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A Tribute to
A Great Divine Word Missionary,
Fr. Marian Zelazek, SVD
(1918 – 2006)

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, wrote William Shakespeare. Fr. Marian Zelazek, SVD, who died of a massive heart attack on Sunday, April 30, 2006, at Puri in Orissa, belonged to the category of people who “achieved” greatness during his life-time. He was 88 and he was the last expatriate SVD working in the SVD Province of India East (INE).

Death overtook Fr. Marian in the colony of the leprosy-affected people he cared for, loved and served for over 30 years. After the celebration of an “ashto prohari namo jogyo” (Eight hours of worship and chanting of prayers) and a noon meal with them in the colony on that fateful day, some of the inmates of the colony walked with him to his vehicle parked near the entrance of the colony. On the way, his knees suddenly buckled and as he began to sink to the ground, the people who accompanied him held him in their arms. Though they rushed him to the district general hospital at Puri, where the doctor declared him dead, he had already died in the arms of “his own people” from the colony.

News about his death spread like a wild fire and people began to flock, first to the hospital and then to his residence where his body lay in state till the next morning. The people of Puri bid their final farewell to him during a holy Mass offered for him at Catholic Church, Puri, at 9.30 am, on Monday, May 1, 2006. Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, SVD, presided over the holy Mass, concelebrated by several priests from Bhubaneswar and Puri. People from all walks of life and religions were present at the Eucharistic celebration. After the people paid their last respects to him, his body was taken to the SVD Provincial house in Jharsuguda. On Tuesday, May 2, 2006, after the funeral Mass celebrated at St. Arnold’s Church, Jharsuguda, his mortal remains were laid to rest at the SVD cemetery in the premises of the SVD Provincial House in Jharsuguda.

Fr. Marian’s origins were simple. He was born on January 30, 1918 as the son of an ordinary, but devout Catholic couple, Mr. Stanislaw and Mrs. Stanislawa, at Paledzie, Poznan, in Poland. From his childhood days, seeds of greatness were sown into him, which later sprouted and flourished to propel him on his path towards greatness.

In 1937, when he was 19 years old, he joined the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), after completing his high school studies. He spent the next two years at the novitiate house of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) at Chludowo in Poland. He made his first profession as an SVD on September 4, 1939. From 1939-1940 he did his studies in Philosophy in Poland and from 1945-1949 his studies in Theology at Collegio San Anselmo in Rome. While he was in Rome, he made his final profession in the Society of the Divine Word on September 8, 1948. Ten days later, on September 18, he was ordained a priest.

During World War II, his priestly formation was interrupted for five years from 1940-1945. On September 1, 1939, the Nazi troops of Germany invaded Poland. Jews were the principal targets of the invasion. But the Nazis also saw the Catholic Church as a threat to their racist ideology and militarist policies. Moreover, the Poles were deemed inferior to the so-called “Aryans” of Germany. Soon Poland was subjected to a reign of terror.

In the melee that followed, Fr. Marian who was 22 then, was captured by the German soldiers and sent to the notorious and dreadful concentration camp at Dachau in Germany for being a Catholic seminarian and a Pole. Many fellow SVDs of Fr. Marian, who were Poles were arrested too and sent to various concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Four SVDs, 3 priests and a Brother, who were ruthlessly murdered in four different camps, were among the 108 Polish martyrs of the Nazi regime, whom Pope John Paul II beatified at Warsaw in Poland on June 13, 1999. Fourteen SVDs from Fr. Marian’s class, who died or were ruthlessly murdered in the camps, are now in the process of being beatified.

Fr. Marian survived the harrowing ordeal at Dachau from 1940-1945. Since his experience at the camp did not make him embittered, he emerged from the camp with a greater faith in God and in the dignity of every human being. It awoke in him a deep desire to make this world a better world by being a better human person himself. Thus, streaks of greatness began to show up early in his life.

Fr. Marian came to Orissa on March 21, 1950. In a year’s time he acquired a working knowledge of Sadri, the lingua franca of the tribal people of western Orissa, and Oriya, the State language of Orissa. His first assignment after he arrived in Orissa was as the Headmaster of Hamirpur (Boys’) High School, Rourkela, and as the Director of the Apostolic School (minor seminary) at Hamirpur from 1951-1963. He was in charge of the hostel attached to the High School from 1951-1964. From 1964-1975, he was the Secretary to the Diocesan Committee of the Catholic-run Schools in the diocese of Sambalpur (which then included the present dioceses of Sambalpur and Rourkela).

Along with his responsibilities as the diocesan Secretary of Schools, he accepted the task of establishing the newly opened parish of Bondamunda in 1968. He was the parish priest of Bondamunda till 1975. Fr. Marian was instrumental in bringing the SSpS Sisters, the sister congregation of the SVD, founded by St. Arnold Janssen, to the Eastern Indian Province of the SVD. In 1973, the SSpS Sisters set up their first house in Orissa at Bondamunda.

Fr. Marian worked in and around the steel city of Rourkela in the first 25 years of his sojourn in Orissa. There, a major concern of his was education of the people of Orissa. More than five decades ago, when the literacy rate of the people of Orissa was desolately low, Fr. Marian, as an educationist, had the vision and the dedication to promote education by setting up schools and hostels in places they did not exist, and by tirelessly persuading parents to send their children to school. In the 1960s, when he was the Secretary to the Diocesan Committee of Catholic-run Schools, he was able to persuade Mr. Biju Patnaik, the then Chief Minister of Orissa to grant government recognition to most of the Catholic-run schools in the diocese of Sambalpur.

Fr. Marian was also a man of the media. In the 1960s when cinema was a very popular medium among the rural people of Orissa, Fr. Marian set up a mobile film unit “to educate and to entertain” people. Despite all his other responsibilities, he found time to tour the villages and screen movies for the rural people, for many of whom his show used to be the first movie they had ever watched.

In the early 1970s, Fr. Liam Horsfall, the Provincial Superior of the SVD Province of India East, put forward the idea of the SVD taking care of Puri parish in the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. Fr. Marian was the Provincial’s choice to begin the new mission and he arrived in Puri in 1975. Initially, he shared the little house in the parish campus with his predecessor, Fr. Antony Attuly. As soon as Fr. Attuly went away, Fr. Marian began to reorganize the parish. He met the parishioners and others; interacted with the priests of Puri temple and made contacts with leading personalities of Puri, both civil authorities and others. Within a few months after his arrival in Puri, the people of Puri began to feel his presence.

From 1975 to 1991, he was the parish priest of Catholic Church, Puri. It was during this period that he built up the parish church complex at Ramchandi Sahi with a beautiful boat-shaped church, a presbytery, a multi-purpose hall, a dialogue center cum library and a dispensary.

The institutions that he set up in the parish church complex were indicative of his broad-minded vision for Puri and his non-judgmental attitude towards the people of other religions. The dialogue center cum library was a place where people of all religions could gather to read, study and pray. The dispensary catered to the sick and the infirm, especially the leprosy affected people. Dr. Kishore Chandra Mohapatra, devout Brahmin and a specialist on leprosy therapy and cure became a very close associate of Fr. Marian in his work for the rehabilitation of leprosy affected people. Dr. Mohapatra resigned his job as leprosy specialist at the district general hospital, Puri, in 1976 and worked at the dispensary in the parish complex for over 15 years, until his death in 1991.

As a human being, Fr. Marian was a very compassionate person and he had an enormous zeal to serve people, especially those who were helpless, powerless, unaided, vulnerable, grieved, and suffering. The well-organized colony near Loknath temple in Puri with nearly a 1000 leprosy-affected people is the outcome of his compassion and zeal to serve the people who are disadvantaged. He named the colony “Karunalaya”, the house of compassion. The facilities in Karunalaya now include a 20-bed hospital, a well equipped dental clinic, a “mercy kitchen” for those helpless leprosy patients who are unable to fend for themselves in any way and several self-help programmes like weaving, tailoring, bandage-making, gardening, rope-making and a mini shoe-manufacturing unit where rubber and leather sandals, slippers and shoes specially designed for leprosy patients are made.

About a kilometer away from Karunalaya, Fr. Marian, the educationist, set up a school (Beatrix School) and a hostel, chiefly intended for children from leprosy affected families, in 1983. But, the school also took in children from families not affected by leprosy. Fr. Marian’s idea was that a school with a mixture of children from leprosy affected and non-affected families would provide a forum for the children to interact with each other and facilitate the former to integrate themselves into the society in general.

In June 1991, Fr. Marian handed over the responsibility of the Catholic parish of Puri to Fr. Thomas R.A., SVD, and moved out to Ishopanthi Ashram, on Baliapanda Road, Puri, close to Karunalaya and Beatrix school. That is where he lived and worked for the rest of his life, dedicating it totally to serve and to take care of leprosy-affected people.

Fr. Marian was a man of prayer with deep spiritual experiences. He liked to pray with and for people, irrespective of their religious affiliations. As a Catholic Priest he found joy in ministering to the spiritual needs of his fellow Catholics. Though he was an ordained priest of the Catholic Church, he had the highest regard for all religions and for the people of all religions. One of his close friends in Puri was the Chief Priest of the temple of Lord Jagannath. Every now and then, they visited each other and discussed matters related to religion, spirituality and God.

A solid spirituality and a genuine desire to dialogue with people of all religions were at the core of his life and activities at Puri. This led him towards the end of his life, to set up a center for dialogue and spirituality (St. Arnold’s Center of Spirituality) under the auspices of Ishopanthi Ashram. On January 26, 2006, just over three months before his demise, Most Rev. Raphael Cheenath, SVD, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar blessed this center and Fr. Antonio Pernia, SVD, the Superior General of the SVD, inaugurated it. The spirituality center thus became the last of his fulfilled dreams.

In the last few years of Fr. Marian’s life, several local, national and international organizations and media institutions began to recognize his humanitarian services and honored him with awards, citations and cash prizes. In August 2000, the Polish Government conferred on him one of its highest national civilian awards titled “The Chivalry Cross of Order of the Rebirth of Poland”. On June 29, 2005, the City Council of Poznan, the native city of Fr. Marian, awarded him the tribute of “The Honored Citizen of Poznan”.

On March 5, 2003, the Xavier Labour Institute of Jamshedpur, Bihar, Awarded Fr. Marian the “The Sir Jehangir Ghandy Medal” for industrial and social peace with a gold medal and a citation. In 2005, the Neelchakra socio-cultural organization of Orissa honoured him with the esteemed bronze medal of “Neelchakra” and a citation. On December 6, 2005, the Oriya daily newspaper Samaj presented him with the much-valued “Dr. Radhanath Rath Seva Samman Award” with a shawl, a certificate and a cash prize of Rs. 10,000.00.

Fr. Marian was nominated for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2001 and 2003. In 2001, his name was short listed to be one of the three top contenders for the prize. When he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, newspapers in Orissa wrote elaborately about his life and work, and some of them brought out special supplements to cover the event of his nomination and to highlight his work among the leprosy affected people of Orissa.

In May 2001, the BBC broadcast a 45-minute video documentary titled “The New Face of Leprosy” featuring Fr. Marian and his work at Karunalaya. The Polish National Television network has also broadcast documentaries and news stories on Fr. Marian and his work several times. According to some sources, the wide and frequent media coverage that he received in Poland, made him the second most famous Pole working outside Poland, after the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II.

Fr. Marian had a zest for life. He lived his life in full and did all that he could do to let the others to live it in its fullness. His gentleness, his sense of humour and his ready smile gave a special flavour and charm to the life that God had gifted him with.

When Fr. Marian died at the age of 88 on April 30, 2006, he had already become a full-blown philanthropist, a sage, a mystic and a guru, who believed that “God created human beings in his own image” and that all human beings have a responsibility to do something to uphold and sustain that image of every human person. No wonder that someone paid this homage to him when he died: “Here is a great and holy man, who by his presence at Puri for the last 31 years has made the holy city of Lord Jagannath a holier city and a better place to live”.

Fr. Mathew Poovanpuzha, SVD