Missionary of the Santal Tribes – Fr. Anthony Debono

By P. A. Chacko, SJ

Jesuits have a long history of working with the Santal tribes who are indigenous ethnic groups native to the eastern Indian states of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Odisha. The Jesuits of the Dumka-Raiganj Province have been involved in various social and educational initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the tribal communities. Fr. Anthony Debono is one of the pioneers of the Santal mission of the Society of Jesus in Dumka-Raiganj Province.

Fr. Debono, a visionary son of Malta, was born at Victoria, Gozo (Malta) in the pious family of Giovanni Maria and Rosa Maria Debono.

Having completed his seminary studies at Victoria, he joined the Jesuits in Palermo on 15 September 1904. He was ordained priest on 25 July 1920 and pronounced his final vows in 1924.

With the Ignatian ‘Sume et Suscipe’ (Take and Receive) spirit, he volunteered for the Santal Mission in India. On arriving in India, he stayed with the Italian P.I.M.E. fathers in Dinajpur (now in Bangladesh) to learn tribal Santali language. In the process, he also learnt about the customs and life of the Santal Tribe.

Later, he moved to Majlispur and settled there on 9 March, 1925 for his pioneering work. There he found Santal tribals who had migrated from neighbouring Santal Parganas in erstwhile Bihar (now Jharkhand).

His familiarity with the Santali language was an easy tool to attract the local community. Many expressed their desire to belong to the Christian faith. Fr. Debono welcomed them with a generous heart. In the process, he had a discerning eye to delve into their social and economic problems too.

As migrants the Santals were getting indebted to landlords and moneylenders. Exploitation was rampant. For him the Good News apostolate also meant paying serious attention to problems of exploitation and enslavement by local strong hands. He noted in his parish diary, “The oppression of the poor is worse than ever this year... I should go to several places to have justice done to our people.”


No wonder, Fr. Debono himself became a victim to the oppressors’ anger and they tried to implicate him in court cases. The landlords even forced the Santals not to work for Fr. Debono even when he wanted to build a modest hut for living before the onset of the monsoon.

Undaunted and committed, there was no turning back for Fr. Debono. He wrote, “In spite of all his, I am not discouraged. All the beginnings are hard, and the greater the sufferings are now, the greater the blessings will be on this Mission.”

If Majlispur became the epicentre of our mission apostolate, it was because of this great missionary’s pioneering spirit and undaunted commitment to the ideals of his Master, the Good Shepherd!

Archbishop Perier of Calcutta was his great support. Even though Fr. Debono had indomitable spirit and trust in the Lord, his sagging health and mounting tension all through his eleven years at Majlispur made the Archbishop transfer him to Kidderpore, a neighbourhood in metropolitan Calcutta.

The befitting words about this great missionary were those of Fr. Joseph Portelli in a letter to Archbishop Perier on 8 January 1937. “It is astonishing that the amount of work one man could perform all these years, practically by himself.”

Later he came back to Santal Mission and was active at Torai, Guhiajori and Cilimpur. On 14 July 1956 he surrendered to the Lord for eternal rest after years of committed service. The seed that was planted at Majlispur on the 9 March 1925 has grown into a huge fruitful tree - the remarkable growth of three dioceses of Dumka, Raiganj and Purnea. Fr. Gauci Sacco, a Maltese Jesuit in Dumka-Raiganj Province, in his book, The Santal Mission, aptly summarises who and what was Fr. Debono like. He wrote, “The Pioneer, who had valiantly suffered the heat of the battle and faithfully followed his Divine Master’s footsteps along the royal path of sufferings and hardships, could smilingly utter, with his characteristic sense of humour and repartee, his favourite expression: Take life as it comes, with a smile.”

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Posted by Communications Office - Editor in Curia Generalizia
Communications Office
The Communications Office of the General Curia publishes news of international scope on the central government of the Society of Jesus and on the commitments of the Jesuits and their partners. It also handles media relations.

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