Neither age nor poor health has withered this Jesuit priest’s spirits

A LIFETIME OF SERVICE: Father Pierre Ceyrac will receive the French Legion of Honour on Friday.

A LIFETIME OF SERVICE: Father Pierre Ceyrac will receive the French Legion of Honour on Friday.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: V. Ganesan

Priscilla Jebaraj

In appreciation of his service, Father Pierre Ceyrac will be presented with the Legion of Honour

CHENNAI: For the past seven decades, Father Pierre Ceyrac has dedicated his life to working among the poor and downtrodden in southern India. The land of his birth will recognise his services on Friday, when the French Ambassador to India presents him with France’s highest civilian award, the Legion of Honour.

The 94-year-old, who left his native France at the age of 22 to become a Jesuit priest and social worker in India, shrugs away the award. He is more interested in talking about the orphanage, the model farm and the Dalit movement that he is nurturing in Manamadurai in Sivaganga district.

“My country of birth may be France, but my country of choice is India. I want to live here, die here and be buried here,” he says.

They are not merely passionate words. This frail old man, sitting in a small room at Loyola College’s Jesuit residence, is responsible for helping to feed, clothe and educate over 25,000 poor and abandoned children in Tamil Nadu. The 1000 wells his volunteers have dug in Sivaganga district have brought new hope to farmers across the region. For hundreds of Dalits, he has fought “not for human rights, but for the right to be human.”

To him, the numbers don’t matter. “Deep contact is more important. These are people I have known and loved…They are part of my family,” he says.

Family in France

His own biological family lives in France. Pierre Ceyrac was born in 1914 as one of a family of six in the province of Limozane. Throughout his childhood, he heard tales of his father’s brother “Oncle Charles”, who worked as a Jesuit missionary in the villages around Tiruchi.

“He was a big inspiration. That was one of the big reasons why I came to India,” he said. Arriving in Madras Presidency in 1937, he studied for a bachelor’s degree in Tamil literature at Pachaiyappa’s College. He still speaks Tamil fluently, even though his English is heavily accented.

In the heady years just before and after Independence, he became a Jesuit priest and moved to Loyola College, from where he spearheaded the All India Catholic University Federation, encouraging activism and social service among young people. A pioneer in the National Service Scheme movement, Father Ceyrac inspired thousands of students to aid development work in rural India.

Even when he moved on to his ‘Operation 1000 Wells’ movement to take new agricultural technologies to rural farmers, Father Ceyrac tapped the energies of young volunteers. “Working in India is very easy for me,” he says. “Though I am now old, these young people are my hands and feet.”

In 1980, he headed a team on the Thai border working among Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge. While others on the team returned to India after a six-month stint, Father Ceyrac stayed on for 14 years, serving the victims of landmine blasts. After another year working among refugees in war-torn Rwanda, he returned to India. Two years ago, he launched a new project on the southern Tamil Nadu coastline, working with tsunami victims.

Neither age nor poor health – he is scheduled to have a hip replacement surgery later this year -- have slowed him down. “I always feel I could have done better, I could have done more. If the Lord gives me time, I will start something new,” he vows. “I haven’t done enough in Madras, I want to work among the slums here. I have made some wonderful friends in that slum just across the Railway lines,” he says, ready to set off on a new adventure.

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