(In 2021 Mark Stephen, SJ (CEN) wrote a historical novel in Tamil whose hero is a French Jesuit missionary – Fr John Baptiste Trincal, SJ. A pioneer in many fields, Trincal worked in the New Madura mission for 48 years, from 1844 to 1892. Now, a fellow Jesuit, Michael Pugazhendhi, SJ, (CEN), called simply ‘Pugal’ by many, is translating the Tamil novel, called ‘Munnathi’ (Pioneer) into English. Here are a few excerpts from Chapter 1 of the novel.)
The vessel ‘Congrade’ continued its journey. A clear blue sky; a pleasant sunshine; a steady wind; a quiet sea. The captain was content. He must be around 55 years of age; A little more than 6 feet in height; a muscular physique to match his stature.
He looked at his crew. They were engrossed in their works. He nodded in satisfaction; and went in the opposite direction. Civitta Vecchia, the Italian port slowly disappeared from sight. Only the light house was to be seen. He saw in that direction with a sort of loneliness and sighed in despair. He consoled himself and turned. There…
He saw a priest looking at the sea. Why is he staring at the sea in the direction of the Orient? He was bedridden from the time he boarded the ship at Marseilles harbour, France. He was seasick. Why should he forego his rest and stand now looking at the sea?
He went near and stood beside the priest who was slightly taller than him. The priest must be less than 35. He was wearing a long black cassock.
“Father, I am the Captain of the ship,” he introduced himself and reached out his hand. The priest joyfully shook hands and responded smilingly, ‘Trincal, John Baptiste Trincal. A Jesuit priest.’
“Are you 30?”
“What would you do knowing my age?’
“I have a son who looks like you.”
“Oh, that’s why you asked my age! I was born on the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady.’
“Is that September 8?”
“So you are barely 29. Why should you leave France at this tender age? Did anyone force you?’
“Why would you think so?”
“You were bedridden. So were your other companions. Once you felt alright you have come up to the deck, without worrying about anything. You might not recover if the condition relapses. With that concern at the back of my mind, I am asking you this.’
“Shall I ask you something? While I was looking at the direction of the sea, you were looking at the port. As the captain of the ship, shouldn’t you be looking at the sea?”
“You are a priest. And you look like my son. I feel like confiding certain things to you.”
“I am determined not to return to France. I am leaving for good my parents, kith and kin, relatives, friends, my native place, country and language.”
The captain closed his eyes for a few moments brooding over his past life. When he opened them, his eyes were red. With a lot of pain he started to speak. “I was born in Marseille, France, a port city. I grew up facing the sea. Its grandeur attracted me. I would admire the ships that come in and go out with awe and wonder. I wanted to be a sailor and found a job in a ship. Gradually I grew in ranks to become a sailor. The ship would often come to this port at Civitta Vecchia, Italy. We used to stay in the ship. We would at times wander into the city. People used to say that Italian women are the most beautiful. One fine day I saw a young lady. Her laughter, style, walk, beauty, I loved everything about her. I fell in love with her. She too loved me. Every time the ship came here I saw her. Our love blossomed.”
“Did you get married?” asked Trincal.
“Yes. We got married, and with great joy we started our life in France. We have three children. The same voyage which was sweet before marriage tasted bitter thereafter. The feeling of leaving behind my wife and children…the longing for the time we would be together again always lingered. Having to bring up the children in my absence, she faced a lot of difficulties. I would like to be with my family. But we need a steady income to sustain the family. So I continue. Now I am the captain of the ship and I get a handsome salary. But the longing to spend time with my family increases every passing year. As we started from France I was watching the harbour thinking about my family.”
Trincal grasped his hands to show he understood his feelings. He began to talk. “But my feelings are different. I am determined not to return to France. I am leaving for good my parents, kith and kin, relatives, friends, my native place, country and language. Only my body is here but my heart is in the Madura Mission in India. I am looking at that direction, waiting to reach that destination. It’s not only me but also the other eight who are travelling with me have the same mindset.”
The captain looked at him with astonishment.
Trincal asked, “When will we reach Madras?”
“When did we start?”
“On the first of March.”
“It will take a minimum of 45 days. Give or take a few days depending on the climatic conditions.’
“Then we will reach in the second week of April.”
“Yes. In April 1844 we shall reach,” chuckled the captain. He turned serious and asked with concern. “Do you know of the present situation there?”
“What we know is what we heard from our companions there.”
“Well, I have been going there for the past 35 years. I know Madras. You are travelling as a group. Isn’t it for missionary work?”
“Do you want to know?” asked Trincal looking at him with concern.
“Yes,” said the captain. Wanting to create a suitable ambience for a long chat, he called a crew member and signaled something. And he immediately rushed to the basement. When he returned to the deck he had a bottle of wine and two glasses in his hands. Handing over the glasses to the captain, he started removing the cork of the bottle using a corkscrew.
“Sorry. I have decided not to drink or smoke,” said Trincal.
“Why Father?” asked the captain.
“I used to drink or smoke once in a way. But I would like to adapt myself to the situation and conditions of the mission.”
“To drink or smoke is not wrong, provided a person is not addicted to them. I used to drink or smoke once in a way. But I would like to adapt myself to the situation and conditions of the mission. If you consider them, these seem luxurious to me. I want to stay away from them. I need to prepare myself for a tough life.”
The captain looked at Trincal in wonder and said, “No priest has so far refused wine. You seem different. I like it.”
After the server left, Trincal began to speak. “You might have heard of St. Francis Xavier – a Jesuit priest. He went to South India within two years of the founding of the Jesuit Order to preach Christ to the Paravars. Thousands of people got converted to Christianity. Many Jesuits followed in his footsteps. The area they worked is called the Madurai Mission. They preached the Good News of Christ all over the southern State of Tamil Nadu. But in the second half of the 18th century the Jesuit Order was suppressed by the Pope. Jesuits who were doing a splendid service in Tamil Nadu were wiped out completely. But another Pope restored the Jesuit Order in the beginning of the 19th century. The Jesuit headquarters in Rome requested the French Jesuits to serve in the Madurai Mission. In 1837, four people, namely Joseph Bertrand, Louis Garnier, Alexander Martin, Louis de Ranquet departed from France. They renamed the mission as New Madurai Mission. Many Jesuits from France followed them thereafter. All were energetic, strong, talented, aspiring youngsters below the age of forty.” Trincal’s voice broke down.
Looking at his teary eyes, the captain said, “Father, if it hurts you, you need not say anything more now.”
Trincal continued. “It’s okay. Many who went to the Mission died there at a tender age. Within five years 9 Jesuits died. In 1842 alone 7 of them died. Of the first four whom I mentioned three died. Only Bertrand is still alive. He is the Superior. He was poisoned 5 or 6 times but luckily he survived. But the poison has taken its effect and so he is physically weak. I think he will soon return to France. Tropical climate, conspiracies of the enemies, different food habits, tireless work, cholera etc are some of the reasons for their untimely deaths. The new Madurai Mission became the new graveyard for many youngsters. We were informed of this. But seven of us were ready to face death. We volunteered courageously to serve in the Madurai Mission.”