 15 Rupees. It was my wish to exercise the poverty vowed in the order even on our journey, so I figured: three people could ride, the other one would walk. After an hour, the walker would climb into the carriage and another would walk. This way, there would be a nice change. When we saw the carriage, all of us preferred to walk and only to load the luggage on the oxcart. It was a type of two-wheeled cart also used in Italy. Above it was set up a barrel-like cover, old, torn, made of wicker from old bamboo cane. It was so low that no one could really sit down beneath it. There were no seats. One had to sit on luggage or on some straw. Under such conditions it was more pleasant to walk than to ride, despite the fact that the heat was comparable to midsummer in Germany. Only Br. Joseph tried to ride for an hour on the first day during the midday heat, but the following days he walked like the others.
The first three days everything went fine. We raised our umbrellas against the sun and at midday stopped on the road to grab some water, mixed it with wine, and ate our bread. A good woman from Gauhati, a Catholic called Burns, had provided us with some beef for the first two days. The other days we had some cheese with bread. At the end of each day, we stopped at the so-called Dak-bungalow, meaning the post house. Because there were no guesthouses in the area, the British government had set up lodging houses at the distance of a day’s journey, under the care of a guard. At the first one we received nothing. The large double beds were covered with just a sheet and there were no pillows or blankets. The traveller needed to provide these as well as a mattress if he wanted one. Our habits served as pillows and our coats as covers. At the second and third post house we were served rice with curry. The curry, served with chicken, was the traditional hot spice according to Indian custom. There was no bread. Whoever has eaten a little chicken knows that four men do not get a lot from it, but we were quite satisfied and in a good mood.
The situation changed on the fourth day. Br. Joseph, who was born in Baden, proposed that one of us should stay with the carriage while the others went ahead to prepare the house so that we could sleep there. Fr. Broy had built another little house in Shillong where he lived from time to time, which was supposed to be the new residence for the missionaries. This was a good idea because in this way we would not need to pay for another overnight shelter.
As the commander of this little group, I accepted my soldier’s proposal since I am open to anything that can save some of the alms given to us by the faithful. Br. Joseph remained with the carriage and the three of us walked ahead. Everything was fine. We exercised our legs as much as we could and at lunchtime we cheerfully sat down at a fountain that bubbled from the rocks.
Lost in Shillong
We had been told that Shillong was situated at the 64th milestone from Gauhati. I commented that one English mile is equal to about 1,600 meters, a bit more than one and a half kilometres. We had already passed the 63rd milestone when we reached a village from which two paths diverged.
I took the left one, but Fr. Angelus suggested that we should take the right path because the telegraph lines passed that way. I willingly let myself be guided and thanks be to God I was not alone because I would have gotten lost. We continued walking and asking (not speaking the native language) by pointing down the direction of the street:
‘Shillong?’ Their nodding assured us that we would soon be in Shillong. Suddenly, we passed a milestone with the number 2 written on it. What did that mean? We must have taken the wrong way. We turned around and reached a street full of people and thought that we should now be on the right way. Again I asked, pointing at the street: ‘Shillong?’ They again nodded their heads. We continued walking, but Shillong did not seem to appear. We were tired and rested a few times and arrived at the 5th milestone.
Above it was a sign showing the way to the Dak-bungalow Upper-Shillong, the post house of Upper-Shillong. Now we have found it! We are in Upper-Shillong, the city above Shillong. We arrived at the post house to ask for further information. The women did not understand a word we were saying. She answered laughing and nodding to all our questions and signs that we wanted to eat something.
Finally, a man arrived who spoke some English. He told us that we were on the road to Cherrapunji and needed to go back about five miles to reach Shillong.2 He also gave us some eggs. We were very hungry, so we refreshed ourselves with the eggs and returned as fast as our tired legs could carry us. At around 7.30 p.m. we arrived in a village and met a young man.
“Is this Shillong?” “Yes.” He spoke English. We quickly recounted our misfortune and asked him whether he could lead us to the Catholic missionary house. “The house of the padri?” I thought he meant the Catholic faithful and replied “Yes.”
He willingly led us until we reached a Protestant church. “This is the church of the padri” – ”It cannot be this one because the Catholics do not have a church here.” – ”Yes, they are Roman Catholics.” – ”No, it’s impossible.”
He continued searching and did not find anything. We walked around the city for about 15 minutes. One should not compare Shillong with a European city, in which many houses are tightly built next to each other. The houses in Shillong were scattered all over the place, surrounded by forests, gardens or trees. Despite its mere 3,000 inhabitants, it took an hour to cross.
People had recommended that we find a certain Dr. Costello who is also a Catholic. But our leader couldn’t find him. “I ask you, could you lead me to the next house where an Englishman lives!” He did so. I knocked on the door and [the one who answered] was very friendly. After he heard my story and understood what we wanted, he immediately invited us to join him for dinner, which had just been made. We gladly accepted the invitation. The lady of the house was nowhere to be seen –supposedly she was not feeling well. Five lively children all stood around the table.
The eldest, Charles, was nine-years-old. Two servants were serving the table. We squeezed into our places at the table. But what had happened to Br. Joseph with the oxcart? This was the only worry clouding our contentment. “After dinner I shall lead you to your future home,” the friendly gentleman assured us.
His name, Igual, should also be mentioned because it is right to praise good people. After we had eaten and drunk and said grace in front of the amazed children of the Protestant household, he took two candles and matches and led us to the near-by missionary cottage.
Fr. Broy who had built it, had already sent advanced news of our arrival on Thursday and had instructed the doorkeeper to open the door. No one could see light in the house.
“Everything is dark, the house will still be closed.” But look, there was light. “Someone is there!” It was Br. Joseph who had arrived with the oxcart long before, and who had also found the house but only after having asked four people without success.
Missionary Fr. Broy only came to Shillong once a year. Only three Catholic families and three individual Catholic lived here. The house was very inconspicuous. There were only two rooms. The door of the entrance was smashed, as was the padlock to the doors – they didn’t even need opening because they already stood open. Nor was it necessary to close them, because there was nothing in the house to take.
Br. Joseph said: “I found everything open and not a soul to be seen.” The stove was destroyed and many other things were ruined. It could not have been otherwise. Now, after gratefully saying goodbye to our friendly host, we quickly set up a place to sleep. Our white habits served as pillows, some used laundry as cushions and coats for covers. In our habits we laid down on the bare floor. The night was bitterly cold; Shillong is situated high up in the mountains, so we froze quite a bit after the day’s sunburn.
In the morning, we quickly set up a poor altar to say our first Holy Mass in Shillong. A door served as the altar table; linens as the antependium. Books were put beneath the cross.
During Holy Mass, our friendly host from yesterday sent us tea, cake and bread so we could enjoy a delightful breakfast. After Mass ended, a servant arrived who spoke Khasi and some English. A Catholic from Gauhati had been so kind as to send him.
“Would you like to be our servant?” I asked him.
“How much do you want?”
“20 Rupees per month.”
“That is too much for us; we are not Englishmen but poor missionaries.”
“I have a family and need to feed them.”
“You will have to do all types of work, otherwise we do not need you. Our brothers also do all types of work. Do you want to?”
I then went to buy the necessary cooking implements along with Br. Joseph and the servant.
The missionaries had left Rome on January 17, at 11:30 p.m. and they had arrived at their ardently desired destination, Shillong, on February 27 at 7:30 p.m. On March 6, 1890, he reported to the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide about their journey and continued:
We have an apartment in danger of collapsing in Shillong consisting of two rooms. We use one of the rooms as the chapel, and the other is for us priests. We will add two more little rooms for the two brothers.
We are still without furniture because we cannot find a carpenter. All of the workers are busy building the house for the provincial governor. We stand during our meals like the Jews during their exodus from Egypt.
We sleep on the floor and must bear the greatest restrictions, but we gladly and joyfully endure everything because we have been found worthy to spread God’s Kingdom and we hope to be able to save souls.
While the apartment in Shillong was already ramshackle, it nonetheless accommodated them and provided a roof over their heads, though it contained no chair, table or bed. They began by making a table. Soon this was done. They made it out of an old door from a goat shed. With the help of a rack, it was leaned against the wall at one end, and the other foot was made from a piece of board.
Since they had no chairs, the table needed to be high so they could eat, read and study standing up. It took longer to build the beds, but Fr. Otto could do something even in this regard. He saw that the natives used two stands, which could be joined together with a large sailcloth [a hammock].
The advantage of this was that the beds could be folded up during the day and put into a corner. No mattresses were needed; one simply slept on the sailcloth. But it was impossible to sleep without blankets so they needed to buy some.
As Fr. Otto later told his Bamberg friends:
It is quite necessary for us to have blankets because we are in the mountains and up to today, May 15, it has been almost always windy and bitterly cold at night. And since the rainy season it has been cold and damp. I need to add my coat and habit as blankets, but often my feet are still freezing. For the moment we do not suffer from the Indian heat. Of course, it is completely different in the Assam Valley where an oppressive heat prevails. The papers often report on people who die of sunstroke, especially many Europeans.
Apart from the blankets and the sailcloth, the bed also had a little pillow filled with pine needles. A certain type of pine tree was indigenous to the Khasi Hills, whose needles are softer and longer than those of our pines at home. For the thrifty superior these needles made a welcome and cheap filling for pillows. With these, the place to sleep had been set up. This was some progress after sleeping on the floor for the first three weeks.
It still took a long while until we got our chairs, so we took our meals standing for one month. 14 days later, the door we used as a table was replaced by a real table. One should not forget that our Khasi are not yet carpenters. When we first tried to get chairs we found two Khasi carpenters who worked for almost three days to produce a simple chair with four legs and a backrest. And what a fine specimen they produced! The legs, backrest and seat were so thick and bulky that I could not lift the chair with one arm. We sent them away and instructed our Khasi servant to find more skilful and diligent workers. It took eight days until they arrived. They are a bit better but not at all what they are supposed to be.
In this way, they slowly managed to furnish the apartment with necessities. In no way did this dampen the mood of the ascetic little group. Fr. Otto wrote:
We are cheerful and happy in our poverty particularly as God has already begun to show His mercy through it. This evening, two young Khasi men aged 19 to 20, who had graduated from the local governmental school here and have been studying Latin for three years, inquired about being taught the Catholic faith. In exchange offered to teach us Khasi and Bengalese. The older one in particular showed a great desire and repeatedly expressed how glad he was to have found Catholic missionaries. Seeing our poverty, he said: “You now want to be poor without any pomp or luxury so that you will be rich in the other life!”
They already used some Christian expressions because they had read Protestant Bibles. I pin great hope on these young men, and am extremely delighted and thankful to God from the bottom of my heart. Now we should pray that the divine mercy will support their good will and that they will reach complete understanding.
Pastoring to the Lukewarm Catholics of Shillong
With his usual zeal, Fr. Otto threw himself into pastoral care for the Catholics living in Shillong. On the first Sunday after his arrival he invited them to Mass.
Two ladies and one man came. Dr. Costello, the manager of the local telegraph office and a lukewarm Catholic, had left on a trip, and a Catholic woman was prevented from coming to Mass and receiving Communion by her Protestant husband. When Ms. Costello saw that the missionaries had only one empty room and that the other one served as the chapel, she and the Catholic governess, Miss O’Shea, asked in astonishment: “But do you want to stay here?” – “Yes,” was Fr. Otto’s calm reply. “We missionaries are satisfied with anything; we need to be toughened up.”
The man who had attended morning Mass returned that same afternoon with more chairs. Now they had at least a chair for every missionary. The man was a government civil servant. He and his Presbyterian wife had married in the Anglican rite and their children had been baptized by a British minister. He apologized for the fact that no priest had been there. “What would I have done if my child had died without being baptized?”
Fr. Otto pointed out that anybody could baptize in such cases, but that it would be better for a Catholic father to baptize his children himself instead of calling a Protestant minister. With a Protestant baptism, there was a danger that they would later fall for Protestant heresy. “The situation was an excuse for you,” Fr. Otto added, “but later you will admit that you did wrong. In the meantime, the issue can be taken care of if you are of good will and want to become our friend. Do you wish to send your children, of whom the oldest is only five years old, to our school and church and let them be raised Catholic?” The clear answer was: “Yes!”
“Do you wish,” the superior continued, “to repeat your marriage vows in front of a priest and two witnesses so that everything will be correct?” The question was answered with another “Yes.”
“I see that you are of good will from the way you brought us chairs and from your attendance at Mass. Therefore, I hope that everything will turn out well with God’s grace and that we shall become good friends.” The conversation ended with these words.
To fire up the lukewarm, Fr. Otto did not hesitate to visit them in their homes. He soon convinced the chairman of the telegraph office to come with his sons to Mass, from which he was usually absent. One son was 13 years old and the other was 18.
Neither of them had received Holy Communion or learned the catechism. The superior repeatedly visited their father and asked him to send his other children to him so he could teach them. His six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son came a few times, but then stayed away. There was nothing to do about the older boys. After Fr. Otto had repeatedly pressed the father to send them, the father talked himself out of it by saying that in a few months time he would send his children to a Catholic institute in Agra where his eldest daughter was married. In a letter to Fr. Jordan Fr. Otto writes:
On the Feast of St. Joseph, I went to visit a Catholic official who had his children raised Protestant. He was at his club so I had him called.
He promised to come out but did not appear even after I waited for him for half an hour. In the meantime, I talked to his wife, who had been a Presbyterian missionary sister, and had been educated in a girl’s high school in Hyderabad. A rather meaningless discussion ensued with her, which reminded me again of the necessity of thorough theological study. “We are all Christians,” she said, “one’s denomination does not matter.” When I took her at her word, saying that then it should not be a problem for her to let her children be raised Catholic if it did not matter to her anyway, she commented: “The Presbyterian confession is better.” Having ended this subject, we moved on to the Bible. Of these things, she said: “What would my family say!” At the end, I asked her for a meeting with her husband and she promised to arrange it. We will see whether she keeps her promise. One can see how much suffering this tiny flock must bear.
Make an altar
To make the poor chapel more appropriate for Mass, the superior put his shoulder to the wheel whenever he was free from his other activities. As soon as he was able to find a carpenter, Fr. Otto had him make an altar, four pews, a confessional grill and a little cabinet for church items. This way, the room no longer looked empty or uninviting. Flowers and candles had to do the rest. On Easter a more solemn Mass could be celebrated for the first time. Fr. Hopfenmüller describes the Easter celebration.
We held our first High Mass. Fr. Angelus celebrated; Br. Joseph and I sang the choral Mass. After the Gospel, I gave a short sermon in English. I was comforted to see one more woman in our community who until then had not come to Mass because supposedly her husband would not tolerate it. Furthermore, our community had grown by four more native servants of the governor, who had just returned to the province from his travels.
A Catholic family of goodwill from Gauhati has also been transferred here. The man is an official clerk. In the afternoon we sang our vespers alone with no participants. Even though we celebrated Easter with scant festivity, my soul was filled with cheerful Easter rejoicing. Christ has risen from the dead, my salvation has been completed, the world of the flesh has been defeated, and I can become glorious like my Jesus: these thoughts passed through me despite the humble solemnity.
Just as every missionary feels a painful melancholy at the lack of solemn and uplifting Masses like those in our churches back home, especially the first time living under the poor and simple conditions of missionary life, so this feeling took root in Fr. Hopfenmüller. He expressed it in a letter which he wrote from Shillong addressed to his successor back in Seußling on March 25, 1890.
When one lives in a pagan country without any public church celebrations, with no churches, no bells, no altar, no baptismal font, no confessional, no pulpit, no pictures, no candlesticks, no decorations, no banners, no processional cross or many other things, living in a small humble room, simply reading a low Mass in front of three or four participants – then one really understands what people possess in Christian countries. What a joy it is to be Christian, to possess the holy faith and the entire fullness of church graces and ceremonies! What a shame and responsibility it is when Christians do not use all of these treasures of the faith to sanctify themselves and become happy on earth and blessed in heaven. What a shame it is when, despite all the good deeds of Christianity, they live in godlessness, sin, and vice, and only do what their low carnal appetites desire! They will be depraved, damned, and unhappy here and for eternity, and rightfully so. Oh, I urge my former parishioners, for the sake of the love they have demonstrated to me, to love God above anything, to observe all His laws, to obey their lawful pastor forever and in every regard, and in this way to be blessed.
If it was already difficult to persuade the existing Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, it comes as no surprise that they never attended other religious events. No one ever showed up for Mass on workdays, nor for evening Mass even though Fr. Otto had called on them to do so. “We are alone at evening Mass, but this is no reason to stop holding it.”
It did not go much better during May Devotions. A special joy prevailed in the little missionary house on May 1. Missionary Fr. Broy from Gauhati had made them a small tabernacle as a gift. From this day on, they could reserve the Blessed Sacrament in it and celebrate Benediction.
May Devotions took place at 6:30 p.m. every evening in May. The husband and wife of a secretary’s family only showed up three times after having been transferred from Gauhati to Shillong. Next to the family of the servants to Dr. Costello, they had been one of the most committed families.
So our missionaries needed to hold their May Devotions alone in front of the altar decorated as much as possible with garlands and roses. They were destined to the same fate during the time of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Devotions in the month of June.
To excuse themselves some said: “Your chapel is too small, there is no space!” In the meantime, the chapel had never been so full that other people could not fit because there had never been more than 12 people at once.
From my description, friends at home will recognize that Catholic immigrants here are not necessarily the best Catholics. Yes, even in this region, the experiences of other missionaries have confirmed that Catholic and Protestant Europeans are merely obstacles to the missions.
Their dulled sense of religion as well as the other areas of their life which only know leisurely pleasures and always seek reasons to indulge them can never set a good example for the native people. Moreover, the actions of these so-called Christians hardly exhibit Christianity, or better, its beautiful heavenly side. Only the life of renunciation practiced by missionaries can act as a counterbalance. We need to be able to say to the natives:
“Look at our life. This is the true Christian life which Jesus taught us and of which He was a living example. This is heavenly Christianity which brings peace and eternal life. Our countrymen are only called Christians, but do not distinguish themselves as such by their deeds. Do not get annoyed by them and do not allow bad Christians to prevent you from recognizing the good, heavenly, seed of gold.”
Nonetheless, it is sad that the situation is the way it is, and even at home there are many people like this who offend those who are not part of our church. Our priests and good, moral, and spiritual Catholics back home must strive all the more to save the honour of God and of Christ and to present Christianity in its spiritual and heavenly beauty to the world.
Only Six Catholics
It was particularly painful to Fr. Hopfenmüller that only six people from his little community in Shillong were fulfilling their Easter duty. The others would have had enough time to do so since Eastertide in India lasted through Trinity Sunday. This happened despite his continuous rebukes. It was no better in other parts of Assam where great coldness and indifference prevailed in other hearts.
Even here, many do not want to fulfil their Easter duty. Our reverend superior intends to threaten them with excommunication. Some of them do not even come to Mass on Sunday. What a sad situation!
It was good that it never came to excommunication. Most likely that would have resulted in the opposite of the hoped-for effect.
After a longer stay in Assam, Fr. Otto would have become more understanding toward the strange character of the half-castes born and raised in India. Self-discipline was not their strongest trait. Their entire being leaned more toward laxity, indecisiveness, and instability. Furthermore, there was longstanding religious neglect.
Previously, it had only been possible for them to attend Mass once or twice a year. By doing so, they believed they had fulfilled their duty. This only reinforced their superficial way of life. Such behaviour could not be changed all at once.
One could only hope for improvement over time by being patient and loving, along with frequent instruction and rebukes. The same church practices also applied to the English who moved to Assam. They were not sterling either.
But in later years, good Catholics could be found among the civil servants and tea planters who not only loyally fulfilled their religious duty but also supported the activities of the mission as best they could.
The less satisfying his pastoral work among the existing Catholics proved to be, the more Fr. Otto set his hopes on the native population. It was for these he had travelled to Assam in the first place to preach the Gospel to them.
Where to begin from among the 63 different peoples of Assam was decided by local conditions. Shillong, nestled in the heart of the Khasi Mountains, was to be the centre of the mission.
The native people living there called themselves Khasi. The missionary activity was to begin especially among them in order to build strong support for the mission.
“If we cannot build up a community of Khasi, then we are useless here,” was Fr. Otto’s point of view. Full of hope, he dispelled the occasional depressing shadows with a bright and joyful picture of a young, eager community of native Christians. He outlines his vision in an essay to his countrymen in Bamberg:
While the old Christians and Catholics show themselves ungrateful toward God’s love and let the heavenly dew of mercy fall on infertile ground, crush it, and let thorns and weeds grow over it, Jesus’ heart, which only wishes to make people happy and blessed, desires other and better souls who are grateful for his grace… I firmly believe that this is one of the reasons why God has awakened the zeal for missions among us good Catholics at this time. His loving heart desires substitutes for the dried up tendril branches. The Khasi people appear to me to be predestined by God to enter the ranks of Catholic people, as was the good fortune of our own ancestors 1,000 years ago. Their great-grandsons still participate in it. I have sufficient reason for this belief. What I have seen and heard until now justifies my hope.
(A longer version of the book extract was earlier published in Raiot)