Shillong in 1890 Through the Eyes of a Catholic Missionary

Father Otto Hopfenmüller of the Society of the Divine Saviour or Salvatorian was the pioneering catholic missionary to the Khasi Hills. Lorenz Hopfenmüller was born on May 29, 1844, in Weismain, Germany. He became a priest of the Diocese of Bamberg and was ordained on October 6,1866, at the age of twenty-two. After completing doctoral studies at the University of Würzburg, he was appointed to St Martin’s Parish in Bamberg. In 1872 he became editor of the Bamberger Volksblatt, a Catholic newspaper. As a direct result of his involvement in the apostolate of the press, he came into conflict with the anti-Catholic authorities and was imprisoned several times. After the death of his mother, he felt able to fulfil his long term plan of joining a religious community, which would enable him to go to the foreign missions. In 1887 he went to Rome and became a member of the Catholic Teaching Society. In the noviciate he took the religious name Otto. The founder, Father Francis Jordan, soon entrusted him with the formation of the candidates. He also used his skills as a journalist for the benefit of the Society. He was sent, together with the twenty-three year old Father Angelus Münzloher and Brothers Joseph Bachle and Marianus Schumm, to Assam in North East India, where he became the first Superior. The work of this new mission was carried out with great zeal and energy. Father Otto wrote both a catechism and a life of Jesus and Mary in the Khasi language, and he had begun to translate the Schuster’s Bible Stories. However, he fell ill with meningitis as a result of a heat stroke and died on August 21,1890.

Father Otto Hopfenmüller Of The Society Of The Divine Saviour

These extracts about his pioneering mission to Khasi Hills are taken from his biography in German written by Fr. Dr. C. Becker in 1923 as P. Otto Hopfenmüller Aus der Gesellschaft des Göttlichen Heilandes. Ein Deutscher Pionier einer Indischen Mission. It was later translated into English by Society of the Divine Saviour in India. They have put out the whole biography online for download.


On Assam Bengal Railway to Gauhati

By February 16, 1890, the missionary superior had finished his courtesy calls and they missionary team was able to continue its journey to Assam that same evening. An overnight train ride brought them to Goalundo. Here they boarded a steamer to go up the Brahmaputra River. Until now the four missionaries had been in a third class compartment on the train from Bombay onwards, despite this being usually out of the question for Europeans. To get by as Christ’s apostles in the most simple and cheapest way (even on a steamer) the superior decided not to share in the available meals. He wrote to the superior general, Fr. Jordan:[footnote]Letter from Gauhati, February 21, 1890[/footnote]

Daily meals would have cost 4 Rupees (5.60 Mark) per person on board. Therefore, I decided to take the kind of meals according to our way of living, since Bishop Pozzi had said that this was possible. At first, the servant in charge of the meals did not want to hear of it. He called the ship’s officer. I talked to him and straightened things out. On the first day, I tried to take tea and coffee in the morning. These cost two Rupees. This was still too expensive for me, so for four days we lived on bread, cheese, butter, and wine, and by doing so, we ate for very little money, which would otherwise have cost 64 Rupees. Our health was excellent and we are all well. We still had butter, cheese and wine left from our trip from Bombay to Calcutta. On the way we bought bread. When we finished it, we bought it on the steamer. In Dhubri there was no more bread left on the steamer. A salesman brought us some bread (called ruti in Bengalese) but it was a type of thin, unleavened cake, just like German dumplings. In the absence of other bread we ate this and it tasted delicious because hunger enhances the taste of food.

All the while the steamer brought the expectant group closer to Assam. On February 8, they reached Dhubri, the first city of Assam. One companion, Fr. Angelus Münzloher, gave us an insight into the superior’s heart when he wrote the following about him:

The closer we got to our destination, the more visible Fr. Otto’s eagerness became. When we arrived at our Prefecture he consecrated himself to God and completely sacrificed himself to Him. I remember very well how he fell on his knees on deck. Fiery prayers welled up in his heart to bring about the grace of conversion to pagans.

Because the steamer stopped in Dhubri during the day, this provided an opportunity for the new missionaries to set foot on Assamese ground for the first time. Fr. Angelus Münzloher wrote:

When one is led into such a city for the first time, one instinctively wonders: “Where is this city anyway?” One hardly sees anything apart from huts, which are hidden beneath trees on both sides of the road. As we walked around Dhubri and looked at the houses and people, we met two natives, one of whom approached us. This good man did not even think of the fact that we did not speak Bengalese. Luckily his companion was able to speak English. Both of them scrutinized us from head to foot. They were especially interested in the crucifixes that we carried on our breasts. They even took them in their hands.

The journey continued in the evening, but they soon needed to stop again. The water level of the Brahmaputra was so low in this “dry season” that the boat could not travel during the night so as to avoid the risk of running aground somewhere. That is why they didn’t reach Gauhati until the morning of February 21. To the missionaries’ delight they were received by Fr. Broy at the gangway. He led them to their mission station where they said Holy Mass in Assam for the first time.

And they reach Gauhati

With years of hard work, Fr. Broy had built a chapel with a sacristy and a few rooms in Gauhati – all under one roof. He had prepared everything to receive the newcomers because he believed they would settle there. And in any case, this would have been a relief at the start. The chapel was fine, equipped with the necessary items so the two priests could immediately say Holy Mass. The spacious apartment consisted of six rooms and would have been more than sufficient. There was also a small community of Christians— 32 Catholics, Europeans and half-castes.

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But tempting as it was and despite the fact that it would have been more than suitable for their headquarters, Fr. Hopfenmüller could not stay in Gauhati. For it had been Propaganda Fide’s wish to establish the headquarters of the apostolic prefecture of Assam in Shillong, the state’s capital, where the state government also had its seat. The diocesan administrator of Dacca as well as Bishop Pozzi had also pointed out that the mountain tribesmen living there would be much more open to Christianity than those living in Assam. So the path to be taken was set for them. They could not remain in Gauhati.

Horse Cart or Walk to Shillong

To save money, the superior had sent the heavy luggage by freight train from Calcutta. So they now awaited its arrival. Fr. Angelus recounts:

Because I lived in a room in Gauhati from which I could see Fr. Otto well, I often saw him throwing himself on the floor and remaining in this position for a long time. Tears ran down his face. His main thought was, how can I best help the pagans? He probably consulted often with God about this in such moments.

The stay in Gauhati only lasted a few days. As soon as the luggage arrived they continued their journey from the Assam valley into the Khasi Hills. The superior thoroughly described this last part of the journey to his “good and helpful friends at home” to whom he had promised at his departure to publish his travel report in Bamberger Volksblatt. In those days it took about four days to reach Shillong from Gauhati by oxcart. With a horse-drawn carriage (a two- wheeled tonga) the city could be reached in about one day by frequently changing horses. But Fr. Hopfenmüller did not approve of this.

The horse tonga would have cost 120 Rupees – about 170 Mark. We took the oxcart holding three people for only 15 Rupees. It was my wish to exercise the poverty vowed in the order even on our journey, so I figured: three people could ride, the other one would walk. After an hour, the walker would climb into the carriage and another would walk. This way, there would be a nice change. When we saw the carriage, all of us preferred to walk and only to load the luggage on the oxcart. It was a type of two-wheeled cart also used in Italy. Above it was set up a barrel-like cover, old, torn, made of wicker from old bamboo cane. It was so low that no one could really sit down beneath it. There were no seats. One had to sit on luggage or on some straw. Under such conditions it was more pleasant to walk than to ride, despite the fact that the heat was comparable to midsummer in Germany. Only Br. Joseph tried to ride for an hour on the first day during the midday heat, but the following days he walked like the others.

The first three days everything went fine. We raised our umbrellas against the sun and at midday stopped on the road to grab some water, mixed it with wine, and ate our bread. A good woman from Gauhati, a Catholic called Burns, had provided us with some beef for the first two days. The other days we had some cheese with bread. At the end of each day, we stopped at the so-called Dak-bungalow, meaning the post house. Because there were no guesthouses in the area, the British government had set up lodging houses at the distance of a day’s journey, under the care of a guard. At the first one we received nothing. The large double beds were covered with just a sheet and there were no pillows or blankets. The traveller needed to provide these as well as a mattress if he wanted one. Our habits served as pillows and our coats as covers. At the second and third post house we were served rice with curry. The curry, served with chicken, was the traditional hot spice according to Indian custom. There was no bread. Whoever has eaten a little chicken knows that four men do not get a lot from it, but we were quite satisfied and in a good mood.

The situation changed on the fourth day. Br. Joseph, who was born in Baden, proposed that one of us should stay with the carriage while the others went ahead to prepare the house so that we could sleep there. Fr. Broy had built another little house in Shillong where he lived from time to time, which was supposed to be the new residence for the missionaries. This was a good idea because in this way we would not need to pay for another overnight shelter.

As the commander of this little group, I accepted my soldier’s proposal since I am open to anything that can save some of the alms given to us by the faithful. Br. Joseph remained with the carriage and the three of us walked ahead. Everything was fine. We exercised our legs as much as we could and at lunchtime we cheerfully sat down at a fountain that bubbled from the rocks.

Lost in Shillong

View of a village scattered across a hillside with a chapel at the top photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte in the 1860s.

We had been told that Shillong was situated at the 64th milestone from Gauhati. I commented that one English mile is equal to about 1,600 meters, a bit more than one and a half kilometres. We had already passed the 63rd milestone when we reached a village from which two paths diverged. I took the left one, but Fr. Angelus suggested that we should take the right path because the telegraph lines passed that way. I willingly let myself be guided and thanks be to God I was not alone because I would have gotten lost. We continued walking and asking (not speaking the native language) by pointing down the direction of the street:

‘Shillong?’ Their nodding assured us that we would soon be in Shillong. Suddenly, we passed a milestone with the number 2 written on it. What did that mean? We must have taken the wrong way. We turned around and reached a street full of people and thought that we should now be on the right way. Again I asked, pointing at the street: ‘Shillong?’ They again nodded their heads. We continued walking, but Shillong did not seem to appear. We were tired and rested a few times and arrived at the 5th milestone. Above it was a sign showing the way to the Dak-bungalow Upper-Shillong, the post house of Upper-Shillong. Now we have found it! We are in Upper-Shillong, the city above Shillong. We arrived at the post house to ask for further information. The women did not understand a word we were saying. She answered laughing and nodding to all our questions and signs that we wanted to eat something. Finally, a man arrived who spoke some English. He told us that we were on the road to Cherrapunji and needed to go back about five miles to reach Shillong.[footnote]The misunderstanding derived from the fact that the city of Shillong is called Laban amongst the native inhabitants, which is the name of a near-by village. The missionaries could not have known that. For the natives, Shillong is a 6,450- foot high mountain peak near the city, which is a holy place for them and the seat of the God Shillong. The British named the city founded by them Shillong after the name of the mountain. (Cf., Becker, “The Nongkrem-Puja in the Khasi Mountains” Anthropos, volume 4, 1909, pp. 893ff.)[/footnote] He also gave us some eggs. We were very hungry, so we refreshed ourselves with the eggs and returned as fast as our tired legs could carry us. At around 7.30 p.m. we arrived in a village and met a young man. “Is this Shillong?” “Yes.” He spoke English. We quickly recounted our misfortune and asked him whether he could lead us to the Catholic missionary house. “The house of the padri?” I thought he meant the Catholic faithful and replied “Yes.” He willingly led us until we reached a Protestant church. “This is the church of the padri” – “It cannot be this one because the Catholics do not have a church here.” – “Yes, they are Roman Catholics.” – “No, it’s impossible.”

He continued searching and did not find anything. We walked around the city for about 15 minutes. One should not compare Shillong with a European city, in which many houses are tightly built next to each other. The houses in Shillong were scattered all over the place, surrounded by forests, gardens or trees. Despite its mere 3,000 inhabitants, it took an hour to cross.

People had recommended that we find a certain Dr. Costello who is also a Catholic. But our leader couldn’t find him. “I ask you, could you lead me to the next house where an Englishman lives!” He did so. I knocked on the door and [the one who answered] was very friendly. After he heard my story and understood what we wanted, he immediately invited us to join him for dinner, which had just been made. We gladly accepted the invitation. The lady of the house was nowhere to be seen – supposedly she was not feeling well. Five lively children all stood around the table. The eldest, Charles, was nine-years-old. Two servants were serving the table. We squeezed into our places at the table. But what had happened to Br. Joseph with the oxcart? This was the only worry clouding our contentment. “After dinner I shall lead you to your future home,” the friendly gentleman assured us. His name, Igual, should also be mentioned because it is right to praise good people. After we had eaten and drunk and said grace in front of the amazed children of the Protestant household, he took two candles and matches and led us to the near-by missionary cottage. Fr. Broy who had built it, had already sent advanced news of our arrival on Thursday and had instructed the doorkeeper to open the door. No one could see light in the house. “Everything is dark, the house will still be closed.” But look, there was light. “Someone is there!” It was Br. Joseph who had arrived with the oxcart long before, and who had also found the house but only after having asked four people without success.

Missionary Fr. Broy only came to Shillong once a year. Only three Catholic families and three individual Catholic lived here. The house was very inconspicuous. There were only two rooms. The door of the entrance was smashed, as was the padlock to the doors – they didn’t even need opening because they already stood open. Nor was it necessary to close them, because there was nothing in the house to take. Br. Joseph said: “I found everything open and not a soul to be seen.” The stove was destroyed and many other things were ruined. It could not have been otherwise. Now, after gratefully saying goodbye to our friendly host, we quickly set up a place to sleep. Our white habits served as pillows, some used laundry as cushions and coats for covers. In our habits we laid down on the bare floor. The night was bitterly cold; Shillong is situated high up in the mountains, so we froze quite a bit after the day’s sunburn.

In the morning, we quickly set up a poor altar to say our first Holy Mass in Shillong. A door served as the altar table; linens as the antependium. Books were put beneath the cross. During Holy Mass, our friendly host from yesterday sent us tea, cake and bread so we could enjoy a delightful breakfast. After Mass ended, a servant arrived who spoke Khasi and some English. A Catholic from Gauhati had been so kind as to send him.

“Would you like to be our servant?” I asked him.


“How much do you want?”

“20 Rupees per month.”

“That is too much for us; we are not Englishmen but poor missionaries.”

“I have a family and need to feed them.”

“You will have to do all types of work, otherwise we do not need you. Our brothers also do all types of work. Do you want to?”


I then went to buy the necessary cooking implements along with Br. Joseph and the servant.

The missionaries had left Rome on January 17, at 11:30 p.m. and they had arrived at their ardently desired destination, Shillong, on February 27 at 7:30 p.m. On March 6, 1890, he reported to the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide about their journey and continued:

We have an apartment in danger of collapsing in Shillong consisting of two rooms. We use one of the rooms as the chapel, and the other is for us priests. We will add two more little rooms for the two brothers. We are still without furniture because we cannot find a carpenter. All of the workers are busy building the house for the provincial governor. We stand during our meals like the Jews during their exodus from Egypt. We sleep on the floor and must bear the greatest restrictions, but we gladly and joyfully endure everything because we have been found worthy to spread God’s Kingdom and we hope to be able to save souls.

While the apartment in Shillong was already ramshackle, it nonetheless accommodated them and provided a roof over their heads, though it contained no chair, table or bed. They began by making a table. Soon this was done. They made it out of an old door from a goat shed. With the help of a rack, it was leaned against the wall at one end, and the other foot was made from a piece of board. Since they had no chairs, the table needed to be high so they could eat, read and study standing up. It took longer to build the beds, but Fr. Otto could do something even in this regard. He saw that the natives used two stands, which could be joined together with a large sailcloth [a hammock]. The advantage of this was that the beds could be folded up during the day and put into a corner. No mattresses were needed; one simply slept on the sailcloth. But it was impossible to sleep without blankets so they needed to buy some. As Fr. Otto later told his Bamberg friends:

It is quite necessary for us to have blankets because we are in the mountains and up to today, May 15, it has been almost always windy and bitterly cold at night. And since the rainy season it has been cold and damp. I need to add my coat and habit as blankets, but often my feet are still freezing. For the moment we do not suffer from the Indian heat. Of course, it is completely different in the Assam Valley where an oppressive heat prevails. The papers often report on people who die of sunstroke, especially many Europeans.

Apart from the blankets and the sailcloth, the bed also had a little pillow filled with pine needles. A certain type of pine tree was indigenous to the Khasi Hills, whose needles are softer and longer than those of our pines at home. For the thrifty superior these needles made a welcome and cheap filling for pillows. With these, the place to sleep had been set up. This was some progress after sleeping on the floor for the first three weeks.

It still took a long while until we got our chairs, so we took our meals standing for one month. 14 days later, the door we used as a table was replaced by a real table. One should not forget that our Khasi are not yet carpenters. When we first tried to get chairs we found two Khasi carpenters who worked for almost three days to produce a simple chair with four legs and a backrest. And what a fine specimen they produced! The legs, backrest and seat were so thick and bulky that I could not lift the chair with one arm. We sent them away and instructed our Khasi servant to find more skilful and diligent workers. It took eight days until they arrived. They are a bit better but not at all what they are supposed to be.

In this way, they slowly managed to furnish the apartment with necessities. In no way did this dampen the mood of the ascetic little group. Fr. Otto wrote:

We are cheerful and happy in our poverty particularly as God has already begun to show His mercy through it. This evening, two young Khasi men aged 19 to 20, who had graduated from the local governmental school here and have been studying Latin for three years, inquired about being taught the Catholic faith. In exchange offered to teach us Khasi and Bengalese. The older one in particular showed a great desire and repeatedly expressed how glad he was to have found Catholic missionaries. Seeing our poverty, he said: “You now want to be poor without any pomp or luxury so that you will be rich in the other life!”

They already used some Christian expressions because they had read Protestant Bibles. I pin great hope on these young men, and am extremely delighted and thankful to God from the bottom of my heart. Now we should pray that the divine mercy will support their good will and that they will reach complete understanding![footnote]Letter from Shillong to Fr. Jordan, March 6, 1890[/footnote]

Pastoring to the Lukewarm Catholics of Shillong

With his usual zeal, Fr. Otto threw himself into pastoral care for the Catholics living in Shillong. On the first Sunday after his arrival he invited them to Mass. Two ladies and one man came. Dr. Costello, the manager of the local telegraph office and a lukewarm Catholic, had left on a trip, and a Catholic woman was prevented from coming to Mass and receiving Communion by her Protestant husband. When Ms. Costello saw that the missionaries had only one empty room and that the other one served as the chapel, she and the Catholic governess, Miss O’Shea, asked in astonishment: “But do you want to stay here?” – “Yes,” was Fr. Otto’s calm reply. “We missionaries are satisfied with anything; we need to be toughened up.”

The man who had attended morning Mass returned that same afternoon with more chairs. Now they had at least a chair for every missionary. The man was a government civil servant. He and his Presbyterian wife had married in the Anglican rite and their children had been baptized by a British minister. He apologized for the fact that no priest had been there. “What would I have done if my child had died without being baptized?”

Fr. Otto pointed out that anybody could baptize in such cases, but that it would be better for a Catholic father to baptize his children himself instead of calling a Protestant minister. With a Protestant baptism, there was a danger that they would later fall for Protestant heresy. “The situation was an excuse for you,” Fr. Otto added, “but later you will admit that you did wrong. In the meantime, the issue can be taken care of if you are of good will and want to become our friend. Do you wish to send your children, of whom the oldest is only five years old, to our school and church and let them be raised Catholic?” The clear answer was: “Yes!”

“Do you wish,” the superior continued, “to repeat your marriage vows in front of a priest and two witnesses so that everything will be correct?” The question was answered with another “Yes.”

“I see that you are of good will from the way you brought us chairs and from your attendance at Mass. Therefore, I hope that everything will turn out well with God’s grace and that we shall become good friends.” The conversation ended with these words.

To fire up the lukewarm, Fr. Otto did not hesitate to visit them in their homes. He soon convinced the chairman of the telegraph office to come with his sons to Mass, from which he was usually absent. One son was 13 years old and the other was 18. Neither of them had received Holy Communion or learned the catechism. The superior repeatedly visited their father and asked him to send his other children to him so he could teach them. His six-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son came a few times, but then stayed away. There was nothing to do about the older boys. After Fr. Otto had repeatedly pressed the father to send them, the father talked himself out of it by saying that in a few months time he would send his children to a Catholic institute in Agra where his eldest daughter was married. In a letter to Fr. Jordan Fr. Otto writes:

On the Feast of St. Joseph, I went to visit a Catholic official who had his children raised Protestant. He was at his club so I had him called. 

He promised to come out but did not appear even after I waited for him for half an hour. In the meantime, I talked to his wife, who had been a Presbyterian missionary sister, and had been educated in a girl’s high school in Hyderabad. A rather meaningless discussion ensued with her, which reminded me again of the necessity of thorough theological study. “We are all Christians,” she said, “one’s denomination does not matter.” When I took her at her word, saying that then it should not be a problem for her to let her children be raised Catholic if it did not matter to her anyway, she commented: “The Presbyterian confession is better.” Having ended this subject, we moved on to the Bible. Of these things, she said: “What would my family say!” At the end, I asked her for a meeting with her husband and she promised to arrange it. We will see whether she keeps her promise. One can see how much suffering this tiny flock must bear.

Make an altar, four pews, a confessional grill and a little cabinet for church items

To make the poor chapel more appropriate for Mass, the superior put his shoulder to the wheel whenever he was free from his other activities. As soon as he was able to find a carpenter, Fr. Otto had him make an altar, four pews, a confessional grill and a little cabinet for church items. This way, the room no longer looked empty or uninviting. Flowers and candles had to do the rest. On Easter a more solemn Mass could be celebrated for the first time. Fr. Hopfenmüller describes the Easter celebration.

We held our first High Mass. Fr. Angelus celebrated; Br. Joseph and I sang the choral Mass. After the Gospel, I gave a short sermon in English. I was comforted to see one more woman in our community who until then had not come to Mass because supposedly her husband would not tolerate it. Furthermore, our community had grown by four more native servants of the governor, who had just returned to the province from his travels. A Catholic family of goodwill from Gauhati has also been transferred here. The man is an official clerk. In the afternoon we sang our vespers alone with no participants. Even though we celebrated Easter with scant festivity, my soul was filled with cheerful Easter rejoicing. Christ has risen from the dead, my salvation has been completed, the world of the flesh has been defeated, and I can become glorious like my Jesus: these thoughts passed through me despite the humble solemnity.

Just as every missionary feels a painful melancholy at the lack of solemn and uplifting Masses like those in our churches back home, especially the first time living under the poor and simple conditions of missionary life, so this feeling took root in Fr. Hopfenmüller. He expressed it in a letter which he wrote from Shillong addressed to his successor back in Seußling on March 25, 1890.

When one lives in a pagan country without any public church celebrations, with no churches, no bells, no altar, no baptismal font, no confessional, no pulpit, no pictures, no candlesticks, no decorations, no banners, no processional cross or many other things, living in a small humble room, simply reading a low Mass in front of three or four participants – then one really understands what people possess in Christian countries. What a joy it is to be Christian, to possess the holy faith and the entire fullness of church graces and ceremonies! What a shame and responsibility it is when Christians do not use all of these treasures of the faith to sanctify themselves and become happy on earth and blessed in heaven. What a shame it is when, despite all the good deeds of Christianity, they live in godlessness, sin, and vice, and only do what their low carnal appetites desire! They will be depraved, damned, and unhappy here and for eternity, and rightfully so. Oh, I urge my former parishioners, for the sake of the love they have demonstrated to me, to love God above anything, to observe all His laws, to obey their lawful pastor forever and in every regard, and in this way to be blessed.

If it was already difficult to persuade the existing Catholics to attend Sunday Mass, it comes as no surprise that they never attended other religious events. No one ever showed up for Mass on workdays, nor for evening Mass even though Fr. Otto had called on them to do so. “We are alone at evening Mass, but this is no reason to stop holding it.”[footnote]Na ki lum Shillong. By Fr. Otto. BV, Entertainment Supplement, June 13, 1890, No. 24, p. 98[/footnote]

It did not go much better during May Devotions. A special joy prevailed in the little missionary house on May 1. Missionary Fr. Broy from Gauhati had made them a small tabernacle as a gift. From this day on, they could reserve the Blessed Sacrament in it and celebrate Benediction. May Devotions took place at 6:30 p.m. every evening in May. The husband and wife of a secretary’s family only showed up three times after having been transferred from Gauhati to Shillong. Next to the family of the servants to Dr. Costello, they had been one of the most committed families. So our missionaries needed to hold their May Devotions alone in front of the altar decorated as much as possible with garlands and roses. They were destined to the same fate during the time of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Devotions in the month of June.

To excuse themselves some said: “Your chapel is too small, there is no space!”  In the meantime, the chapel had never been so full that other people could not fit because there had never been more than 12 people at once.

From my description, friends at home will recognize that Catholic immigrants here are not necessarily the best Catholics. Yes, even in this region, the experiences of other missionaries have confirmed that Catholic and Protestant Europeans are merely obstacles to the missions. Their dulled sense of religion as well as the other areas of their life which only know leisurely pleasures and always seek reasons to indulge them can never set a good example for the native people. Moreover, the actions of these so-called Christians hardly exhibit Christianity, or better, its beautiful heavenly side. Only the life of renunciation practiced by missionaries can act as a counterbalance. We need to be able to say to the natives:

“Look at our life. This is the true Christian life which Jesus taught us and of which He was a living example. This is heavenly Christianity which brings peace and eternal life. Our countrymen are only called Christians, but do not distinguish themselves as such by their deeds. Do not get annoyed by them and do not allow bad Christians to prevent you from recognizing the good, heavenly, seed of gold.”

Nonetheless, it is sad that the situation is the way it is, and even at home there are many people like this who offend those who are not part of our church. Our priests and good, moral, and spiritual Catholics back home must strive all the more to save the honour of God and of Christ and to present Christianity in its spiritual and heavenly beauty to the world.

Only Six Catholics

It was particularly painful to Fr. Hopfenmüller that only six people from his little community in Shillong were fulfilling their Easter duty. The others would have had enough time to do so since Eastertide in India lasted through Trinity Sunday. This happened despite his continuous rebukes. It was no better in other parts of Assam where great coldness and indifference prevailed in other hearts.

Even here, many do not want to fulfil their Easter duty. Our reverend superior intends to threaten them with excommunication. Some of them do not even come to Mass on Sunday. What a sad situation!

It was good that it never came to excommunication. Most likely that would have resulted in the opposite of the hoped-for effect. After a longer stay in Assam, Fr. Otto would have become more understanding toward the strange character of the half-castes born and raised in India. Self-discipline was not their strongest trait. Their entire being leaned more toward laxity, indecisiveness, and instability. Furthermore, there was longstanding religious neglect. Previously, it had only been possible for them to attend Mass once or twice a year. By doing so, they believed they had fulfilled their duty. This only reinforced their superficial way of life. Such behaviour could not be changed all at once. One could only hope for improvement over time by being patient and loving, along with frequent instruction and rebukes. The same church practices also applied to the English who moved to Assam. They were not sterling either. But in later years, good Catholics could be found among the civil servants and tea planters who not only loyally fulfilled their religious duty but also supported the activities of the mission as best they could.

The less satisfying his pastoral work among the existing Catholics proved to be, the more Fr. Otto set his hopes on the native population. It was for these he had travelled to Assam in the first place to preach the Gospel to them. Where to begin from among the 63 different peoples of Assam was decided by local conditions. Shillong, nestled in the heart of the Khasi Mountains, was to be the centre of the mission. The native people living there called themselves Khasi. The missionary activity was to begin especially among them in order to build strong support for the mission. “If we cannot build up a community of Khasi, then we are useless here,” was Fr. Otto’s point of view. Full of hope, he dispelled the occasional depressing shadows with a bright and joyful picture of a young, eager community of native Christians. He outlines his vision in an essay to his countrymen in Bamberg:

While the old Christians and Catholics show themselves ungrateful toward God’s love and let the heavenly dew of mercy fall on infertile ground, crush it, and let thorns and weeds grow over it, Jesus’ heart, which only wishes to make people happy and blessed, desires other and better souls who are grateful for his grace… I firmly believe that this is one of the reasons why God has particularly awakened the zeal for missions among us good Catholics at this particular time. His loving heart desires substitutes for the dried up tendril branches. The Khasi people appear to me to be predestined by God to enter the ranks of Catholic people, as was the good fortune of our own ancestors 1,000 years ago. Their great-grandsons still participate in it. I have sufficient reason for this belief. What I have seen and heard until now justifies my hope.

Learning Khasi & Bengali (heresy or not but with the help of Protestants)

One finds many special characteristics among the numerous mountain dwelling people in the heights of Assam which distinguish them advantageously from the Hindus and Muslims living in the valley and from the rest of India in general. Not only are they stronger, simpler, more upright and independent than the others, but their customs and outlook allow them to live with fewer difficulties after the introduction of Christianity. They lack the caste system entirely, which is a large obstacle to missionary activities in the valleys of Assam and other parts of India. The status of women is also completely different. The Khasi woman is not required to spend her days secluded in a house; to the contrary, in some parts she is more respected and influential than the man. The monogamy prevails in most parts. Polygamy is unknown. These conditions naturally facilitate missionary activity and are very beneficial.

It was a good idea Fr. Hopfenmüller had to begin their missionary activity with the mountain people, in particular with the Khasi tribe who lived in the midst of all of them. His entire effort was aimed at learning their language. “Our next task,” he wrote in his first report to Bamberger Volksblatt, “is to learn the Khasi language. Furthermore, we need to perfect our English to exercise our pastoral care among European Catholics and to be able to deal with the remaining Englishmen.”

Already on March 6, 1890, he informed the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide that he had instructed Fr. Angelus to learn Bengali so that he could work in the southern part of the mission among the Bengali people; he himself was to learn Khasi to begin evangelizing among the mountain peoples.[footnote]Archive of Propaganda Fide. Indie Orientali 1892. Scritture Riferite nei Congressi Vol 37. Letter from Fr. Otto, March 6 & 31, 1890[/footnote] While Fr. Angelus found a Bengali to help him learn the language, Fr. Otto had the aid of the Khasi- servant he had hired to cook and take care of household work.

The books published in Khasi by Methodist missionaries were also very useful to Fr. Hopfenmüller. About 50 years earlier, the Methodists had settled among the Khasi people. They already had a number of followers, as well as churches, chapels and several schools.

Even if heresy is an obstacle and an evil, on the one hand, stealing souls from God’s heart, in this case it still has its purpose in God’s plan. I found grammar and textbooks, pieces from the Holy Gospel and a songbook in Khasi, which was of excellent use during my studies. Of course, we will have to compete with the preachers and followers of this Calvinist-Methodist sect in educating the Khasi.

Because the Khasi lacked any type of literature or alphabet, the preparatory work done by the Protestant mission naturally was of great help.

It was also very useful to have Fr. Broy remain in Assam for the time being. The latter not only took care of the Assam Valley, over Easter he also offered to care for the Christians in Bondashill and Silchar in the south of the mission. Furthermore, he was authorized to confer the sacrament of Confirmation. Upon Fr. Broy’s request, Fr. Hopfenmüller asked the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide if he could continue to do so in the future. Fr. Broy had received and exercised such authorization since he was the only priest in Assam. After the reorganization of ecclesial structures in Assam, no one knew if this permission was still valid. Cardinal Simeoni replied on May 12, 1890, that it would be wise to continue operating under the authorization until they had got to know the places and customs. Fr. Hopfenmüller exercised the office whenever he believed it best and notified Propaganda Fide. According to tradition, places where no bishop is present were only supposed to have one priest authorized to confer Confirmation.

Fr. Hopfenmüller welcomed letting Fr. Broy continue this work for as long as he remained in Assam. This way he could more thoroughly dedicate himself to studying the language. His entire day was dedicated to learning Khasi as Fr. Angelus reported:

He worked ceaselessly from early morning to late in the evening, not wasting a single minute. He awoke at 5 o’clock in the morning and after having washed, he threw himself onto the floor. Lying with his face on the floor he said his morning prayer. Following this he knelt through his devotions in the chapel, which were then followed by Holy Mass which he read reverently. He usually prayed a bit more after breakfast. Then he began studying, something which he undertook wholeheartedly, while praying for the aid of the Holy Spirit. This request was granted to him in a special way because it was strange how quickly he learned Khasi at his age. After three to four weeks he could already communicate quite well with the servant. His studies were only interrupted at 10 o’clock when he visited the Divine Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament. At 12:00 he made his examination of conscience, followed by lunch. He always tried to find a useful way to spend recreation through deep and informative conversation. He did not know what it meant to be gloomy or to let his head hang down. He always knew how to cheer us up with innocent jokes and cheerful stories. Following recreation he did his spiritual reading, which often lasted more than an hour. Then he continued studying until evening prayer, followed by another examination of conscience and the rosary. After dinner, when he was already tired, he usually wrote letters. At times he worked so hard that he fell asleep while writing.

Learning the language consumed much of Fr. Hopfenmüller’s day. He dedicated all his time to this task as far as it was possible given the religious exercises and the prevailing customs of religious life. He wrote jokingly to his friends in Bamberg about this: “Up until now, I have used my time to memorize the strange sounds of the Khasi language in my old brain. It is more difficult than chopping wood and threshing grain!” Nonetheless, he managed to acquire a good knowledge of the language due to his perseverance and dogged energy.

Mission Ethnography

To better prepare himself for his work among the Khasi, Fr. Otto also familiarized himself with their customs and habits, using every occasion to learn more:

On Saturday I heard the sound of bigger and smaller drums several times. I asked our Khasi servant what this meant. He told me an old man had died. The drums are the equivalent of our bells tolling for the dead. On Saturday, I also noticed a large bonfire near our house. The servant said: ‘The Khasi generally burn their dead. The old man is being cremated.

All the things the superior learned about the life and activities of these people during his short stay is a sign of his interest in the work he was doing, but also of the diligence with which he tried to get closer to them by observing and learning more about them.

The Khasi are not a wild people but a bit more cultured, though they are still on a low level. Agriculture and some commercial activity already exist, as well as a bit of trade in native products. Trade in European things is mostly in the hands of Hindus and Muslims who have settled among them. The Protestant missionary schools have already resulted in a number of educated Khasi who speak English and are often used as lower-level civil servants of the British government. Their clothes are proper and decent. They either wear shirts with jackets or a white cloth around the upper part of the body. A skirt reaching down to the knees covers the lower part of their bodies. They are naked only from their knees down. The more wealthy people also wear socks and shoes. The women wear long gowns down to their feet. Over all, the people are poor but not desperately poor. One rarely finds a beggar among them. Only those truly unfit to work go begging.

We once saw 22 houses burn down. I asked the servant whether it was not a custom to collect alms in such a case. “No,” he replied. “Do they have fire insurance?” I continued asking. He answered, “No.” I asked: “What do these people do to reconstruct their homes?” He replied: “The wealthy find their own means, and the poor satisfy themselves with simple huts.” Indeed, it is like that. The huts of the poor are simple shacks made of reeds and wood, coated by a mix of mud and cow dung and covered with long blades of grass. Even our little house, which is made of stone, has a thatch roof. The wealthy build with stone and cover with metal; all houses are one-storey to resist the frequent earthquakes better. One earthquake occurred on the night of March 8 to 9, 1890. When I awoke I heard the plates rattling and the windows and walls trembling. At first, I thought it was a storm howling outside, but the storm stopped howling and the rattling and trembling continued. The following day we were given confirmation that an earthquake had caused the shaking.

The people live very simply because they are poor. The poorer ones rarely eat meat. Nor do they know bread. Just rice cakes. They do not have grain or barley. Wheat is imported from outside and is very expensive. As in the rest of India, their staple food is rice. They also eat potatoes and grow other field crops and vegetables. The people carry fish-shaped baskets that taper to a point at the bottom while a wide band tied around the basket is placed around the forehead. This is how they carry the basket on their heads.

Their customs are simple. Like anywhere else in the world, there are good and bad people. Over all, their customs are good. They live with only one partner in marriage, which is a great advantage, though they usually get married quite early: the men between age 16-18 and the girls from 14 to16. This is a nuisance that brings with it another, namely, the bad habit of frequently running away and divorcing. In general, they are very honest. This was better before the British took possession of their country, as a missionary told me who passed through the area twice.

“When I came to Shillong for the first time 20 years ago, I asked whether there were Khasi in prison. The answer was ‘No.’ When I came for a second time, the reply to my same question was, ‘Quite a few.’ Rich Englishmen needed the Khasi as servants. The Khasi saw the luxurious life, desired the same for themselves, and were tempted to steal. The Europeans have also ruined the tribe with regard to chastity because they seduced several women into indecency.”

The Khasi are healthy and strong. A Bengali man told me that when they want, they can do the work of five men. But their will is lacking at times, so they are quite lazy. In particular, one bad habit is widely diffused that impedes a working spirit. It is chewing pan leaves (pepper leaves) coated with slaked lime and mixed with betel nut. This mixture has a strong taste, similar to the tobacco chewed in Germany in such an offensive manner. Every Khasi, man or woman, large or small, carries his pan, betel and a box of lime in a little pocket. Mixing it up takes up a lot of time, and detracts from work. Since they chew almost constantly, this is a continual distraction during work time. They do not count their waking hours according to time but according to the number of betel they have chewed along the way. Its juice colours their lips dark brown and their teeth so they do not stand out nicely against their dark skin. This particularly disfigures the women. Apart from that their features are not unpleasant; they just generally have wide faces. One tempting drink for the many drinkers is called kiad, a sort of liquor made from rice.

Their religion is not actually idolatry insofar as they do not have idols. Instead they have a superstitious fear of evil spirits called ksuid, which are worshiped as gods which they placate with sacrifices so they will not harm them. They do this particularly when they are ill. Several men in every community understand and take care of these sacrifices, but they are not actually priests. They correspond to the type of people often found in Christian countries who apply unauthorized blessings and superstitious customs. They sacrifice chickens and goats. One terrible type of superstition prevailing in all their religious concepts is snake-worship, although only practiced by a few people. The extremely poisonous speckled cobra is kept in the house and worshiped as a goddess. By doing this one is supposed to gain prosperity. In serious matters, the snake needs to be pacified with human blood. A woman was found murdered a short while ago. The people suspected that she had been killed by one of these snake worshipers in order to give human blood to their household snake. It is the people’s religious need, but they only need to be shown the true light.

Leaving out the things Fr. Otto did not yet know with precision, this shall be enough to demonstrate his efforts to comprehend the peculiarities of the Khasi people.

Translating Beliefs

He did not learn the language, customs, and habits for his own edification, but as an aid in conversion. As soon as he progressed further in the language, he used it in everyday activities. Religious activities needed to be the beginning of the missionary process of converting the locals. This foundation came before all else. After a few weeks the eager mission superior began to translate the “Lord’s Prayer” and the “Hail Mary” into Khasi.10 Because of his great love of singing, Fr. Otto later translated a few songs into Khasi. It was a great pleasure for him to sing with the other brothers after a meal during recreation. In his mind, he already saw himself practicing them with a crowd of newly converted Khasi.

Fr. Otto invested the greatest amount of work in translating the catechism into Khasi. On April 16, 1890 he reported:

I have taken a 15-year-old Khasi into our house who has been educated a bit in English. I want to teach him and later to use him as a teacher. I hope he will be useful. Pray with me that it will work out! With the help of this young man I am now translating the catechism. We have already translated two lessons and I think it is usable.

He reported this in greater detail to the cardinal prefect, saying that he had based his translation of the English catechism on a copy received from the Archdiocese of Calcutta and had only added a few questions from his catechism at home that he believed suited the Khasi. Furthermore, he had appended morning and evening prayers, the “Angel of God,” the prayer for receiving the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, the awakening of the three divine virtues, as well as prayers during Mass. An elderly educated Khasi would then go through everything again, in case it contained mistakes. Expressions which could not be translated into Khasi he either left in Latin, for instance “sacrament” and “baptism,” or in English, like the word for “Mass,” etc. The work progressed well due to the superior’s restless eagerness. It was already the end of May.

On August 4, 1890, he reported to the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide that the printers of the Jesuits in Calcutta had edited the catechism, and the first sheet had already been printed. As soon as he had finished this task he began translating Schuster’s Bible Stories. By mid-August he had managed to complete the Old Testament and had almost finished The Life of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

All the while, Fr. Hopfenmüller never let his direct contact with the pagan world lapse. The arrival of the new missionaries in Shillong had caused such a stir that the natives had come out to meet them, partly because they were curious, partly because they wanted to exploit them, and partly out of interest in their religion. The editor of Bamberger Volksblatt gave more information about this on June 10, 1890:

Yesterday, we were delighted by a second letter from the father superior of the mission in Shillong, our beloved friend, Dr. Hopfenmüller, to which he added a long article for the newspaper. We will print the article in the next entertainment page. The writing is dated May 16, so it took 23 days to arrive. We inform the missionary’s large circle of friends what he wrote in his letter to us:

“My life is still rather monotonous here: studying, reading the catechism, praying, observing. The solitude was interrupted by frequent visits from the Khasi in the beginning, now fewer, by those who wanted to see the new missionaries. Protestants as well as pagan Khasi came almost daily to visit us during the first two months. Partly they came out of curiosity and partly to get to know the difference between Catholic and Protestant doctrine. This prepares our missionary activity in a special way as it awakens and preserves interest and curiosity for our work. The attitude of many of them assured us of success once we will be able to preach in their language. Our poor cloistered life particularly won over the simple Khasi for us. It stands in sharp contrast to the life of the married Protestant missionaries who enjoy living in luxury. I have good hope, but if I only had greater means! Then I could easily win teachers among the educated Khasi, because if I want to have a teacher, I need to pay him; many have already offered their services in this regard. Continue doing your utmost for our mission and Society and do not forget us in your prayers! I think of you daily. My state of health is excellent. You would hardly recognize me. Just like the other missionaries, I already have quite a beard.”

Disappointments with a Rationalist Bengali

A number of young Bengali lived among the natives of Shillong and worked as clerks in the government offices because they spoke English. Some of them also came to visit the new missionaries. Fr. Otto reported on them in a letter to the general superior, Fr. Jordan:

From time to time some small waves occur in our quiet life of preparation from contact with the outer world, a foretaste of our future life. Joyful excitement and hope alternates with disappointment. The two young men I told you about have already cooled to us. They spoke beautiful words, a Bengali characteristic, but their actions did not correspond. I later found out that one of them was Bengali and Muslim. For this reason, he always defended Islam. After that, he stopped coming. He is still very friendly, but I have lost any hope of converting him. Many others have come by in the meantime awakening hope in us. Ten young men, pagan Khasi, and Methodists came to visit and listen on Easter, inquiring about the difference between Catholics and Protestants. A young clerk from Bengal, a Brahmin, came to visit us offering to help Fr. Angelus with his Bengali; he has already given him two lessons. In return, he wished to learn Catholic principles. During the two conversations I had with him, he proved to be a perfect rationalist. So I have little hope of converting him, but I again realized how necessary a thorough training is for a missionary in India. I want to pass on to you the following conversation:

Me: Do you believe in the existence of a perfect God?

He: Yes.

Me: That God’s revelation is necessary?

He: No. I think a conscience is sufficient that knows the difference between good and bad. God sends me out into the world and gives me the necessary light of conscience.

Me: That is not enough. First, human reason and the conscience can err. The different religions have opposing opinions on reality; some believe some things to be good while others believe them to be bad and vice versa. For example, Muslims believe in polygamy and believe it to be allowed by their conscience. Christians detest polygamy. Second, there are many truths in heaven and on earth that we cannot all recognize by using our conscience. It is true that conscience lets us recognize the holy and just God. Up to a certain point, our conscience teaches us the difference between good and bad, but it does not provide absolute security and does not teach us everything. Security and all the truth mankind needs require God’s revelation.

He: Different opinions are prejudices acquired from birth onwards. Furthermore, we all have something in common.

Me: It is true that some basic ideas can be found everywhere. They stem from Adam’s original revelation as the enduring truth. The things we have in common are few; the things dividing us are an inextricable tangle. God cannot like that the little truth is mixed with so much falsity and diversity. There can only be one truth that must be willed by God for mankind and is therefore revealed.

He: God reveals Himself from time to time especially through wise and holy men.

Me: Right, you are moving toward the correct way of thinking. That is also our belief. Not in a sense that God speaks audibly from heaven, but rather in the way He reveals Himself through His patriarchs, prophets and lastly through His own Son.

He: Even Hindus incarnate themselves ten times.

Me: Yes, this is my point. It matters that one can point to people and prove that God became man through them. We can prove that. Is it also possible for you?

He: I will think about it for the next time we speak.

The next time it was clear he got precious little out of the previous session. The conversation turned to the world’s pleasures and passion. It proceeded as follows:

He: I read in your Bible that Christ once cursed a tree. Is that sanctity? What fault does the tree have if it does not bear any fruit?

Me: That is only a parable to show that his disciples should not only have a name and leaves but also fruit; that they harvest a curse without fruit.

He: Christ just wanted to show his power, but what is great about a man who kills his own pigeons to show his power over them?

Me: When somebody doubts my ownership, to prove that I am the master is it not reasonable and necessary to slaughter and eat what is mine without anyone having the right to object to it? In order to overcome the Jews’ doubts that he was God’s son, He needed to show His power over life and death. This would not have been necessary without them.[footnote]AGS. Letter from Shillong, April 8, 1890[/footnote]

The interest Fr. Otto often found for religion and his own zeal did not permit him to rest or to try to appear in public as soon as possible. The translation of the catechism had been completed and he had become fluent in English. He was thinking about renting out a room to hold religious talks for the educated natives — in English for the time being.

Encounters with Jeebon Roy

Soon, a favourable occasion presented itself. The deputy district official of Shillong, a wealthy Khasi called Jeebon Roy, asked him for help to send his sons to the Jesuit college of St. Xavier’s in Calcutta. The rector did not want to take pagans into his home. The issue was resolved so that at least one of the boys could attend the day school, as it is called in India. This meant that the boy did not live in the college but in a private home outside the college like our students, and went to school from there. Fr. Hopfenmüller managed to enrol the other son in a different college. When their father came to thank him for his efforts and to ask him to recommend his son in Calcutta to the rector’s and professors’ special care, he also offered him a room he owned that he could use as a school. “I was extremely delighted by this,” Fr. Otto recounted, “but due to my previous experiences, I asked for the rental cost. ‘For one year, I ask nothing apart from your keeping the room in good condition. For that period of time, you can figure out how to organize your affairs.’”[footnote]BV, Entertainment Supplement, August 29, 1890, No. 36, p. 147[/footnote] That was the pagan official’s reply.

After this obstacle had been removed, Fr. Hopfenmüller immediately began to put up notices that he would hold talks in this room given to him gratis by the highest official of the Khasi people. The success unfortunately did not correspond to his efforts. He reported on it to the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide:

At least now I could do a little to spread the Catholic faith. Twice a week, I held religious classes for educated native men in English on the convincing concepts of our faith. I had little success. Despite the fact that I had publicly announced it, only five people came to the first meeting, most of whom were students, so I did not even begin. The second time I was determined to begin. Twelve people showed up. The third time, seven, and yesterday I had eight people. Five of them left in the midst of the discussion.

Evangelical Difficulties

Fr. Hopfenmüller believed that the reason for this was in the public school system, where no religious education was taught and where pupils only received the poison of indifference to religion caused by mixing Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, Animists and other religious adherents. He was aware that not much could be hoped for by following this path.

Whoever believes that one can immediately take big steps as a missionary and make a display of a large number of baptized after only a few weeks should come here and try. He will experience that God’s work progresses slowly. Yesterday we read the apostolic story at table of how St. Paul preached in the large city of Athens in Greece, whose language he spoke and read very well. His success was that only a few people began to believe. The others laughed at him and said: “We want to hear you another time!” Even here I have experienced that religious indifference from people raised in missionary or government schools. Just as in Bavaria, St. Paul’s word can be applied: “God does not choose many wise people from this world, but instead chooses the foolish.” We also need to follow Christ’s law: To preach the Gospel to the poor. They are the most capable, gifted and willing to assimilate it.

From the start, Fr. Otto had turned his attention to beginning his missionary activity among the simple and modest Khasi people and hoped that a good harvest lay ahead of him. On March 31, 1890, he wrote to the cardinal prefect of Propaganda Fide:

I find the Khasi people in good form. Many youth and adult men have come to visit us and to see the new missionaries. They are very friendly and seem to be well-disposed toward our cause, giving us hope for good fruits.

Satisfied, the cardinal prefect replied to him on May 30, 1890: “The news you inform me of, indeed holds out the prospect of great success in good works in the future. This hope is further raised in me by your piety and zeal in spreading the faith.” To his friends in Bamburg, Fr. Hopfenmüller wrote in the same vein:

The prospect exists of the Khasi accepting the Gospel and the Christian truth once the genuine one is preached to them by Catholic missionaries and provided the latter, through their Spartan and hardworking lives, always set the example of a blessed and righteous Christian life.

His hope for a successful outcome of the missionary work among the Khasi took different turns in the many letters he wrote. He was always eager to undertake the work and give shape to the cardinal prefect’s wish that “the seeds of the Christian faith should take root there and develop robustly” (letter from May 12, 1890). After having studied the Khasi language for months, he hoped to begin his activity at the start of September. The first catechism in Khasi was to be completed by then to facilitate his work among the people.

First Construction Worries

Fr. Broy had constructed the little mission house in Shillong to use for only a few weeks in the year, to rest a bit in the cool mountain air and to provide European Catholics with a place to celebrate Mass. The seldom-used chapel held no more than 15 people. Fr. Broy had never needed more space for the few Catholic Englishmen and Eurasians. However, the house was absolutely insufficient and unsuitable to be the centre of missionary activity among the Khasi. It was situated in the so-called “European quarter” of the city, the “gentlemen’s quarter,” so it would have been impossible to attract natives there. Due to the expansion of Shillong, it was of the utmost necessity to move closer to the homes of the native people in order to be active among them.[footnote]Letter from Fr. Otto in Shillong to Fr. Jordan, May 1; June 1; and July 3, 1890; also BV, Entertainment Supplement August 29, 1890, No. 36.[/footnote]

Fr. Hopfenmüller believed the existing house could be used to accommodate orphans. But in any case, it was necessary to construct a proper residence for the missionaries, a chapel and a school, as well as a little convent for sisters.

This is the minimum we need, but even this will cost 28,000 to 30,000 Mark, and up to now I don’t even have a twentieth of such an amount. God will help us. Once we have the means, we will surely have a rich harvest with the grace of God.

Fr. Hopfenmüller repeatedly emphasized the importance of sisters for a girl’s school to educate Khasi girls and to convert women. That is why he asked for at least three sisters to be sent along with the other new missionaries arriving in the fall of 1890. The British as well as the native population wanted sisters. The British wanted them to set up a college with a boarding school for their own children, as they had in many other parts of India. “For the time being, I would be satisfied to have sisters who could teach religious education to the Khasi girls and some basic educational knowledge.” He got what he wanted. But the need for a British boarding high school for girls was met only after years of hard work in the construction of the Loreto Convent for English Ladies in Shillong in 1908.

In addition to his construction plans, Fr. Hopfenmüller pointed out in a letter to the superior general that he knew he also needed to procure resources to hire teachers and catechists, as well as to maintain the school and the orphanage. The worries of his new office all rested on his shoulders and were soon visible.

Through the utmost thriftiness he tried to collect all the financial means available for the missionary tasks. He was open to whatever savings could be made, and he never bypassed the smallest opportunity to use not only the actual missionary alms but also the disposable assets of the Society given to him for mission purposes.

Several times he complained disappointedly in letters to his superior that the expected Mass stipends had still not arrived.

We urgently need these alms. You will not believe how one is impeded in the mission at every turn without money. If we could only have alms of 90 Mark per month, it would be 1,000 Mark per year, and with that we could at least construct a little chapel, a school, or a small mission house.

To interest the government in constructing the school he paid a visit to the provincial governor. But he gave him little hope for a subsidy since there were already enough Protestant missionary schools in Shillong. Thus he set great hope in receiving construction support from home.

Our dear friends from home will have to take care of finding the necessary means for construction, just like they gave us the means for the expensive journey and for our maintenance in the first few months.

Fr. Otto viewed building a chapel as the most urgent matter. To this end he had two Khasi master builders draft a construction plan. They were rather inexperienced in such things and even their second plan did not satisfy the builder- owner. Hence, Fr. Angelus Münzloher began drafting a plan. The estimated cost gave the superior a scare. The chapel with a little tower was 5,319 Rupees (1 Rupee = 1.40 Mark), whereas it would have been 4,211 Rupees without the tower. He had already collected 176 Mark for a bell and asked the superior general at the beginning of June to buy it for him and to have it sent to Assam so it would be there in time for the consecration of the chapel in four months.

Since with that amount of money they couldn’t buy a heavy, a simple truss would be sufficient. This opened the way for accepting the less expensive building estimate without a tower. But even that was a worrisome bill for Fr. Otto.

If I were to receive 5,000 to 6,000 Mark from Munich, along with my money it would hardly be enough to build a little church. How are we going to have the means to build the school, orphanage, and convent for the sisters, as well as a residence for us to be near the chapel?

But his pious outlook never left him despite such difficulties.

From the list of those giving alms to Der Missionär I see that our Bamberg countrymen have not forgotten about us, even though I could use tenfold what I receive. But I say heartily that God provides for everything, and I think to myself: God will be satisfied with whatever we are able to do. We will do our best as far as God’s grace permits and we will let God take care of the rest. We plant and water and God will make it grow. We lend our hand and God will lead and direct it.

His trust in help from above and from his Bamberg friends was not in vain. After a short time he was able to write a cheerful letter:

My report begins in a cheerful manner because I can relate that my last sigh and moan has been comforted. Along with the Volksblatt, which my friend kindly sends to Shillong so I can know a bit about home, I received a note that contained a good amount of Rupees. I was already extremely worried about how to procure the means for the church since the master builder had asked for 4,000 Rupees as well as an advanced payment of 1,000 Rupees, while another 1,000 was to be paid after the second, third, and fourth months. I only had 1,000 Rupees. I thought: we have to begin! When it is time for the next payment God will send what is necessary. Behold, a good, anonymous person felt God’s spirit in her heart; she wished to make a sacrifice for God’s Kingdom, her soul wanted to collect treasure for heaven and so she went to the bank and sent what was needed to construct the church. May the Redeemer in heaven bless her a thousand times with heavenly goods for what she has given from her earthly goods! From this event I see that God moves hearts with one poor word, and that is why I am delighted to write another report Na ki lum Shillong (From the Hills of Shillong).

Meeting the Syiem

From the beginning it was quite difficult to find a suitable building site near the Khasi huts. Without such a site one could not even begin to think about building. The mission house lay in an area the British had taken over from the Khasi princes when they established Shillong. The land adjacent to it was property of the Khasi king, the so-called S’iem of Mylliem. Fr. Otto decided to ask him personally for a site for the mission. So he had a Khasi servant ask the king when His Majesty could visit him. S’iem condescended to promise that he would visit the next day.[footnote]Letter from Fr. Otto to Fr. Jordan, April 16, 1890[/footnote] This promise was drawn out a bit. First, because the word “immediately” has a different meaning in India than it has for us. But also because his three-year-old son died and the funeral rituals had begun. In the end, he came and offered two construction sites from which to choose. The mission superior recounted:

Dazzled by the splendour of the royal name and the image connected to a royal majesty and its generosity, I did not dare ask the price. In broken Khasi, I stuttered some words of thanks for his magnanimous offer. Later, the scales were removed from my eyes about the place of a Khasi-king since the British had occupied the land. The splendour has faded since “king” is a title without meaning. He is only a shadow of a king who has little to do with decision-making. That is why he no longer possesses much wealth; indeed, one could say he is not even as wealthy as a lord of a manor or a big landowner back home. Whoever thinks of palaces and splendour such as Herren-Chiemsee, Hohenschwangau, Charlottenburg, and the like, will be thoroughly disappointed. When I went to visit him, I found his apartment was smaller than one of a simple farmer back home. Many houses are more spacious and luxuriously furnished in my former parish than was his palace. A large stack of boards was piled up in front of the house, which makes one assume that a carpenter lived there. A simple, large, rough, unpainted farmer’s table stood in the middle of the room, just as the Khasi carpenters make them. His bed is a rack covered by a cloth. Wooden benches of the same height stand around the table. One or two slightly better chairs with backrests made of reed, one of which he offered for me to sit, seemed to be designated for more distinguished guests. No whitewashed walls, no glass windows could be seen – only an opening. There was also no ceiling. One could see the rough roof beams overhead.

The rights and income of a Khasi king have been substantially restricted since the arrival of the British. They now have half of the independence they used to enjoy. Their jurisdiction over their subjects is limited to smaller crimes. The larger ones are brought before an English judge. They can no longer sentence people to death. Their income, with which they are supposed to support themselves, their numerous relatives and advisors, is mainly made up of taxes on land and property, the sale of its products at the market, and fines.

Land Troubles

Let us return to the sites offered by our Khasi king, Mutt. Both of them were situated in the part of Shillong that was most densely inhabited by the natives, the so-called Maukhar Village where the king also had his residence. Nothing was to come of either site. The royal advisory committee did not approve of giving the first one because according to the Khasi custom, their dead were burned at that site. The inhabitants then objected to giving the second site because some memorial stones of the dead were located there and, furthermore, sacrifices of goats, chickens, and pigs were made at that site. Thereupon, the king proposed a third site, which was situated a bit outside the village of Maukhar. It was quite a large area and offered sufficient space for the mission’s buildings.

While saying good-bye to the king, I asked him to be lenient with the traditional annual tax because he was a rich king and we are only poor missionaries. Meanwhile, I was still under the delusion that we would receive the site for free. The following morning, the servant came with the message that I should pay annually 50 Rupees. I was astonished. My astonishment grew when I later received notice that the owners of the site did not want to give consent. The king did not even own the site. He was only the highest sovereign prince and as such could ask for an annual tax.

The reason the owners refused to sell the site was because they thought the fathers would ask for more land after they had the first site, like the Protestant missionaries had done. And if this were to happen then they would lose their fields.[footnote]Letter from Fr. Otto in Shillong to Fr. Jordan, July 3, 1890[/footnote] So nothing came of this site, and the royal help had been requested in vain.

Since the requisite land still had to be purchased, Fr. Otto asked the building contractors to look for some. They soon found something that seemed suitable to the missionary. So he commissioned them to buy it. His servant and the building contractor led the negotiations. The day was spent surveying the land and then recording it before the king. When Fr. Otto showed up that day, the king’s advisors told him that the purchase could not take place. One man had objected to it because his wife did not approve. The property belonged to an entire family clan, as is common among the Khasi. According to Khasi law, the woman, not the man, was the property owner. The building contractor and the servant told the superior that the latter had paid the cost to the man in the presence and with the consent of his wife. But then three Protestants had gone to the man to change his mind, convincing him to come up with the lie that his wife did not want to give her consent, and that they would buy the site themselves. On this occasion, Fr. Hopfenmüller gave his first speech in Khasi and explained to the king:

It is impossible that the wife was not aware of this, since the man had taken the money and filled out the receipt. I cannot change anything if they later come to regret it. I am not the kind of man with whom one can play around; I will have my right. If someone has changed the man’s opinion, they shall know that they will not be able to prevent the construction and that I will find a site for it.

Nothing could be done against the woman’s will. When the purchase price was returned the missionary was astonished to discover that both his servant and the building contractor had deceived him. In a mutual agreement they had declared that the land price was 60 Rupees higher than its actual price. They gave the requested amount to people who could neither write nor read. The amount was 60 Rupees higher on the receipt and they had divided the balance between them. Fr. Otto got his money back. He recognized the untrustworthiness of the building contractor in time and the servant had to look for a new position.

For the fifth time, they now had to look for another site. Fr. Otto went to the king’s nephew who was a bit better educated and also spoke English and Bengali. According to Khasi succession law, he was the future king. The successor was always the nephew and not the son. At the royal nephew’s house, the superior also met the future king’s 14-year-old sister who was presented to him as the crown princess.

I was able to come up with enough Khasi to tell her: “You must be the best-behaved girl of all the others because the queen needs to set an example for everyone.” Her friendly smile and nodding showed me that she understood. On the exterior, she only differed from the other Khasi girls by a necklace made from huge coral pearls which is worn on festive occasions by other wealthy Khasi men and women.

The missionary superior then began negotiations with the king’s nephew to purchase the land. Finally, the king’s nephew promised Fr. Otto that he would give him a site that would be suitable for his purposes. It was partially covered with corn and pine trees and cost 250 Rupees. Furthermore, he requested to be hired as building contractor. Fr. Otto now believed he had reached his goal. “Tomorrow,” he wrote on July 22, 1890, the purchase of the site will be taken to protocol.” But in the end their plan once again failed to come to fruition. Even this incident did not put Fr. Hopfenmüller in bad humour. “Perhaps God has other plans. I see God’s providence in everything, even the smallest circumstance.”

When, years later, one looks back to this period one has to admit that it was indeed a fortunate act of providence that the plans of those times were never carried out. Even if the selected sites would have been sufficient for the initial projects, they would have been completely unsuitable and insufficient for later development. Furthermore, they were all situated in Maukhar Village, where the Methodists had settled years ago, and in a certain way, believed they had a certain level of control there. Had the Catholic missionaries settled there, it would undoubtedly have aroused their passionate opposition, as was already apparent.

A fortunate solution for a site finally presented itself in 1891, when Fr. Angelus Münzloher managed to purchase a large piece of property in the opposite part of Shillong, adjacent to the Khasi village of Laitumkhra. It was a long low hill, densely overgrown with pine trees. Due to the city’s expansion, it was about half an hour from Shillong bordering the governor’s park. The property was acquired for 5,000 Rupees from the English general, Hopkinson, who was living in England at the time. In this way, the issue of finding property for the Catholic mission in Shillong was effectively solved. Here, there was enough room to build a small city The sisters who arrived in January 1891, were given the little mission house. Another house nearby was rented temporarily for the missionary priests and brothers. During that same year, construction began on a mission house and a convent at the newly purchased property. The old mission house was sold to a good Catholic man called Delanougerede, whose family had given land to the mission in Gauhati.

A Life of Sacrifice

Fr. Hopfenmüller strove to be a living example to the natives of renunciation, mortification of the flesh, and of a Christian life of personal sacrifice. By now he had advanced quite far through his practice of humility, although he often said that he felt rich in comparison to the poor and undemanding Khasi.

In general, Fr. Otto was convinced that most people ate too much and that they would be healthier if they curbed their food intake. Studying the Indian people’s religion reinforced his view. He summarized his thoughts about the matter in “A Penance Sermon about Fasting to his Fellow Countrymen in Europe,” which was published in Apostlekalendar, 1891. He was astonished by the extent of physical self-mortification that informed Indian religion.

Fr. Hopfenmüller pointed to the Hindus of the higher casts who were strictly forbidden to eat meat or drink alcohol, with the most severe fasting exercised during different occasions, be it for penitence, as an expression of grief, or to attain spiritual virtues, all of which far surpassed Christian fasting, or at least equalled the greatest fasting of Christian saints. He also pointed to the fasting practices of the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and some of the ancient Greeks and Romans. From all this he draws a practical benefit for Christians to restrain the palate and deter weakness, softness, and carnal desire.

It was understandable that due to the superior’s views, satisfying bodily needs was reduced to a minimum in the mission house in Shillong. Out of the need to save money, three meatless days were planned from the beginning. On other days, meat was served only once a day. They completely abstained from alcohol.5 Instead they drank tea with their meals, something that was quite inexpensive. It was still too dangerous to drink only water, especially unfiltered water. At lunch and dinner they ate rice. For lunch, they had a little meat or a pancake along with a bowl of soup.6 Feast days were observed quite strictly.

Getting a Cow

At the end of May, Fr. Otto bought a cow since there was still plenty of grass growing around the mission house. He purchased it along with its calf for 25 Rupees, about 35 Mark. She was a bit wild, ran away a few times, then returned to eat and was difficult to get back into the cowshed. One morning she broke through the shed built of reeds and clay and lay dead in front of the shed bloated and with outstretched legs. Perhaps she had died from running around and eating.

Well, it was God’s will that we should not have a cow. By saving, we will come up with the 25 Rupees for the cow, plus 2 Rupees for burying it. For example, we will not have breakfast today, on fasting days, or on other feast days. This already saves a few Annas (cents). Likewise, I have already reduced our bread ration to save more because bread is the most expensive item here and rice is as filling as bread anyway. We are not starving, but neither do we live in luxury.

Even if breakfast were only a cup of tea and a piece of bread, leaving it out completely would not have been good for Europeans working in the Indian climate. Along with fasting, Fr. Otto continued with other mortifications of the flesh. He only left the house if it had something to do with pastoral care or the mission. He never took walks simply for relaxation.

In that part of the world, no day passes without rain. He wrote once at the beginning of June.

We do not see the splendour of spring blossoms here in May as in Germany; in June we do not see colourful meadows; in July we do not see the comforting sight of swaying cornfields. Our daily view is of thin grass with the rare flower and the monotony of scattered pine trees. A walker who has time –something that cannot be said of us– can look at the English gentlemen’s lovely gardens and revel in the flower gardens in front of other houses. Nature is not very charming once one has become accustomed to the sight of lofty mountains. Meanwhile, we are not here to please our eyes or the other bodily senses. We are here in the service of the Crucified One and we await our feast for the eyes and heart in heavenly pastures, at the sight of the Triune God who lives in inaccessible light.

Fr. Otto was a shining example of virtue to his subordinates. Every Friday he humbly accused himself of every possible error, kneeling before his confreres, continuing to use every occasion to exercise self-mortification. He soon felt at home in the foreign land and did not feel the slightest desire to return to his home country, though he enjoyed hearing from home and was delighted when the weekly post brought news from there. Apart from the Society’s magazines he also regularly received Kõlnische Volkszeitung and Bamberger Volksblatt. He always left these and other letters lying around for some time before opening them, wanting to deaden his curiosity. He immediately opened only the letters from the motherhouse in Rome. “He probably did this for our sake,” said Fr. Angelus in a letter to Fr. Jordan on October 15, 1890.

Fr. Angelus, Fr. Otto’s loyal companion from the beginning, was not able to handle the severe way of life over the long run. Already in May he began to suffer from heavy palpitations. He often had sleepless nights and felt exhausted and weak during the day. Fr. Otto attributed his condition to heart disease, for which the thin mountain air was not good. The doctor also advised him to stay in the valley.

Responding to Fr. Hopfenmüller’s earlier reports, Fr. Jordan, the superior general, expressed his worry that in Shillong one could go a bit too far with severities and that some better and richer foods should be adopted. Even though Fr. Hopfenmüller had been used to the severest way of life for all of these years, it was difficult for him to adapt to the needs of others. He believed he could expect from them all the things he achieved through self-denial and self-mastery due to his own strong willpower. This was the same tendency others had often seen in him during his former work as pastor. But he was always immediately willing to submit to the requests of the superior general.

We shall see whether better food will alleviate Fr. Angelus’ complaints; this would immediately overcome my objections. In the meantime, I have yielded to my own desire to see him well and have permitted him to take what he wants.

With time, solicitous care, and better food the illness subsided. On July 22, 1890, Fr. Otto was able to report:

To my greatest delight, I see how worried you are for the well-being of your brethren since your heart was so fearful for Fr. Angelus. Meanwhile, he is, thanks be to God, doing better and we will soon meet half way between Shillong and Gauhati to go to Confession. To get there, he has about nine hours to walk and I have about ten.

Labouring Missionaries

While Assam’s first missionary priests took great pains to do their pastoral work and their tiresome preparatory studies wit only frugal meals, the two brothers, Joseph Bächle and Marianus Schumm, did the same through dedication to hard work. Since there was plenty of land around the house, they planted a vegetable garden soon after their arrival.

Seeing the brothers working in their white habits attracted and astonished people. Curious spectators often watch them dig the soil to lay out the garden, prune trees, wash and cook. Even the English are quite astonished by it.

It was indeed quite remarkable to see Europeans doing manual work due to the strange Indian social customs with its complicated caste system. This issue gave the superior something to consider, as he wrote to the general superior:

My attention has been called to a dubious fact regarding the brothers’ activity. Ordinary work is seen to be something humiliating in the ruling caste system. Only the lowest and most despised caste carries out certain activities, like taking away dirty water and cleaning the bathrooms. If the brothers were to carry out such tasks in their habits, the same low opinion would fall on other priests wearing the same clothes. The brothers in Calcutta only perform the so-called “classy work” and do it in their civilian clothes. I objected by saying that there was no caste system in Shillong. They pointed out that many Hindus and Muslims from the valley also lived there and that they too have their caste prejudices. What to do, says Zeus. I think I will try to do it as it is done in Europe. If I encounter trouble, I will ask you again. We do not need to show consideration for the Hindus and Muslims, if the Khasi are not offended by it.

In fact no negative consequences occurred among the Khasi, a people without a caste system, and the missionaries continued wearing their habits at home.

Fr. Hopfenmüller wrote about their life to his friend, Mr. Schmitz, editor of Bamberger Volksblatt on July 22, 1890:

Our missionary life is still very monotonous. Br. Marianus, whom you know, and I are alone in our house. I study, pray, watch, read, work on the catechism as well as on biblical stories in the Khasi language, while also organizing conferences in English for educated people; he cooks, digs, plants, waters, mends and does other work. Doing all these things we are physically well, spiritually satisfied, and happy in the joy and comfort of Jesus Christ, which the world cannot give but is given only through solitude with God.

He continued:

You will see all the things one experiences in a missionary post by these examples of small incidents that have happened to us. When there were still four of us, we wanted to have a goat for milk. I bought a goat with a kid for 7 Rupees. The next night a leopard broke into the stable and carried away the kid. Since the goat gave only a small amount of milk, we decided to buy a cow. Said, done. The next day, the cow lay dead and bloated in front of the stable. Some time later, I opened the stable in the morning and found that the goat had been stolen; now we only have the dead cow’s calf, which we raise. One needs to see God’s hands in the little things because not even a sparrow falls from the sky without the will of the heavenly Father. With even greater effort, I tried to get back the money we had lost. We now live in such simple and poor conditions that Marianus and I hardly spend more then 7 Annas (70-80 cents) for food. Some bread, and often not even that, bread- soup, rice, peas, beans, potatoes, cups of tea that were given to us, as well as some fruit, make up our diet. But we feel quite well.

The Master’s Call

Amid all Fr. Otto’s pastoral efforts —his restless preparations for converting the Khasi people, his worries over the purchase of a suitable building site, and building the necessary mission buildings— the voice of his Lord and Master sounded in his ears, calling him from his life that had been so rich in work, trials, and sacrifices. Like many who first arrived in India, he let himself be deceived by the seemingly European climate in Shillong. This was easily understandable.

At their arrival, it had been bitterly cold in the mornings and at night. “Since we have been here, there has been a continuous strong wind and at night it is so cold that we freeze.” Thunderstorms began in mid-April which brought a welcome cooling that slowly turned into the rainy season. But even during these days the missionaries were plagued by heat.

All of June the weather here is rainy and cool. There was a bit less rain the last few days, but no excessive heat. Surely it is not as hot as in Germany now. But Fr. Angelus wrote from Gauhati that it was so hot there that they only need to cover themselves with a linen sheet at night. I needed two woollen blankets to protect myself from the cold at night.

Nonetheless, the climate was an oddly Indian one. If the sun came out, it would blaze quite strongly. It was dangerous to be exposed to its rays without protective headgear or at least a light hat. Even when the sun was hidden behind clouds, it could still do much harm to an inexperienced European. Fr. Otto believed he was able to expose himself to the sun without a hat when he walked up and down the garden, praying the breviary or studying. This was dangerous for him, as it had been for many previous missionaries. On Sunday, August 17, he was overcome by a feeling of sickness. He had to hold on to the altar while saying Holy Mass in order to not fall down. Br. Marianus asked him if Fr. Angelus should come up from Gauhati or whether he should call a doctor. Fr. Otto answered no to both questions. He believed it was something temporary and that he would be all right with the help of some household remedies. But his condition deteriorated. On Tuesday, he could only say Mass with the greatest effort. That same day, he had already partially lost his senses. When the doctor arrived the next morning, he was unconscious. And so he slumbered into eternity. His body, weakened from penitence and self-chastisement, was unable to offer resistance. On Thursday, August 21, 1890, he breathed out his pure soul at 12 o’clock noon. According to the doctor, he had suffered from inflammation of the brain, which had been brought about by sunstroke.

At his departure for the mission, Fr. Otto once told his friends at home that he wished to be active as a missionary for 20 years and would then like to die a martyr’s death; but if God wanted something else then he would also be satisfied.

Indeed, God did want something different. With the large field of activity ahead of him, just like St. Francis Xavier on the island of Sanzian, everything was prepared to announce to the poor Khasi the light of the Gospel and the grace of the Redeemer. But he was destined to close his eyes to this life in a lonely mission hut at the height of his manhood at the age of 47, without having converted a single soul, without a priestly brother at his side, without receiving the comfort of the Holy Sacrament or having been able to confer his ecclesial authorities on another.

As soon as the assistant medical director, Dr. Costello, noticed Fr. Otto’s worrisome condition he telegraphed his colleague Dr. Mullone in Gauhati so that he would inform Fr. Angelus. While he was busy preparing for Mass on August 21, Dr. Mullone came to him and told him he must leave immediately for Shillong because the superior was dangerously ill. The doctor immediately got a horse- drawn carriage which raced up the hills in a wild gallop, frequently changing horses. The unexpected news filled Fr. Angelus with anxious worry. He arrived in Shillong at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. But he no longer found his beloved superior among the living.6 He put his painful feelings into words in a letter to the superior general on August 22, 1890:

Something I never imagined has occurred. Our sincerely beloved Reverend Fr. Superior has died. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would think it was a bad dream. You can imagine our pain. Tears are in my eyes. We are orphans. Oh my dear Reverend Father, how painful this is for us! I cannot describe it. What shall we do now? Please send us a new superior because we are still children. The one thing consoling me is that he celebrated the Octave of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in heaven because he lived like a saint.

On the afternoon of August 21, Fr. Otto was laid to rest in the general cemetery for Europeans in Shillong. A simple wooden cross marks the place where his remains await the resurrection.

But trials were not to end with the superior’s death. As was already mentioned, Br. Marianus suffered from swollen feet. His situation did not improve. After Fr. Otto’s funeral, Fr. Angelus took care of what was necessary in Shillong and then returned to Gauhati for a few days where some tasks required his presence. He left Br. Marianus in the care of Dr. Costello and sent Br. Joseph up from Gauhati to Shillong. A serious attack of dysentery, which is often deadly for Europeans in the tropics, was added to the pain in Br. Marianus’ feet, and he was taken to hospital. He smiled at the efforts to cure him, saying they were unnecessary since he was going to Fr. Otto in heaven. His weakened body was unable to resist the grave illness. On August 30, his pure soul breathed its last.

He was terribly emaciated and his hands and feet were swollen, but the peace of heaven spread over his lean countenance. Again, Fr. Angelus was called back to Shillong by the news of death.

Lessons for the Missionary

In order to do all that was humanly possible to prevent such heavy losses in the future, Fr. Angelus did not forget to give the newly-arriving missionaries some warnings along the way. Still scarred by the painful ordeals, he wrote to Fr. Jordan:

One has to be very careful in India and listen to those who have been here longer and have acquired experience. This shall be said to the new missionaries. The Jesuits in Calcutta have already lost four missionaries this year. One usually visits India during the good season and refuses to believe it is that bad. For this reason, one continues to do the same activities and strains as in Europe, thinking that the behaviour of others is too soft and exaggerated. Indeed, if one did in Europe what is done in India they would be teased. What would people think if they saw a monk with a parasol! But this is a necessity here. One cannot force a European’s physical constitution to become used to the sun. Especially in this regard, I wish to point out something to the missionaries going to Shillong. Throughout the year it is almost always cool there, which makes one believe it is not all that bad, and that one can walk up and down the garden without wearing a hat. That is a great delusion! The sun is the Indian sun, which casts its rays straight down.

Our black habit is way too thick for the valley area. Missionaries in India wear cassocks and pants made of thin white canvas. One also needs to get a hat, which must be worn when going out into the sun. The black [Roman] hat can only be worn in the morning or evening.

Another important and difficult issue is food. It is a delusion when a European believes he can live like a native. Shillong has taught me this. The church had its reasons when it limited the rules for fasting for Europeans in India. One needs to eat decently. It is also God’s will that we maintain our health in order to work hard for the salvation of souls.

One may allow the missionaries a bit of latitude: they have enough of a cross and pain to bear. One needs to be careful and forbearing here, otherwise it will be impossible to replace the missionaries with enough successors.



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Fr. Dr. C E Becker Written by:

Fr. Christoph E Becker SDS, served as the Apostolic Prefect of the Catholic Mission of German Salvatorian missionaries in Assam from 1905 to 1915. Christoph Becker SDS was highly learned in the cultural anthropology, linguistics, geography and botany of India, especially its northeastern regions. His work The Catholic Church in Northeast India 1890-1915 is an invaluable source of information on the history and culture of the native people of Assam.

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