In memory of Fr Gerard Van Walleghem SJ
Father Gerard Adhelson Van Walleghem SJ died on 1 June 2015 in Darjeeling, India, at the age of 88. He was a Jesuit for 70 years.
“Fr Van,” as he was known, was born in Winnipeg on 7 March 1927 into a large Belgian family, which ran a dairy business. He joined the Jesuits on 7 September 1944. After completing his early Jesuit training in Guelph and at Regis College, he went to Darjeeling in 1951 and was ordained on 19 March 1958.
Growing up, Gerard had seen many challenges. These experiences played a role in shaping his future as a Jesuit. He displayed great flexibility — a man ever ready to pitch in and help as needed. In the field of education, he taught, counselled and administered. His students invariably felt that he was someone who knew and loved each one of them. Given his talents, Fr Van was chosen repeatedly for leadership roles and filled many posts in virtually every part of the Darjeeling Mission, and even some beyond Darjeeling.
During his early days in Darjeeling, Fr Van worked directly with young people, teaching, camping, counselling, etc. As the years went by administrative responsibilities encroached on his time, but he never forgot the formative years of the many young people whose lives he touched. He cared little about status — the person was the focus of his attention. Young people returned the favour, giving him a permanent place in their hearts. Fr Van had a profound care for “the least of my brothers and sisters” (Mt 25:40). Whether it was acquiring a job, getting decent housing, gaining admission to one of the many schools he ran, he put the focus on the most disadvantaged.
Jesuit responsibilities were Fr Van’s constant companion. He fulfilled the role of novice master, rector, principal, teacher on demand. His legacy at St Joseph’s School, North Point, is permanent. Many visitors to North Point stand in awe at the beautiful mountainside below the school, now dotted with whitewashed homes and flowers of every description. His success in leading young men through Jesuit formation was awesome. One of his novitiate training sessions involved a 500 km walk from Kalimpong to Kolkatta begging for food and shelter. Memories of “the pilgrimage” are fully alive forty years later! In all these roles, Fr Van built strong bridges between faith and culture and service among the poor and disadvantaged.
As an octogenarian Fr Van still travelled the globe. Each stop was a reunion, an occasion to carry on his lifetime work. His great extended family and his network of alumni saw him through thick and thin. On his final visit to Canada in 2012, it became apparent his ability to travel solo and even to write letters was waning. Fr Van spent his final days at St Joseph’s, North Point. He breathed his last, ever so peacefully, on 1 June 2015.
Fr Van’s Funeral Mass will take place on Tuesday, 2 June 2015, at 1:30 pm in the chapel of St. Joseph’s School, North Point, Darjeeling, and the burial will take place in the school compound itself. He awaits the Resurrection with his Jesuit confreres.
Donations in Fr Van’s memory can be made to CJI online.
Homily delivered by Fr Kinley Tshering SJ
(A summary of the homily by the Jesuit Provincial of Darjeeling at the funeral of Fr Gerard Van Walleghem SJ — 1927-2015)
This afternoon, we have not come here to hurriedly bury Fr Van nor have we come to say our goodbyes. We have come together to celebrate the life of this man. To say “thank you Lord” for the gift of this wonderful man, a humble priest, a great teacher and a friend of all. To say “thank you Fr Van” for what you have been to the entire Society of Jesus and in a particular way to St. Joseph’s School, North Point, Darjeeling. After Fr Depelchin, the first founder, you were definitely the next pillar of North Point.
Fr Van and I have known each other for the last 50 years, since I was an 8 year old boy, as his student to now being his Provincial. In our many conversations we had come to a deal. If either of us were to die first, the other would be the homilist at the funeral. I am so happy that he died before me because it makes my job very easy today. I could write a book on him and the stories of his love, generosity, patience, understanding, compassion, trust, dedication, commitment would just flow. If he were to be the homilist, I am sure he had to be extra generous to me and would have done an equally good job!
From now on, Fr Van is not going to be walking the corridors of this quadrangle. He is not going to be in the counsellor’s room waiting for you, nor in the chapel, nor stooped over his Breviary basking in the sun nor attending all the functions of the school. However, you are going to find him now in your hearts, because he was truly a Master of the hearts. He knew how to listen, listen well to what perhaps we were not able to articulate, and that is why from bishops to priests, from nuns to youngsters, people from every walk of life came to make retreats under him or seek his wisdom.
For most us, he was the ideal, the hero, the legend and for all of us he was our Father and of late the grandfather. Like all our father-son relationships we had our share of misunderstandings, conflicts and reconciliations. He was a novice master for ten years in Darjeeling and most of the young priests owe what they are now to him. Many novice masters would have mercilessly dismissed several of us for our foibles, but Fr Van only saw the good and the future possibilities. His great qualities of listening, of generosity to a fault, honest to the core and his compassion which was Christ-like endeared him to all and sometimes a pain to the authorities who had to deal with him even when feeling annoyed and irritated by the demands on their kindness.
Finally what I have learnt from Fr Van are these two things to help me carry on his memory: Experience does not change a man, wisdom does. Time does not change a man, love does. Fr Van was a wise man full of wisdom and unconditional love. May his tribe increase! SURSUM CORDA.
Memorial service in Canada
A celebration for Fr Gerard Van Walleghem’s life was held on Tuesday, 9 June, 2015, with Mass at St. Ignatius Church, 255 Stafford Street, Winnipeg, MB, at 11:00 am, followed by a reception in the Parish hall.
Eulogy by John Van Walleghem
(Excerpts from the eulogy delivered by Fr Van’s nephew at St. Ignatius Church, Winnipeg, on 9 June 2015)
The facts of Uncle Gerard’s life … speak of a life well-lived, productive in the service of others, true to his God and his calling, steadfast in his commitment to being a man for others.
But when we look beyond the facts we recognize the great man. Of course, like the rest of the family in Canada and Belgium, I’m probably biased. And I suspect that bias extends to the parishioners of St. Ignatius and St. John Brebeuf and many other Winnipegers. We all tend to think of him as our gift to the larger world.
However, there is evidence from other sources. For instance, Indian and Canadian media have praised his work. Almost a year ago, an article in the Darjeeling Chronicle said:
During the 1968 landslide which had devastated pretty much all of Darjeeling, Fr. Van along with the late Fr. Edgar Burns worked tirelessly towards providing relief and rehabilitation to those who had lost everything. Later their efforts resulted in the formation of one of Darjeeling’s most iconic social-work organizations — Hayden Hall.
When war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1971, Fr. Van again tirelessly led the relief efforts in the refugee camps.
During the 1986-1989 Gorkhaland Andolan [civil unrest], Fr. Van again provided help to thousands of our brothers and sisters who suffered during the period.
In 2006, Fr. Van finally started to realize his long cherished dream of starting St. Joseph’s School at Mungpoo to provide quality affordable education to the children in rural Darjeeling, and he decided to use a very old and traditional building material — Bamboo.
That article reminds us of what a powerful contribution Gerard, along with his long-time best friend Father Edgar Burns, and their fellow Canadian Jesuits made in their adopted home.
Other evidence of Gerard’s greatness is seen in the titles he earned out of respect for who he was and how he impacted lives.
- He was “Son,” “Nephew,” “Cousin,” “Uncle” and “Brother-in-law” to the family that knew him as a boy and young man and that grew in Canada while he was serving in India. Even though the farthest away, it was he who brought us closer together because of our relationship to him.
- He was “Father” to an always growing legion of students, alumni, parishioners, and fellow religious in India and supporters in almost every other part of the world, including here in Winnipeg, especially in St. Ignatius and St. John Brebeuf Parishes where he and his Canadian confreres were the inspiration for the Darjeeling Mission Club.
- After receiving the honorary doctorate, he was often referred to as “Father Doctor” in the Indian newspapers. He was clearly too important a person in the Darjeeling hills to be referred to by only one title at a time.
Uncle Gerard touched so many hearts. He created connections between Canada and a remote area of India, connections that have endured for over half a century and promise to continue well into the future. He helped us all feel good about helping others and then to realize that we were actually helping ourselves to be better people.
But Uncle Gerard would have been embarrassed if he knew I was saying that he was a great man. For all the accomplishments and all the accolades and all the honours, there was only one title that he truly valued. In our memories and in our hearts, he will always be simply … “Father Van.”