Advent of Christianity to the Khasi hills : - Christianity was first brought to Sohra kingdom in 1813 by Krishna Chanora Pal, a missionary from Serampore, sent by William Carey. Duwan and Anna, it is believed were the first Khasi converts to Christianity. Chandra Pal returned to Serampore after six months and only in 1832 did the next missionary, Alexander B. Lesh, arrive in Cherrapunji, where he took up residence, the first missionary to do so. In the following year Cherrapunji became the British administrative capital of Assam. Lesh opened schools in Cherrapunji, Mawsmai and Mawmluh, but in 1838 heleft the Khasi Hills, thus ending the Baptist presence there. Though the Baptist did not stay long, their contribution was lasting. As early as 1874 William Carey brought out the “Khashee New Testament”, using the Bengali script as Khasi had yet not script of its own.In 1841 Thomas Jones and his wife, Presbyterian missionary arrived in Cherrapunji. It was Jones who adapted the Roman script to the Khasi language, which was till then unwritten. In 1891 the Presbyterians brought out the Khasi Bible.
Catholic Mission : - In 1889 the Holy See entrusted the newly erected prefecture Apostolic of Assem, Bhutan and Manipur to a young German missionary congretion. The Society of Devine Saviour, or the Salvatorians. Until that time these areas were under the jurisdiction of the two dioceses of Krishnagar and Dacca. In 1890 the first batch of four Salvatorians arrived in Shillong. Within a year, however, the mission superior and a Brother had died. The following year saw the arrival of more missionaries. With them came along the first three Salvatorian Sisters.
By 1897, in addition to Shillong, the Salvatorians had opened three other important mission centres in Khasi Hills namely Raliang(1892), Shella(1893) and Cherrapunji (1897). The Cherrapunji mission was erected a parish on the 5th March, 1897, under the care of Father CorbilianBohnheim SDS., with the permission of HajonManik, the Syiem of Sohra (the chieftain of Cherrapunji). A house of two room was built for the missionary; one room served as the Chapel and the other was the school room and residence. But three months later an earthquake of unimaginable severity struck Shella, Laitkynsew, Cherrapunji and the surrounding areas. The Shella mission suffered the most. The residences of the Fathers and of the Sisters were reduced to rubble. Six orphan children who had gone out to get food stuff never returned. The new building at Cherrapunji was also destroyed. In Laitkynsew Father Gebhard Abele established a press and published parts of the Holy Scripture, a catechism, a song and prayer book, a calendar and books on apologetics. From 1902 onwards a monthly paper was also published, “U NongialamKatholik” (The Catholic Guide). Mgr. C. Becker, the Prefect Apostolic of Assam later on transferred the press to Shillong where another monthly paper, “KaIingKristan”, (The Christian Family) was published.
In the meantime the work of rebuilding the Cherrapunji mission continued. The church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was built in 1905, the school in 1907 and the residential quarters of the Salvatorians can still be seen in a dilapidated state adjacent to the present church. In front of the old church can be seen three cryptomeria trees which housed the belfry of the Sacred Heart church, and behind the church is the Catholic Cemetery, opened in 1901.The Salvatorian missionaries’ works came to an early and unexpected end during the World War I. The political developments of the time in far away Europe had their tragic effects even on the remote mission stations of the Khasi Hills. The missionaries had to leave their beloved mission land in 1915. The Salvatorian missionaries had for a quarter of a century, endured many hardships. They had to brave epidemics, torrential rains, earthquakes, tribal feuds. Many of them laid down their lives for the sake of the Gospel in the land which had become their own. The plaque bearing their names in the Shillong Catholic cemetery of Laitumkhrah gives silent testimony to many sacrifices these great missionaries endures. After the departure of the Salvatorians until the arrival of the Salesians of Don Bosco in 1922, the missions of the Khasi Hills were looked after by the Jesuits from Calcutta. On January 13, 1922, the first Salesian missionary expedition reached Shillong under the leadership of Father Louis Mathias. In the same year the Salesian Father Joseph Hauber came to Cherrapunji. When the missions were re-organized Shella, which had decreased in population after the devastating earthquake of 1897, and Laitkynsew came under the Cherrapunji mission. For about ten years after 1924, Fathers E. Bars, C. Vendrame, C. Mlekus and A. Maschio worked in the Cherrapunji mission.
A Monument to Don Bosco : - The spirit of DonBosco was very much alive in the Salesians who came to Assam Mission in 1922. On Easter Sunday, 1934, when Don Boscowas canonized a saint of the Church, in St. Peter’s, Rome, the leader of Assam mission, Mgr. L. Mathias, was present there with a group of Salesians pupils from Shillong. The Salesians in the north-east wished to erect a monument to the memory of Don Bosco, their father and founder, so that through him the mission, the people and their work and the rest of India would receive abundant blessing. The idea was taken up by a young and enthusiastic Salesian, Father Aurelius Maschio. Cherrapunji was chosen as the place for erecting the first shrine dedicated to St. John Bosco in India.
The work of constructing the shrine began two years after the canonization of Don Bosco. More than one factor, however, impeded the work. Money for the construction had to be collected, little by little, from numerous friends and benefactors in India and abroad. Difficulties of transportation, climate and finally World War II made the progress very slow. The building of the Shrine, which is 150 m. in length and 50 m. in breadth was completed only in 1952. Besides Father Maaschio, Father Peter Tonello worked hard to bring it to completion. Brother SantiMontarro, another veteran Salesian missionary, was the architect. On the 26th January 1952, the shrine was blessed by Most Rev. Stephen Ferrando, SDB, the then bishop of Shillong. Since 1952 numerous pilgrims have visited the Shrine of Don Bosco every year. The director of the shrine received numerous letters from devotees of Don Bosco. The last Sunday of January is observed as the feast of St. John Bosco and the occasion is marked by a solemn procession and other devotional practices. In preparation of the centenary, prayers and novenas are held on the last nine days of every month.
Today Cherrapunji, with a total of 12, 00 Catholics, is the third largest parish in the archdiocese of Shillong-Guwahati. The mission has 78 villages inhabited by the Khasi and Garo tribes. Father Peter Schiavon, a Salesian missionary from Italy, is the Superior of the mission and the shrine. Instructing the people in the faith is done, to a great extent, by catechist, young people who undergo training in methods of evangelization. They help the priest who tour the villages, and conduct liturgical services on Sundays and feast days in the absence of the priest. The priest tour the villages of the mission except during the rainy season. The difference of altitude – about 2000m – must be overcome before they reach the next valley. The 61 year old Father Peter says that one needs the fitness of a mountaineer to do this. Fortunately, Father Peter hails from the mountainous region of northern Italy. His assistant priest, Father Matthew Vellankal, is a young dynamic Salesian who, like Don Bosco, is a skilled magician. With his distinctive creation of “gospel magic” he tours the villages, preaches, evangelizes and catechizes the people. The Cherrapunji mission also has an 89 year-old Salesian Brother, Ernest Ferraris, who runs the Don Bosco Apprenticeship and Woodwork Development Training Centre. At 89, Brother Ferraris, who has lived through two World Wars, and has won many awards for his work, is hale and hearty and works with gusto among his apprentices. The Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions have played a vital role in the different activities of the mission for the past 50 years, by their work in the girls’ school and hostel, the dispensary and village touring. The mission centre of Cherrpunji has a high school and a boarding school with 60 boys a Don Bosco Welfare Centre, a Typing Institute for Youth. The parish of Cherrapunji is served by 60 catechists, of whom nine are full-time apostles. The mission runs seven M.E. and 52 L.P. School in different sub-stations. The funds needed for all these activities come from donations of friends and benefactors of the Don Bosco Shrine, Cherrapunji.
Don Bosco Shrine And Don Bosco ’88 : - The Salesians all over the world are celebrating the first century of Don Bosco’s death in 1988. Being the premier shrine of Don Bosco in India, Cherrapunji too plans to promote devotion to Don Bosco, the saint of the young, by making known his pastoral and educational zeal for the young, his concern for vocations, his attachments to the Church, from the sacristy of a small church of Turin the work of Don Bosco has spread to all parts of the world, and it continues through priest, Sisters, cooperators, volunteers, past pupils, friend, benefactors. May the year 1988 be for all a year of reflecting more deeply on the holiness and mission of St. John Bosco. It is hoped that during the centenary year Don Bosco Shrine, Cherrapunji, will be visited by many pilgrims who will receive great blessing from God through the saint’s intercession. Souvenirs and religious articles are available at the shrine, and a number of Don Bosco pupils will be brought together for a live-in-with Don Bosco experience.
All those who, in one way or another wish to be associated with the vast movement of the Salesian apostolate during the centenary year and to understand Don Bosco and his precious gift to the Church are invited to write to.
Fr. Parish Priest,