Fr. John Deeney, SJ, 88, is the first American Jesuit of the Jamshedpur Province to get Indian citizenship. Author of a Ho-English dictionary, grammar and a host of publications in the Ho language, he has worked for the Ho tribals for more than five decades. His life and selfless service form an important chapter in the history of the early American Jesuits in India. Excerpts from an interview he gave to Janina Gomes for Jivan:
Tell us about your early years.
I was born in Philadelphia. I heard the call to become a Jesuit when I was still very young. I came to India in 1949. While studying theology at Kurseong, I came across reports on the Ho tribals in Western Singhbhum district of Bihar. Shortly after my ordination in Kurseong in 1952 I spent a month in Chaibasa where I was gifted a copy of a Ho grammar book written by Burrows in 1910. That started me on my studies of the Ho language.
What are the specific traits of Ho tribals?
The Hos are a large tribe, ethnically and linguistically related to the Mundas and Santals. Their language is related to languages spoken in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and parts of India. The 1991 Census report gave the number of Ho speakers as 949,216.
For and with Ho tribals for
more than half a century
Interview with John Deeney, SJ
When did you begin to work for them?
When I became the Headmaster of the St Xavier’s High school in 1955 the school was in Chaibasa. Two years later it was moved to Lupungutu, 3 kilometeres from Chaibasa. After I served for 7 years as the Headmaster of the school I was assigned to Chaibasa parish. For 12 years I was deeply involved in pastoral and faith formation activities among the Hos. It was then I started preparing prayers and books in the Ho Language.
How did you manage to come up with so many publications in the Ho language?
In 1974 as other priests entered the Ho pastoral field I was moved to the high school at Lupungutu, so that I could prepare the Ho translation of a Missal cum Lectionary for all Sunday and feast-day Masses. Then I worked on the first ever Ho-English Dictionary, a Ho Grammar with a large English-Ho vocabulary, a large Ho Prayer Book, a Ho Hymnal, a Ho Bible History, the New Testament of the Bible and a book on the lives of saints - all in the Ho language. There was a Ho college graduate who helped me in all these. His name is Dhanur Singh Purty. Later with my guidance and support he published in the Ho language seven books covering all aspects of Ho Life and Culture. These 7 books totalled about 1350 pages. In 2001 I returned to Lupungutu. Since then Mr Purty and I have published a book of the Psalms and Major Prophets of the Old Testament in Ho.
So you spent nearly 21 years coming up with one rare publication after another in Ho. Did you have time for pastoral work?
During these 21 years every Sunday I cycled to Bordor village to say Mass. As the community there grew, I became increasingly involved in their faith formation. That has now become a vibrant parish. In Oct 1995 I requested to be involved again in pastoral and faith formation work. So I was assigned to the Bhoya area of Chaibasa parish. I used to cycle from village to village getting to know the people entrusted to me. Three years later this became a new parish in Basahatu village.
Why didn’t you write anything in English about the Ho people?
I have. The Spirit World of the Hos is an English book.
While many hunger for American ctizenship why were you keen on renouncing it and becoming an Indian citizen?
Missionaries abandon their original home and acquire a new home. I was granted Indian citizenship in Feb 1991. I renounced my American citizenship to express my complete solidarity with the Ho tribals I worked with and the many Indian brother priests I live and work with. India has been my home for 60 years now. At the age of 88 I look back with contentment on God’s call to become a Jesuit and spend my life here in India, serving the Ho tribals, who have become my people.
Special thanks to Ed Plocha (MD Province) and M.A. Joe Antony, SJ (Editor, Jivan) for making this interview available to us.