Project Canterbury

India and Oxford
Fifty Years of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta

London: SPCK, [n.d., but 1933]

Chapter III. Barisal

In the previous chapter mention has been made of the loss to the work of the Oxford Mission because there was no church in the students' quarter which the Fathers could serve, and thus the idea of building a fine church and creating some such establishment as there is now at Barisal first came to two of them as the result of their experience in the hostel at Calcutta. After seven years' work in it they had gathered a few who had become Christians, and who lived among the rest who were Hindus. They were good Christians, and one or two of them were especially respected by all the students because of the uprightness and beauty of their lives. They came to see that the good results of the hostel work were due not so much to their teaching as to this little body of Christians who showed in their lives what the power of Christianity could be. Hence they came to understand how comparatively futile it was to "read Bible" with non-Christian students, unless Christianity could be manifested to them as the life of a community the members of which live together as one body, united to Christ and to one another. And it seemed that the Brotherhood ought to aim before all else at creating such a community of Indian Christians; of working, that is, from and through an existing Christian Church.

The question was, Where could it be done? There seemed no hope of their being able to get any of the parishes in Calcutta, nor of creating a new one there. The Mission House, the headquarters of the Mission, was situated in a C.M.S. parish, and was built on the understanding that the Brotherhood were not aiming at having a Christian parish, but only at work among non-Christians. But the Bishop of Calcutta had lately asked the Oxford Mission to undertake work in a district of East Bengal in which there were about 1,200 Christians of our Church, who had been for a long time without a shepherd; and they agreed to do it. Barisal is the Government headquarters for most of the districts in which these Christians lived. Hence it seemed clear that it was the only place to choose for the carrying out of their plan of creating a centre where the Christian life could be generated at high power, so to speak; a spiritual oasis in the non-Christian desert, where the power and beauty of Christ could be manifested--the "light to lighten the Gentiles." It was a matter for some regret that this centre had to be so far from Calcutta, but it had this great advantage, that it was very convenient as the base and a training place for workers for the Church in the district which had been put into the hands of the Oxford Mission.

Another advantage which Barisal afforded appeared to be that it was a very favourable place for work among students. There were two colleges there: soon after the Mission came, one of them came to an end, but the other is very large, having nearly 2,000 students. There were high hopes that if there were a hostel for them in the compound, so that the students could mix with Christian boys and see what the Christian life was like, it would make a considerable impression on them.

A beginning was made with a boys' boarding school for Christians only, to which the Fathers who worked in the district sent the best boys they could find. They were taken very young so that they could be at Barisal for many years, in the hope that the Mission would be able to train the best of them to devote themselves to the work of the Church, and to sacrifice themselves for it, especially as teachers or readers, and in course of years as deacons and priests. The Fathers were prepared to wait for many years before seeing the main result they hoped for--i.e., the creation of a body of people who were filled with the desire to give themselves to our Lord for His work, instead of looking upon a Mission, as was the general custom, as a fruitful means for improving their worldly prospects.

This task has proved to be far more difficult even than had been anticipated, since it was soon discovered that the Christians of the district were not the faithful kind of people they were supposed to be, but only such as had originally become Christians for what they could get in the way of worldly gain, and had only one view of a Mission in their minds, that it was a way of gain for them and by no means for evoking self-sacrifice from them.

A chapel was built at once, and the boys were taught from the first that it was to be considered as the centre of their school life. As soon as the life of the compound had had time to establish itself, a simple hostel was built for Hindu students. Its history is somewhat tragic. It was filled with students at once, and there was always a waiting list. Very soon the Fathers' hopes began to be realized. The students were much struck with the behaviour of the boys and the contrast between them and non-Christians. They came "to read Bible" regularly, and before long several of them said they wished to become Christians. They were advised to keep that to themselves till they had learned a great deal more about Christianity. But they said they were sure their parents or guardians would not stand in the way of what their consciences told them they ought to do. Two or three of them spoke about their intention to become Christians at home in the vacation. The result was that they were not allowed to go back at all, and they were never again seen at Barisal. Of those who remained, one was baptized after a long preparation. But soon afterwards his father came to Barisal and sent a message that he wanted him to go to see him because his mother was ill. He went, was kidnapped and taken away, and has never been seen again by the priests who baptized him. One of the boys met him some time afterwards, when he asked most affectionately after all in the compound, but had no hope of being able to come back. Soon after this our hostel was set fire to one night and burnt to the ground. Since the baptism the Oxford Mission compound has been regarded by the college authorities as a dangerous place. Many students have come to read the Bible, but they take pains that it shall not be known, which in a small town like this is a very difficult matter, since the movements of all students are known. For any student to become a Christian, or even to come often to read, would wreck his college career, which is of far more importance to him and his relations than anything else whatever.

Yet, though this means that no more students have been baptized, the fact remains that many are greatly attracted by what they have learnt of Christianity at Barisal, and would gladly become Christians if they dared. Hence it may be hoped that under Swaraj [Home Rule.] in the future, when Christianity is no longer thought of as the religion of their "oppressors," so that to become a Christian is not held to be a traitor to one's country, as it is now, the Barisal compound may come to its own as a centre of strong attraction to our Lord for non-Christian students, Hindu and Muslim.

The plan from the first included the formation of a body of English women who would become a community like that of the men members of the Mission. It was evident that work among the Indian women was of even more importance than work among men; for it is certain that the women will be the chief means by which Christianity spreads in India. The idea of self-sacrifice is rooted in their minds. They will therefore believe in and love our Lord when they come to know Him, and later on will no doubt give themselves for His cause in large numbers and with great devotion.

After the Fathers had been there about two years, the English ladies began to come. And being women, they very soon rose beyond the point at which the men had arrived, and desired to become a pucca Sisterhood living under vows which would at last become life-vows. [I.e., a real Sisterhood in the sense that the way of the three counsels is adopted for life.] Because of this, and because their number has greatly increased, whereas the men's has not, hopes have been realized through them to a far greater extent than on the Fathers' side. Their compound has become in truth a centre of light and power not only in this district, but to very many people in other parts of India, and is becoming this increasingly, as will, it is hoped, appear in the chapter on the Sisterhood which follows.

For the first few years the Fathers had to be content with the small chapel, but they had always looked forward to having a beautiful church, where something of the splendour of Christian worship, centring in the Eucharist, could be achieved. And then a very dear old Bengali lady, to whom the Mission used to minister in Calcutta, died and left Rs. 25,000 in her will for the building of a church. [About £1,700.] And this, which was soon supplemented by a munificent gift from a friend in England, enabled them to build a basilica, adapted to the climate by a wide verandah on all sides, which by its beauty and solemnity has created an ideal of reverent worship and the conviction that God's house should in every place be made far more beautiful than any other, which will no doubt be of more and more service to the Church as time goes on.

Though the work in the compound among boys and men has produced results which are meagre and slow in coming in comparison with what had been hoped for when the work began, yet there is one cause of continual thanksgiving to God, that out of it has sprung the Indian Brotherhood of St. Andrew. This began many years ago under the leadership of Father Chakrabarti, who was a Hindu student in the Calcutta Hostel for some years, and who came to Barisal to work soon after his baptism, and was afterwards prepared for deacon's and priest's Orders. He collected a few young men who were willing to give up everything for Christ, and to live unmarried and in poverty. Soon after they had been formed into a body they went to take up work at Haluaghat at the foot of the Garo hills, among Garos and other tribes of Animists, work which had been created and was bequeathed to them, so to speak, on his death-bed by a learned and devoted Bengali missionary who had left the Baptists and come to work in the Anglican Church. It can be seen now why it was best that they should go at first to work among the Garos rather than in the Oxford Mission district, though it would take too long to explain the matter here. The result of their work has been a constant stream of converted men and women every year since they began, who have left heathenism and have entered Christ's Church. They are almost all of them good Christians, moreover, who become true witnesses for Christ among their heathen relatives and friends, among whom they can continue to live after they have become Christian, for there is no caste system, thank God, in their old religions. This Brotherhood and its work is thus a constant witness to all the boys and young men at Barisal of Christ's power, and of what He can effect when He has workers who devote their whole lives to Him. It is, moreover, in accordance with the Indian ideal of "giving up all for religion." It is therefore to be expected that it will have a more and more attractive force for the boys of the school as time goes on. Many of the big boys have been forcibly attracted by it, and would gladly have joined it, but for the opposition of their parents and other relatives. When the time comes that parents in the district have learned to consider it an honour to have a son who gives up all for Christ then it is certain that many more will do so. There was one--a widow--who gave her boy to Christ in his youth and said she would gladly give up any money he could earn for her: he has been for many years one of the most devoted members of this Brotherhood, and has lately been ordained deacon. The whole Brotherhood comes back to Barisal every year in St. Andrew's-tide, for a Retreat and to keep their festival: and they are welcomed very gladly by the whole compound.

One of their priests, Father Michael, who died at the end of 1931, was and still is, on account of his wonderful self-devotion, probably the greatest attractive force towards a life of self-sacrifice for Christ that the boys and men have ever experienced.

The best hope for the districts in these parts is that they will one day be ministered to by priests of this Brotherhood. Three more are at present being prepared for Holy Orders, and there are several others who probably will be before long. If this increase goes on, the Brotherhood may in time be able to take over most of the work of the districts by sending two or three Fathers to live together in different centres. At present the districts are worked by Oxford Mission Fathers, except in one parish which has lately been put in the charge of a Bengali married priest, one of the old boys of the school, who is to work directly under the Bishop. The Oxford Mission Fathers look forward to the time when they shall be no longer in charge of any part of the district, but confine their energies to training people for the work of the Church here or elsewhere.

The effect of having priests unmarried and living in poverty no doubt will come in time to be in the districts of East Bengal what it is in the Haluaghat district where the Brotherhood works. There the spiritual atmosphere is most exhilarating. The Christians in general consider that as these Fathers minister to them in spiritual things, it is up to them to do all they can to minister to the Fathers in temporal things, without seeking any worldly benefits from them. This is the ideal atmosphere which Mission priests should all labour to produce, but it is a very rare one indeed in the Christian parts of India at present.

During the years the Mission has been at Barisal a certain number of men have been sent to them from various parts of India to be trained for the priesthood. For some years there was a constant supply. It has stopped now, but it might begin again at any time. Also, priests are sent from time to time, who have come to grief in some way, to be nursed back again to spiritual health. Others come of their own accord to be quiet and to make a new beginning in their life of prayer.

It is impossible to sum up the results of the work at Barisal since it began. There have been many disappointments in it; and there have been many mistakes; but every effort is made to remedy them as soon as they are discovered. It was hoped that the spirit of self-sacrifice would have been manifested much more quickly and abundantly than has been the case. But the fact remains that the compound has been year after year filled with joy and happiness. There has been a constant succession of most attractive boys who have learnt to know our Lord, who eagerly receive the Sacraments, and believe in the power that comes through them, and who are for the most part now in the villages, married and bringing up children who, it can be hoped, will rise much higher in the Kingdom of Heaven than they themselves have done. There is a small colony of parents in the town of Barisal who are certainly on the whole bearing witness to Christ. There has been throughout the past years a succession of readers and teachers in the districts who were brought up in this school, and who have been, with few exceptions, steadfast and faithful in their difficult work. One of them has, as was recorded above, been ordained priest, and another has lately been ordained deacon.

That which appears chiefly remarkable in the compound to most of those who visit it from outside is the happiness and good-fellowship which abound in it, the beauty of the services in church, and the great reverence of the whole congregation. The latest testimony to this was given by Bishop Gore, who spent a Christmas at Barisal, to the great delight of all. He said that the Midnight Mass was the most "moving" service he had ever been present at. And, after mixing freely with everyone, boys and men and girls and women, in all parts of both compounds, he was entranced by their joyful-ness and good manners, and said Barisal was a "dream of beauty" which he should never forget. This, it may be humbly hoped, goes to show that the Spirit of Christ is reigning and working in the settlement, so that in each subsequent generation more and more faithful servants of Christ will be produced who will follow Him in His life of sacrifice for the salvation of India, and thus bear forcible witness to Him before those who at present do not know Him and are outside His Church.

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