Hundred Years of Rajputana Mission.
Due to some unknown political, historical and geographical reasons evangelization of northern India did not take place as it had taken place in the south India. Till the 18th century, the north India, from the Himalayas to the Vidhya ranges in the south, was one region that was eventually divided into three regions -- Lahore, Allahabad and Agra -- by Pope Leo XIII. By 1890 a large portion of Agra region was divided and the 'Rajputana Mission' with Ajmer as headquarter was handed over to the Capuchin fathers of Paris. In 1892 Fr. Bertram was appointed Prefect Apostolic of the new Mission.
When Moses was called to lead his people from Egyptian slavery little did he know the trials and tribulations he would be facing on the way to the promised land. Similarly the Capuchin fathers having received the call from the Holy Father were venturing into an unknown barren land that was mostly a desert. In contrast to Paris, the bustling French capital, this arid land with total lack of modern amenities and means of communication was extremely difficult. Development had taken place in some prominent towns such as Ajmer, Jaipur, Mhow, Indore but the situation in the villages was appalling. Diseases like Cholera, Malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis were rampant; modern medicines were not available. Besides, illiteracy and poverty of the villagers had made them slaves to superstitions. Women folk were the worst affected; sati, child marriage and 'purda system' did not allow them to come out in public.
According to historian Fr. R.H. Lesser, "On the 17th of March, 1892, the new mission was made into an Apostolic Prefecture and on the 10th April, 1892 Fr. Bertram was appointed the first prefect of the new prefecture of Rajputana and Malwa". The pioneers did everything possible to set up the new mission. Fr. Lesser writes: "Nothing could stop Fr. Bertram from his frequent visits to his mission, the tropical heat, the rugged paths through the jungles, the coarse food and the ill-will of the pagans and wild beasts." In 1892, an effort was made to start a minor seminary in Jaipur; there were eleven seminarians but that too ended in failure.
In 1898, the new church of Ajmer dedicated to the Immaculate Conception was completed. Archbishop Carlo Giuseppe Gentili blessed it. Today the same church stands proudly as the Cathedral of the diocese of Ajmer.
During 1896-99, there was a terrible famine all over Rajasthan; people were dying everywhere. Describing the famine Fr. Lesser writes, "The mission experienced five terrible years of famine. The missionaries were thoroughly exhausted physically and mentally. Many had succumbed and others were about to succumb."
Hero of Rajputana Mission
The story of the Rajputana Mission is incomplete without the mention of Henry Fortunatus Caumont and his contribution. It was Fr. Betram, the first prefect, who brought Henry Fortunatus Caumont to India in 1897. At the very young age of 31 years he was made the superior of Capuchins in India and in 1903 he succeeded Fr. Betram as the prefect apostolic of Rajputana Mission.
The mission was not a bed of roses; Fr. Caumont did everything to set up the new mission. The Bhil Mission was handed over to the great missionary Fr. Charles but the results were not as good as he wanted it to be. Fr. Lesser writes, "Fr. Charles working in Thandla was rather depressed after seven years of strenuous efforts with no real impression seemed to be made on Bhils." In his book "An Pays des Rajas", Fr. Caumont compares the Bhil Mission with Chota Nagpur Mission where in 15 years they had 90,000 conversions. The prefect was disappointed from the fact that many missionaries were leaving and going back. New sisters were not willing to come neither would they allow Indian girls to join the congregations.
When everything seemed to go down, the Holy Spirit enlightened Fr. Caumont to start an indigenous religious congregation for women. Unfortunately Rome had put a ban on setting up a new congregation without the express permission of the Pope. Fr. Caumont met the Pope and in 1906 he started the new congregation and called them the "Prabhu Dasi" sisters of Ajmer. These sisters were to learn the local language and culture and serve the poor through dispensaries and schools. The first girls who opted to become sisters were from the orphanages set up by the missionaries during the famine.
In 1911, another Congregation by the name Mission Sisters of Ajmer was begun to teach in the English medium schools in the towns. These sisters run two schools in the diocese of Mumbai -- in Kalina and Borivali. In 1913, Fr. Caumont was made the first bishop of Ajmer. The centenary celebrations of the mission coincided with the appointment of the first bishop and the creation of the new diocese of Ajmer.
Bishop Henry Caumont was far ahead of his times. He designed simple village dress for his sisters rather than the usual western habit. His bold step in allowing the Rawat Christians to maintain their cultural differences, such as cremation for the dead rather than burial, as well as marriage customs was highly commendable. Sensing the need of the times he applied for permission for one of the nuns to do medicine which was granted by the Holy See. Thus Sr. Mary Swares, M.S.A. became the first nun to become a doctor.
The reason of my writing these few lines during the centenary celebrations is not to give chronological history of Rajputana Mission. Commendable work has been done by Fr. R.H. Lesser in this field. It is to remind us that the Rajputana Mission is the mother of seven dioceses -- Ajmer, Udaipur, Jaipur, Indore, Ujjain, Khandwa and Jhabua -- spread across two States of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Hence history binds us in one single unbreakable bond of the Mission of Christ. Although the pioneers of the mission were foreigners, they were not foreign to our mission, rather they were forefathers in the mission who despite all odds laid a firm foundation to the Mission of Christ in Rajputana. It is on this foundation that we are building our edifice.
Given the problems they faced I wonder if they would ever dream of what we have achieved in these hundred years, but we must salute their faith, their zeal and enthusiasm. Each and every one of them who contributed their mite deserves our gratitude. At this moment, I remember the saintly Pope Pius X who looking at the wedding ring of his mother told her if she did not have her wedding ring he would not have his papal ring. Similarly if these great soldiers of Christ had not slogged to give their best to build the "Kingdom of God" in Rajputana, we would not have had our dioceses, our churches and our institutions.
A lot has changed in these past hundred-odd years. We may definitely differ in our methods of evangelization today; if we must carry forward their legacy we need their zeal, sagacity and total commitment for the Kingdom Values. Or else we will continue to build our tiny individual kingdoms of selfishness. As we celebrate this auspicious occasion below the Aravali hills, raising the standard of Rajputana Mission, the immortal hills seem to whisper an untold story of several brave men and women who gave their best without counting the cost. They dared to believe in a dream of establishing the Kingdom of God on these barren hills.
The story of Rajputana Mission knits us into one unbreakable bond of unity of charity to carry forward the legacy of our pioneers with greater zeal than ever before.
(The writer is the Vicar General of Jaipur diocese and Principal of St. Anselm's Sr. Sec. School, Mansarovar, Jaipur)
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