Indomitable Debono

Fr Anthony Debono SJ

Indomitable Debono - Fr Lawrence Caruana SJ recalls the life of Fr Anthony Debono S.J., one of the pioneers of the Jesuit Missions with the Santals in India...                        

When in November 1953, I, Fr Lawrence Caruana, S.J., still a scholastic, was sent to our mission in India, I looked forward to spending some time with and get to know closely the pioneers of our mission: Fr Anthony Debono, Fr Bernard Bugeja, Fr Benjamin Cauchi, Fr Joseph Portelli, Fr John Grech Cumbo and Br Rosario Melito. I did manage to live for some time with each one of them, and I was simply amazed by these marvellous hard working Jesuits full of zeal and courage for planting the Church of Christ in Mission lands. Alas, I missed Fr Giuseppe Cordaro who had died in 1946.

One of the most exciting experiences I had was that of my meeting with Fr Debono, the first pioneer of our mission amongst the Santals. It was to the village of Majlispur that this Father first came, and there he hired a mud hut which served him for a make-shift chapel and residence. This hut gradually developed into a decent building and became the focal point from where the Father radiated his work of evangelization.

At the time I met him, Fr. Debono had left Majlispur and was the parish priest of Chilimpur. I had just finished one year of Hindi study in Ranchi  and was now come to Tinpahar, to the Hindi medium school, to practise the language. One day Fr Portelli, the parish priest, received some medicines from Calcutta, and knowing that Fr Debono was suffering from gastric trouble, asked me to take that medicine to him. The scholastic Roland Ghirlando happened to turn up unexpectedly at Tinpahar that same morning, and offered to join forces with me to Chilimpur to meet Fr Debono. That very afternoon we left Tinpahar by train to Nalhati from where we could reach Chilimpur after a good walk of six miles through the fields.

On reaching the place, Fr Debono came out of his mud hut to welcome us. He greeted us with a prolonged big hug. I still remember the few words he uttered as his eyes watered with joyful tears. "Now" he said, "I know that our work will continue, since the Province is sending young Jesuits like you." I was absolutely enchanted by this jovial, energetic Jesuit with an adamant determination to go on working for Christ and expandjng the Church, irrespective of fatigue and suffering. After a nice cup of tea we three had together, Fr Debono showed Roland and myself around the area saying, "Look here, we have no roads, no electricity, not even a Post Office, but we have the people." The people meant everything for him. He was there to win those people for Christ. That evening after ‘devouring' some boiled rice for supper (for after the long journey we were famished) we played a game of cards called "Stinker", had a jolly good time together and laughed to our heart's content. When it was time to go to sleep, Fr Debono offered us to sleep in his bed (admitting no contrariety) while he himself slept on the floor wrapped in a blanket.

Fr Anthony Debono SJ with some Santal boys

However, before my eyes closed in sleep, my mind roved over what I had read or came to know about this indomitable Jesuit, the marvellous feats he had succeeded in achieving in our mission. Majlispur, his first anchorage, came to my mind, how this Father succeeded in developing the mission into a flourishing parish with a considerable number of Christians whom he had taught and baptised. He also built for the Santals a decent chapel, a school and a clinic. 

On the social level the Father's heaviest task was that of defending the Santals against the Hindu and Mohammedan usurers and the voracious land-owners, the Zamindars, who had long been sucking the blood of the poor, illiterate and defenceless Santals. On many an occasion Fr Debono went to court to defend the exploited Santals.

The case of what happened to Fr Debono at Katalbari came to my mind. This Father and two Santals went to Katalbari village to settle a dispute among the local Santals. He succeeded in restoring peace. The next day he took a bullock cart to reach Islampur from where he would take the train back to Majlispur. When they were on their way to Islampur, their bullock cart was stopped by two Muslims, agents of the Mohammedan Zamindar, and their way was blocked by a large crowd armed with sticks. The complaints of the two Mohammedans were that the Father was holding back the Santals from paying the dues to them as landowners, and that he was making converts and teaching people their rights. Fr Debono offered to pay the money even though the Mohammedans demanded far more than their dues. After taking the money, the Mohammedans forced the crowd to conduct the Father and his two companions back to Katalbari and there they locked them up in a house with threats that they would keep them there for eight days. Any attempt to escape would mean death. Fortunately, the Father managed to send stealthily two notes, one to the Sub Divisional Officer and the other to the manager of Khagra Estate asking for help. The next day, the Head Constable arrived in the village and after investigation released the Father and his two Santals. The case was taken to court, but no one dared give evidence against the Mohammedans for fear of reprisals. Rather, these Mohammedans bribed anyone to give false evidence against the Father. At court, after tortuously long delays and deferments the verdict was returned in favour of the Father and the accused were sent to prison and fined. The people of Majlispur rejoiced at the news and felt that the verdict was a real triumph for the Santal Mission.

This was one of the many ordeals that told hard on the health of Fr Debono. Indeed, at Majlispur he had achieved almost the impossible in matters religious and social benefits for the people, and their lot improved beyond belief. He deeply loved the Santals and was equally loved by them in return. But, unfortunately, not by all. Some were incredibly ungrateful as the following episode clearly demonstrates:

Fr Anthony Debono SJ with the first two local Cathechists

One Summer night two Sisters came rushing to Father Debono's bungalow asking for help. They were at their wits' end for some boy or boys had during the night broken into the young widows' dormitory,  most probably with no good intent. On approaching the bungalow the Father espied the boy Vitus coming out from under the hedge where he had been hiding. This Vitus had originally been an abandoned orphan child found by Fr Debono during one of his village rounds. Father brought him to Majlispur, reared and educated him and loved him as his own son. On this ill-fated occasion, the Father caught hold of the boy and scolded him severely saying, "You too come here, at this time of night to tease these widows! You should be ashamed of yourself !" When the boy kept denying the irrefutable facts and bringing lame excuses, in a moment of nerve-racking tension, Father slapped him. Later in the day, Vitus reported the incident to the village elders accusing Father Debono of having beaten him for no reason whatsoever.

The elders sat in judgement in their village court and condemned the Father. The penalty they imposed was that the Father should be tied by a rope to the neck and conducted, as a dog on a leash, three times round the parish priest's bungalow. No one dared come forward to tie Fr. Debono except this young man Vitus, who also executed the penalty to the letter. This shameful treatment greatly humiliated the Father, who all along kept his mouth shut never uttering a word not even a whisper. It so happened that Vitus died of cancer in his neck a few months after this incident.

When after eleven years of hard work at Majlispur Fr Debono had to leave the place for good, he avowed that he had never, not for a single moment, ceased to love the Santals, and that he would go on loving them. He truly deserves the title: "A man of God".

I stole another glimpse at Fr Debono as he lay sound asleep wrapped in a blanket on the floor, and filled with admiration for him, I dozed slowly off.

Written by Fr Lawrence Caruana, S.J.

Edited by Fr Anton Azzopardi SJ





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