MUMBAI – In less than a month, Mother Teresa will be canonized with much fanfare in Rome and the people of India will cheer for their saint. However, she’s not the only Eastern European who came to work with the poor and became more identified with India than with the country of their birth.
Today, Jesuit Father Irudaya Jothi, the order’s episcopal delegate for causes of beatification and canonization, will start an investigation of the testimonies for fellow Jesuit Father Ante Gabrić, a Croatian missionary who left for India at the age of 23 and spent fifty years there before he died in 1988.
Speaking to Crux, Jothi said, “On his 25th death anniversary I was in Croatia preaching in the churches…the whole of Croatia is very proud of him and want to see him made a saint along with Mother Teresa who was his close friend.”
“Mother knew Croatian too,” Jothi said, “and I was told she was sent to Calcutta by a Croatian Jesuit.”
Nicholas Naskar, a catechist who worked with Gabrić from the beginning of his ministry in India, said of him, “A divine being was amidst us.. but we didn’t recognize him…!”
Naskar silently wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke.
People in the Sundarbans in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal still have a lot of love and appreciation for Gabrić and his work 25 years after his death. This difficult terrain was the mission of Gabrić, who later on came to be known as the “Apostle of the Sundarbans.”
Gabrić was born in Metković, Croatia, on February 28, 1915, one of nine children of Petar and Katarina Gabrić. A large family with several of his cousins living under the same roof seemed to define Gabrić’s joyful worldview.
He later would write, “It seems that I have been carrying the happiness and joy of my childhood throughout all my life. And that was of huge help in the hardest moments of life.”
As a boy, Gabrić daily rushed to serve at the altar for the Eucharist, and he wanted some day to be doing the things his pastor was doing – hold Jesus in his hands and give Him to others. He was particularly impressed by the idea that a priest can give Jesus to other people.
Immediately after graduation from school on May 15, 1933, Gabrić expressed his desire to join the Jesuits with these words, “My main reason is: there I will be able to do a lot of work for Jesus, for his glory, and to make a complete sacrifice for Him. I also have a desire to go to the missions in India.”
On the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, he was received in to the novitiate at Jordanovac in Zagreb, and thus began his Jesuit formation.
On October 20, 1938, after obtaining special permission from his Jesuit superiors, Gabrić left for India, his ‘promised land,’ by steamship. Exactly fifty years later to the day, October 20, 1988, he passed away.
In the difficult terrain of the Sundarbans, he was always on the move walking and cycling and using whatever mode of communication was available, wanting to reach out and touch as many lives as possible. His apparent ill health and fragility did not deter him.
He was a prolific letter writer to his family members, friends, acquaintances and most importantly, benefactors. This helped him greatly in getting the needed help in feeding the starving, clothing the naked and saving lives. both at the time of natural disasters, which was an annual phenomenon, and at other times.
Gabrić didn’t just give food and money to the needy. He introduced viable income-generating activities, such as carpentry, stitching and tailoring and embroidery, helping poor families move towards towards economic empowerment and upward mobility.
Most of the tailors today in many of the Islands, for instance, were trained by Gabrić’s tailoring school, and they are ever thankful to this Croatian missionary.
He had a close relationship with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and their mutual respect and admiration intensified in their love for Christ, trying to excel the other in following Christ daily. There are many stories going around in the Islands of their mutual support and vision for the people in Bengal, especially the poor.
Gabrić cultivated a special relationship with people in the government, which helped in many ways in reaching out to the needy at the time of floods, cyclones and other natural calamities.
Gabrić had his adversaries and critics as well. Some criticized him for his approach while others cautioned against his seemingly unquenchable thirst for souls and warned against a proselytizing backlash.
Twenty five years after his physical death people still consider him ‘God-sent’ and pray to him at the time of difficulties and sickness. Most of the Catholic houses in the Sunderbans have pictures of Gabrić at the altar.
Five books have already been published on Gabrić, both in Croatian and English.