By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Jamshedpur, India, is about 8,000 miles from Philadelphia. But the ties are close, thanks to the indefatigable work of Jesuit Father John J. Deeney, 87, a locally born missionary who has spent more than 59 years in India.
These ties have never been needed more than now, when Christians in parts of India are under siege.
His work has been exclusively among the Ho people, one of the smaller sub-groups in that vast nation who have their own distinct language. India has many native vocations, but few priests are able to speak Ho. Father Deeney’s expertise in that language is such that he has spent much of his time translating religious documents into Ho, greatly facilitating its use in worship by the Catholic community.
“My whole thrust was to make Catholics strong in their faith. If they are strong, they themselves become apostles,” he said.
As of yet, his immediate area has not experienced the virulent persecution that Christians are suffering in Orissa, which is also part of the Jamshedpur Jesuit Province.
Originally from Immaculate Conception Parish, Germantown, and a 1939 graduate of St. Joseph’s Prep, Father Deeney entered the Jesuits and was sent to India in 1949, three years before his ordination. In earlier decades his apostolate was vastly assisted by the generosity of the people of West Philadelphia’s former Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, where his uncle, Father John J. Daly, was pastor.
That tradition of outreach to India is carried on today by relatives and friends of Father Deeney, as well as Catholic parishes and organizations.
A group led by his grandnephew, John Gill, visited him in August to present funds and donated items to the missions.
Among the donors, according to Tom Brzozowski, a member of the group, were friends and acquaintances from St. Joseph’s University; Our Lady of Calvary and St. Matthew Parishes in Philadelphia; St. Pius X Parish in Broomall, Delaware County; and the Dennis Kelly Chapter of the AOH as well as inspaniduals, including Protestants, he said.
Because of his commitment to his apostolate, some time ago Father Deeney formally transferred from the Maryland Province to the Jamshedpur Province of Jesuits.
“He was made a citizen by the Indian government for his translation work among the Hos – an honor not granted to many foreigners,” Gill said.
“I feel that the man has sacrificed his whole life for the missions,” said Steve Klarich, who participated in the visit, along with members of his family.
Klarich was struck by the joyous reception the group received from the Ho Catholic community, but also could not help but notice the obvious poverty. “There are only two classes of people in India,” he said. “Either you have money or you don’t.”
But the anti-Christian violence in Orissa by radical Hindus overshadowed the original purpose of the visit. Funds for local projects are expected to be put aside to address the greater needs of persecuted Catholics in that area, just 177 miles away.
“The ones who suffered most are those who were driven into the jungle – the poor, the weak, the sick, the old, small children and pregnant women,” Father Deeney said in an e-mail. “One of the Sisters in our Jesuit Province got malaria in the jungle and died. Happily our diocese has not been affected yet. We could be vulnerable.”
The central government of India does not condone the violence and has been trying to suppress it, Father Deeney noted. And although the violence may be abating, to date there have been at least 52 killed, thousands wounded and others left missing. More than 100 Catholic and Protestant churches, 20 schools and 4,500 homes have been destroyed. More distressing than property damage is the forced conversions to Hinduism, Father Deeney noted.
“I’m grateful for anything you can do to spread the news about this,” Father Deeney said. “The people need your prayers and other support.”
Donations to assist the persecuted Christian in India may be sent to Jesuit Jamshedpur Mission Society, the Maryland Province Jesuits, 8600 LaSalle Road Suite #620, Towson, MD 21286
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.