“That’s the one thing I hope everyone avoids – going to another country to transplant one's so-called developed culture for another supposedly undeveloped.”- Fr. William Bourke, SJ
June 15, 2020 — Many members of the Canadian Jesuit province work outside the country. Fr. Bill Bourke, SJ, the last of the Canadian Jesuits to have been sent to India, served in North Bengal, and especially in the Terai hills and regions of the Darjeeling district. He passed away in November 2019 and some time before that he had provided us with reflections on his apostolic work abroad. While Jesuits and colleagues are often called to integrate into environments different from their own, Fr Bourke's openness to other cultures can be a model to follow.
Fr. Willian Bourke, SJ
A Long Road
The presence of the first Canadian Jesuits (then the Upper Canada Province) in North Bengal goes back to 1947. The Jesuits had gotten there following the request of the Fr. General. At the beginning of the 1950s, information spread that foreign missionaries would no longer be allowed to enter India. It’s at this time that Fr. Bill Bourke landed in India with six other Jesuits.
One scene that struck me? Arriving in India in 1954 and seeing crowds of missionaries from European countries who came because of the prior news that India would close the borders to any more missionaries!
What were Fr. Bourke’s apostolates over these last 65 years?
I was twice headmaster of secondary schools for boys, one in the hills (Nepalese background) and one in the plains (Hindi origin). I was regional superior from 1974 to 1980. I also worked in Nepalese publications as director of the Bellarmine Institute of Language, which produced the first complete Nepalese version of the Bible –for which I received the highest award– and a thesaurus of the Nepalese language. Finally, I served with the Bishop of Darjeeling as Vicar General and Chancellor in Darjeeling, and as Socius to the Provincial of Darjeeling here on the plains.
Since 1947, everything has changed in response to the development of the country as a whole: spreading the gospel, education, social work, and much more. The Jesuits have seen the beginnings and growth of two dioceses, in the hills (the diocese of Darjeeling) and in the plains (diocese of Bagdogra), in addition to countless schools, institutions common to all regions in the world.
Release of Nepali pocket Bible by Fr. Willian Bourke, SJ, in collaboration with P.K. Chettri
The Advice to Others
Fr. Bourke’s advice for Jesuits sent on a mission outside the Province, or in a different setting, remains simple: integrate into your new environment, even if a complete disconnect from your culture is difficult in our modern world.
Get as far as possible from anything that reminds you of where you come from! Language, food, dress, companions. If you can survive that for one-two years, you’ve made a good start.
Preparing to serve somewhere abroad also means that you must be flexible and open-minded.
First, work on learning other languages, which is much easier to do these days than when former generations arrived in foreign lands.
Second, realize that the young can’t be stopped from what they think they need for their future - and that’s normal, I suppose. All immigrants to the Americas in the 14th century and beyond who tried to melt –into the mix of peoples, languages, dress, food, etc– reached a point where they understood there was no turning back. Their memories gradually dimmed – and the next generations were almost foreigners.