Fr Joseph Murray Abraham SJ, a Canadian Jesuit who dedicated his life to giving education and agricultural livelihood opportunities to the poorest people in Darjeeling has died aged 87.
Fr Abe, as he was affectionately known, died in India on 28 August 2012, leaving behind Jesuits and lay people in Kurseong, part of Darjeeling district, to continue his outstanding work and loyal Canadian friends to support them. People from all walks of life thronged to his funeral to thank him for all he has done.
“It is a great loss for us. We’ll miss him very much,” said Cecilia George, director of SOJASI (Society of Jesus Agricultural and Social Institute), of which Fr Abe was one of the founders.
“When I visited him last week he said he was ready to go. He was weak then. Yesterday it happened very quickly. We couldn’t believe. But he passed away very peacefully.”
Fr Abe died shortly after noon on 28 August at a home run by the Flame of Hope Sisters in Matigara, Siliguri, where he had been staying since last November. His body was brought to St Paul’s Church in Kurseong, where people gathered and prayed together until 10pm. A funeral mass was held on 29 August at St Alphonsus High School — which he set up — followed by burial in the local cemetery.
People flocked to express their gratitude to the man who had done much to help them build lives of dignity and also enabled them to reach out to others in their turn.
“Fr Abe had the biggest funeral here in Kurseong. People from all walks of life kept paying their respects all day long,” said Fr Kinley Tshering SJ, the provincial of the Jesuit Darjeeling Province.
All shops and establishments were closed as a mark of respect and a funeral procession led by the Darjeeling Police Band “was so long we could not see the end or the beginning.” People lined up on both side of the road throwing flowers and ceremonial scarfs as Fr Abe’s coffin passed in a pick-up decked with flowers and a portrait in front. “It was a fitting farewell for a man who spent his life for the people here. The local and national papers carried articles about his contributions and achievements,” continued Fr Kinley.
“What impressed me personally was the many poor people who came to pay their respects. Many cried as they remembered what Abe had done for them.”
A Jesuit for 70 years, Fr Abe volunteered for the Canadian mission in Darjeeling in 1948. India had just achieved independence when Murray Abraham arrived for his first assignment at St Joseph’s North Point — teaching children of affluent families. He did an outstanding job as a teacher. But his heart was always with the disadvantaged who were everywhere in Darjeeling.
Going to Kurseong, the only school he found when he arrived was a broken down hotel. With help from Canadian friends and an unsecured loan from the Royal Bank, Fr Abraham and the community built the St Alphonsus School in the early sixties. It stands to this day, a high school for more than 1000 students.
“God blessed hundreds of children when He inspired Fr Abe to express the motto of St Alphonsus School as: The best education we can give to the poorest children we can find. Fr Abe was the school principal for 23 years and we poor students got an excellent academic education,” recalls Cecilia.
But there was more. Fr Abe started a poultry farm of 6,000 birds on the school roof, dividing the fowl into small “businesses” of 300 to 400 each. When he left St Alphonsus after more than 20 years, former students joined him to set up another enterprise in 1978: the St Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre (SASAC).
The organic revolution had begun in Kurseong and Fr Abe wanted, and succeeded, to get the poorest people to benefit, so that they could have access to food as well as an opportunity to live and raise a family from food production.
“At SASAC, we developed projects to ‘help the poor help themselves.’ We conducted a survey in nine villages in the mountains. When we went there, we were much moved; the people seemed like lost sheep,” continues Cecilia.
“We trained 100 parents of the poorest families in dairy management, pork production, mushroom cultivation and our Square Metre Vegetable Gardening (SMVG) method, which increased the production on their half-acre farms tenfold.”
The closure of SASAC in 2007 was followed by the setting up of two institutions Woodcot and SOJASI; Fr Abe guided SOJASI and sat on its management committee until his death.
A prolific writer and mesmerising public speaker, Fr Abe drew in an army of Canadian friends who supported his projects and with whom he kept in regular correspondence over more than 50 years.
Shirley Valentine is one of his faithful supporters. “I met Fr Abraham when he toured Canada in 1961 and we have supported projects he founded since then, for more than 50 years,” she says.
“My mother also supported Fr Abraham and corresponded with him. My youngest sister visited him, spending Christmas at SASAC, and our eldest son, Tom, travelled to Kurseong and spent time teaching Nepali students English after graduation. We all realized we were part of an outstanding development — making a real difference in the lives of so many families in that corner of the world.”
Even after retiring, well into his eighties, Fr Abe began a poetry blog he continued up to the very end.
The prayers of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) go out to Fr Abe’s family especially his nephews and nieces and the many friends who have supported him and his work over the years, as well as to all the members of SOJASI, Himalayan Hope, Flame of Hope communities and the many people in Kurseong who were touched by his life.
Information about memorial arrangements in Canada can be found here.