Catholics in Bihar bid farewell to ‘Jack of All Trades’

Catholics in Bihar bid farewell to ‘Jack of All Trades’

The citizens in Patna are going to miss the sight of the big ‘gora American in chappals’ who was often seen on a striking vintage motorbike weaving through the lanes and bye-lanes.

Fr John Joseph Kenealy, a “jack of all trades” American Jesuit missionary, who cared for Bihar’s girl children decades before the government focused on them, is no more.

The funeral Mass for Father John Joseph Kenealy is scheduled at 11 am on July 8 at St. Edmunds Church, Oak Park, Illinois, his family parish.

Fr Jack with Patna Jesuit Provincial Jose V.

Jesuit Father John “Jack” O’Callaghan, a friend of Father Kenealy, is expected to lead the Mass assisted by Fathers Paul Faulstich of Jesuit Delhi province and K P Dominic of Patna province, says the Ganga Lahar, the Patna Jesuit newsletter.

In Bihar,  a memorial Mass was held on July 9 at Xavier Teachers Training Institute, Patna, capital of Bihar. Jesuit Archbishop William D’Souza led the Mass, attended by a multitude of priests, religious, and parishioners.

His commitment, simplicity and generosity has left a lasting impression on the hundreds of people whose lives he touched.

Father Kenealy, popularly known as Father Jack, died on July 2 in a Chicago hospital. He had left India for vacation with his provincial Father Jose Vadassery on June 22, five days after celebrating his 90th birthday in Patna. On June 30, he was admitted to the hospital after feeling unwell.

Father Kenealy joined the Jesuits in 1945 and came to India four years later after completing Juniorate. He studied philosophy at Shembagannur in Tamil Nadu and theology at St Mary’s Theologate Kurseong, West Bengal. Jesuit Bishop Augustine Wildermuth ordained him a priest in 1959.

Jesuit Father Mel Diamond remembered the Shembagannur days, and said that Jack was a butterfly enthusiast who helped add specimens to the institution’s natural history museum. All those who came in touch with him spoke of his wit, good humour, and infectious smile.

He had served the people of Bihar in various capacities for nearly seven decades. He “was a true and great missionary in the classical sense of the word,” says an obituary note from the Patna Jesuit province.

“He loved the people of Bihar whom he was sent to serve and as an expression of his commitment to them he adopted a very simple life style which he maintained to the very end,” the obituary says. Unlike many of his conferrers from the States, Father Jack not only learned Hindi well but could spoke with rural idioms in his conversations. The local people “were very comfortable with him and experienced his love and care for them,” it adds.

The tall smiling missionary who rode the same motorcycle for more than 45 years was called a ‘jack’ of all trades as he could easily shift from the role of a pastor for rural folk in an interior village to an account who handled diocesan finances with finesse.

“He could spend days, months and years cataloging documents in a library and he could be riding his motorcycle for hours to reach a guest at his/her destination on time,” the obituary says.

Father Jack listened to intricate interpersonal issues for hours as the judge of the Patna diocesan marriage tribunal. He would run around the police offices for weeks to sort out the registration matters of the American priests working in Bihar. “He did all of these with utmost dedication,” the note adds.

Father Jack was more famous for his concern for the orphan girls of Shahpur, a mission station in western Bihar, now under Buxar diocese. He was the pastor there for nearly two decades.

“He adopted orphans of the parish as his children and that adoption became his lifelong commitment,” the Patna Jesuit officials recall. The missionary wanted his orphans to live a dignified life. “When any of them or their children was sick, he spared no effort to provide the best medical care for them. When they visited him he made sure to feed them well. He spent himself for them,” the superiors say.

“I am the father of so many daughters. It is true. I do have a family of 20 orphan girls who call me their father,” Father Jack wrote to his American benefactors. He also narrated “a sad experience” that convinced him the need to help girl children.

He had gone to attend a wedding in one of the poor Catholic villages under Shahpur. All mud houses in the village were lit up with electricity from a rented generator. However, he noticed one house was in dark except for a flickering oil lamp. His catechist explained him that the family was sad because it had a newly born girl child.

“This was a shock. A child had come into the world and because it was a girl there was no joy. There was no one to give it a welcome,” Father Jack wrote. He said the incident left a sense of sadness in him. “Whenever I met a woman with a new-born baby girl, I would go out of my way to tell her how beautiful her child was and how the child would grow up to be a wonderful woman,” he explained.

In Shahpur, some sisters managed a maternity home. He found many girls abandoned there. As they children grew old they began calling him “daddy.” Thus was born the “Father of Shahpur orphan girls.” He arranged for their marriages and assured them that he would always try to be there for them.

One of the girls, Rekha, took her final vows as a Holy Cross nun in 2014.

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