100 Years of Salesian Service to Northeast India

By Barnes Mawrie

Way back on January 12, 1922, eleven valiant Salesians of Don Bosco came as missionaries to Northeast India. They landed in Guwahati on 12th January and came up to Shillong on 13th January. The group was led by a charismatic and able leader Fr. Louis Mathias who later became the first bishop of Shillong in 1934 and was then transferred to Chennai as its archbishop. The eleven pioneering missionaries were – Mgr. Louis Mathias as the leader, Fr. Giovanni Deponti, Fr. Emmanuel Bars, Fr. Giuseppe Gill, Fr. Giuseppe Hauber, Fr. Paolo Bonardi, Bro. Pietro Aprile, Bro. Mario Calzi, Bro. Agostino Conti, Bro. Laureano Santana and Bro. Gumersindo Cid. They hailed from four different European countries, namely, Italy, France, Spain and San Marino. These missionaries through their hard work and dedicated service to the Church and to society, have laid a solid foundation for the years to come.
In these past one hundred years, the Salesian Congregation looks back with a sense of pride and satisfaction for the work accomplished. The Congregation has been instrumental for the growth and development not merely of the Church but of society at large. Some critics might say that the Salesians are indulging in triumphalism, but facts are facts and they speak for themselves. Let me list down some important contributions of the Salesians to Northeast India in this past one hundred years.
If Northeast India today can boast of a vast population of catholics in the fifteen dioceses, it is substantially to the credit of the Salesian missionaries who came from abroad and from South India. The Salvatorian missionaries who were here from 1890 to 1914, planted the seed of faith and prepared the grown. Their contribution was by no means insignificant. Perhaps they would have done greater things had they not been expelled by the British Government. The Salesians took up the responsibility from them and they further enhanced the work and thanks to the continuous flow of missionaries, they were able to sustain the growth and development. The fast growth of the Church in our region is an undeniable fact and much of the credit for that goes to our valiant Salesian missionaries prominent among them were Mgr. Louis Mathias, Mgr. Stephen Ferrando, Fr. Constantine Vendrame, Fr. Michael Balavoin among the Khasi-Pnars, Fr. Aloysius Ravalico, Fr. John Larrea, Fr. Peter Bianchi among the Nagas, Mgr. Orestes Marengo, Fr. Henry Frassy, Fr. John Baptist Bussolin, Fr. George Stadler among the Garos, Fr. Leo Piasecki, Fr. Remus Morra, Fr. Jose Zubizaretta among the Assam tribes and so on. Most of these missionaries were multi-faceted persons who contributed in different fields ranging from evangelization to education and social service.
Perhaps the greatest and most notable contribution of the Salesians to the tribal people of Northeast India, is education, both elementary and higher education. The large network of schools and colleges and the presence of the Don Bosco University in Assam, speak volume of their contribution in this field. History shows that the British colonists were not interested in providing higher education to local people for fear that they would begin to demand for their rights. This was the reason why they never established higher educational institutions in our region. Had it not been for the Christian churches both Catholic and Protestant, our tribal people would have remained at the elementary education level. The Salesians played a major role in establishing higher and professional educational institutions. Whether one likes it or not, Don Bosco schools and educational centres still attract a lot of applications. Salesian schools and colleges are associated with quality and all-round education. Critics from time to time have leveled charges against these Salesian educational institutions, yet the fact remains that these institutions continue to excel in their academic performances.
The Salesians have particularly proven themselves to be pioneers of technical education in this region. Don Bosco Technical School is the first technical school in Northeast India and today there is a large network of technical schools all over the region. These training institutes have been instrumental in grooming thousands of tribal youth in different technical skills and made them employable. Today as employment is becoming scarce with the growing number of formally educated youth, these technical institutes are in great demand as they provide alternative means of employment to youth.
The Salesians have also done a yeoman service in the area of tribal literature. Many Salesian missionaries were pioneers in the development of tribal languages. Fr. Balavoin was a pioneer in Tiwa language, Fr. Elias Khariong and Fr. Sylvanus Sngi Lyngdoh have both contributed much to the growth of Khasi language. Fr. Zephyrinus Baxla is doing a great service in promoting the Kurukh language of the Oraons, Fr. Joseph Pulinthanath is presently doing much for the promotion of Kokborok language in Tripura. When it comes to literature, the Salesians have done much for the tribal communities in Northeast India.
Honestly, the Salesian Congregation has every right to feel proud about her great sons who came to spread the light of the Gospel as well as the light of education in this corner of the Earth. As we celebrate the centenary of the arrival of the first Salesian missionary group to our region, we look back at these giants on whose shoulders we stand, and we thank God for the gift of these great persons. Salesians however should not rest on their laurels but should forge ahead doing “ever better and ever more.” Our region is still under-developed and it still needs a lot of dedicated men and women who would champion the cause of growth and development.

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