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Fr. Gerard Turkenburg, S.J (1894 – 1946)

Posted on: 17 Jan, 2024 | Modified on: 28 Apr, 2024

Our doughty Father Turkenburg, after a great struggle for life, expired at Manresa House on the 17th November, aged a little less than 53 years, and at the very time when he was gathering in a wonderful harvest of souls at Mahuadanr.

Fr. Turkenburg was a Dutchman, born at Amsterdam on the 15th Jan. 1894, he reached India in October 1920, taught for a couple of years at St. John’s Ranchi, made his theological studies at Kurseong where he was ordained priest. After his formation, that is since 1928, he laboured uninterruptedly in the Ranchi Mission.

He was essentially a pioneer and a leader of men. His head was stuffed full with schemes and plans, some eminently practical, others less so. The former he brought to fruition, the latter he relegated to some sort of limbo whence he might retrieve them in good time, when, refurbished, they might be fir for execution.

His life was one of true and solid achievement. Immediately after his third probation, when he taught at St. John’s, he was appointed “Promoter of Vernacular Literature”. Under his inspiring impulse the New Testament was translated in Hindi and published, and a great many books in the languages of Chotanagpur saw the light.

In 1930 he became head of the Apostolic School, and in that year, at the cost of superhuman efforts he launched an enterprise that was destined to be the great pillars of missionary effort in India, the Ranchi Catholic Press.

In 1933 he was appointed first Master of Novices and first Vice Rector of the newly established novitiate and juniorate at Hazaribag. During eight years he nursed and guided the new institution and saw it growing under his eyes. During this time also he tired his hand at pioneer missionary work among the despised Charmas of the Hazaribag District. At the outset a good many Chamars succumbed to his magnetic approach, but later, for reasons unknown to me, the work collapsed. Even he had to taste disappointment, but that neither broke nor embittered him.

In 1941 Fr. Turkenburg was placed at the head of the young High School of Gumla. At the same time he had charge of the Gumla parish, one very difficult to work. Here again he did pionnering in the mission field: results were fair, but by no means overwhelming. Then, after one year as chaplain (1943) to the Christian Labour Corps in Assam, came the heroic period of Fr. Turkenburg’s life. In 1944 he was placed in charge of the very difficult Mahuadanr parish, which still felt the effects of the great apostasy that took place during the first world war. When he arrived at Mahuadanr, things had been improving for some time: Father Paul De Jaegher had dome very solid work in Palamau, and by now God's grace seemed to be strongly at work in those parts.

Father Turkenburg knew the situation exactly, also he was very well aware of his powers as a leader and as a pioneer, and firmly determined to achieve something great for God’s glory. He went straight to the people, to the hardened apostolates and to those that had never been of the fold. Few could resist him and every tour of the district resulted in new conquests for Christ. Father Turkenburg succeeded in obtaining Sisters of the Holy Cross from Bettiah to assist in the instruction of women and other catechumens. Few missionaries ever had the happiness of seeing their labours succeed as he did.

It was a regular Pentecostal outpouring: in three years the number of his Christians grew by nearly 8,000. In the beginning of this year Palamau was erected into a separate Vicariate, with Fr. Turkenburg as Vicar Forane and Religious Superior.

I have spoken only of what appeared on the outside. Is it necessary to add that Fr. Turkenburg was a man of strong faith and intense prayer? As a Religious Superior he was perhaps less flexible than some might have wished: the rule was the rule and had to be kept by all. Above all, the time allotted to prayer had to be devoted to prayer by all. First prayer, then labour! I have heard him declare that, “If I were superior”, such as neglect prayer would have a thin time. Would age and experience have mellowed him? I think not. He had been hewn out of solid rock, and such as he was, he was an austere character, yet withal to bend to circumstances: he honestly tried to see what was God’s will, but once he had seen it, neither devil nor angel could have made him deviate one inch from the right course.

Editor: R. Stegman, s.j., St. Mary's College, Kurseong
Printed and Published by H. Jacquemotte, s.j., Catholic Press, Ranchi
Courtesy: Frs. Louis Francken, S.J. and Ranjit Lakra, S.J.