Part 5: Mission to South Asia

The Mill Hill Missionaries first arrived in South Asia in 1875 and continues to work there today.  They came at the invitation of the Maynooth mission to Madras.  The Mill Hill Missionaries were originally to take responsibility for the Madras missions to the Telegu people in Andra Pradesh.  Their involvement in the mission has at times been wider and at times narrower. 

In 1879, the Mill Hill Missionaries were asked by the Holy See to provide military chaplains for the Third Afghan War.  Depending on the outcome of this war, they were to be offered Afghanistan as a new missionary territory.  Circumstances led to the closure of this mission n 1881.  In 1884, however, they returned to take charge of the mission to Kashmir and what was known then as Kafiristan.  The Kafiristan section of the mission embraced part of the Northern Punjab and what was later known as the North West Frontier.

The first missionaries to Madras were forced almost immediately with the challenge of an epidemic.  Their task was to care for the sick and help in the distribution of emergency aid.  One of their number was a Fr. Forbes, a qualified doctor.  He helped to give greater effectiveness to their work.  The epidemic had the sad, but effective result that the missionaries were joined in common and sympathetic suffering with the local people.

Once they had begun to find their feet, the missionaries chose two important priorities in their work.  The first arose from their understanding of the position of women in Indian society.  They recognized that no true, lasting Christian community could be established without the help and support of the women.   The priests themselves could not actually instruct the women.  Local taboos forbade this.  So the energies of the mission were directed to the foundation of congregations of local Sisters who could undertake this task.  There were three such foundations: one to reach out to Telegu women of caste, one to meet the needs of Telegu women of non-caste, and another to deal with the requirements of Tamil women of non-caste.  The second priority was to train local priests.  Within nine years of their arrival, the Mill Hill Missionaries wee able to set up a programme for priest training at Nellore.  This achieved significant success.  In the early 1900s, however, the programme had to be discontinued for lack of finance.  In 1922, it was re-started.  From then until the beginning of the 1980s Mill Hill involvement in the training of local clergy was substantial, first at Nellore and later at Hyderabad.  By the 1990s almost all the Mill Hill missionaries involved in parochial work had been replaced by local priests.

In the north, the Mill Hill Missionaries were aced with different demands.  An immediate concern was the care of the troops.  A pressing need was the provision of decent recreational facilities.  Little was provided by the army and many soldiers sought release and recreation in the stews that thrived in the bazaars.   There was a demand for decent, sober relaxation.  Those soldiers who took local wives were also in need of special care.  Not the least part of this work involved the orphans of soldiers who had died on campaign.  A great deal of energy was expended in providing this care.

Looking beyond such daily pressing needs, the missionary recognized too a special problem in the matter of the medical care of women.  Local taboos made it impossible for male doctors to give them adequate attention.  So an appeal was made to Europe for lady doctors who would take up this work.  The Victorian feminist, Dr. Agnes McLaren responded to this cause.  She joined the missionaries in a movement that had two aims, the immediate aim was to establish hospitals where women doctors would care for women patients,  the second aim was to achieve a reform in church law that would permit religious to be more directly involved in medical care.,  this was a cause that Agnes McLaren and her successor, Anna Dengel, took up.  By the 1930s they had achieved this second aim.  The way was opened to a world-wide change in the Church’s medical apostolate.

With this movement under way, the missionaries were able to turn to other problems.   The military orphans were only now part of a much wider problems.  The number of children orphaned as a result of famine and pestilence in India was truly enormous.  The Punjab was considered to be the bread-basket of India, and it was there that solutions to the orphan problem were sought. This job was not completed simply by feeding and educating these children up to the age of sixteen.  In India’s highly structured society, such young people would find it impossible to find employment.  They had to be provided with the means of earning a living.  The Capuchin missions had done this by establishing Christian villages that were agricultural colonies.  The Mill Hill Missionaries took a similar approach.  They established a village populated by market gardeners and artisans.  These and education were the dominant concerns of the missions until the Second World War.

Indian independence and partition was achieved at the cost of great national trauma.  One of the problems that was a side-blow of this trauma was a huge increase in the numbers of orphans and displaced children.   Many of these came into the care of the mission.  Part of the missionaries’ solution to the problems involved was the establishment of two Christian villages on the Capuchin model.  These could not be the only solution.  At this time, a new factor had entered the equation.  The introduction of new technology brought about a movement of people from the country-side into the towns.  There were three responses to the difficulties that this movement occasioned.  The first was the provision of Catholic bastis or housing colonies. This device had been used effectively by the Goan missions in Karachi.  The second was the establishment of an Institute of Technology to equip young people in towns to earn more competitively.  The third was aimed at both town and country.  Its aim was to free people from the clutches of the chettyar or money lenders.  The device used for this was the establishment of credit unions.  On top of these were introduced the principles of the Co-operative Movement.  It was thus possible for these credit unions to combine and provide some basic banking facilities.

A special case of people ground down by debt-slavery was the plight of the tribal peoples in the vicinity of Hyderabad, Sindh.  In the 1970s, the Mill Hill Missionaries were invited to work among them.  Since that time, they have shared this work with the Columban and Spiritan missionaries.  The work among these is perhaps more basic. It may be a long time before devices such as credit unions will be of much benefit to them.

The medical work of Mother Dengel’s group continued.  It was recognized, however, that hospitals were only part of public health.  The thrust of the mission’ medical work, during the post-independence period, changed direction.  The priority became the establishment of local and village dispensaries.

During this time, the missions in the South saw similar initiatives, but not quite as structured as they were n the North.  A big difference was that the attempts to introduce the principles of the Co-operative Movement did not have as successful a passage.  There was more stress on formal education.

A major problem faced by the missions in the South was that of poverty. Poverty of some sort exists everywhere.  What marked Indian poverty out was its severity and its sheer scale.  Much of the mission’s energies had to be expended on its relief.  Similar methods were used as have just been described in the North.  The experience of the missionaries in the South was, however, heart breaking.  They were faced with the realization that they must not only work to relieve poverty.  They must themselves embrace it.