BISHOP HERMAN WESTERMANN S.V.D. (24.04.1905 – 23.10.1985)

Herman was the eldest son of his parents. His father was a mason employed in a mine. He grew up in plain and simple conditions, as he himself used to say. His mother expired when he was 15 and the youngest in the family was just born. His mother’s death was a heavy blow to the family indeed.

Despite of being the eldest and the hardship in the family after the death of his mother, Herman was firm in his desire to be a missionary priest. In the year 1920, he took admission in St. Xavier’s – the mission house at Bad Driburg. After a year he proceeded to stay is Holland and attended the Grammer School at Kempen/North Rhine Province and completed his studies. He passed the final examination known as “ABITUR”.

He had his Novitiate and Philosophical studies at St. Augustine of the Steyler Mission/Society of the Divine Word and Theological studies at Techny – Illionis, U.S.A. After his priestly studies, he was ordained a priest at Chicago on 22nd May 1932. He celebrated his first Holy Mass in his home town on 10th July 1932.

INDIAN MISSIONARY : Fr. Herman Westermann S.V.D. was one of the first Missionaries appointed by the Divine Word Society to take charge of the mission territory at Indore in Central India. In the same year of his Ordination in November, he travelled to India as a Missionary along with others. Fr. Herman started his missionary activities with deep faith, great courage and a broad vision. His activities were not limited to the Bhils, the aboriginals, the low caste and the untouchable but extended to the high caste Hindus too. In a very short period of time, he mastered Hindi and started working and living among the Kulmis – a farmer caste. Sitting under a shady tree in the beginning he instructed the people till he got a mud house ready for his abode. Quite a good number of people accepted Christian faith through his instrumentally. Meanwhile in 1936, Indore was raised to an Apostolic/Prefedture and Fr. Herman was appointed Perfect Apostolic, the Eccleciastical Superior of the Region.

When the 2nd World War broke outin 1939 all the Germans residing in India including the Missionaries were taken to interment camps, by the British rulers. They were deprived of their freedom of movement. Yet, they did not let themselves be condemned to inactivity but engaged themselves in translating the Liturgical books into Hindi. Until then, those books were available only in Latin. Fr. Herman realised even at that time, many years before the Vat.II the need, the importance and the effect of the use of the vernacular, in liturgy. He translated and published a booklet containing para liturgical services, another volume with Gatechism of the Sacraments, a Lectionary for Sundays and finally a Sunday Missal. Many of these books specially the Sunday Missal were circulated all through the Hindi speaking region.

The Indore mission under the leadership of Perfect Apostolate Herman Westermann SVD was the only leading writer of religious literature in Hindi, for a long time. The standard and style of his language were appreciated and commonly acknowledge. He was rightly accorded the title “Guru”.

BISHOP OF SAMBALPUR : In the year 1948, the Steyler mission Society (SVD) took charge of Sambalpur Mission and Sambalpur was raised to a Diocese in 1951. The perfect apostolate of Indore Msgr. Herman Westermann SVD was nominated its first Bishop. During his first home leave, after spending almost 20 years in the mission field, he was consecrated Bishop at St. Augustine, Germany by Cardinal Frings of Colonge and Bishop Oscar Severin SJ of Ranchi on 29th July 1951. As an earnest SVD Bishop, truly devoted to the spirit of the Founder, Blessed Arnold Jansen, the motto he chose was “Spiritu Christi Duce” – “Under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ”.

Bishop Westermann and some of his co-missionaries in Indore had to leave their first mission field, which ofcourse, was so dear to them, in order to take over the new mission in Orissa. He first arrived at Jharsuguda on 24th December 1951 and that his arrival was the dawn of a new era in the history of the Church in that part of Orissa called Gangpur and for the Handmaids of Mary in particular. His territory consisted of the undivided district of Sambalpur, Dhenkanal and Sundargarh. He chose Kalunga on the South Eastern Railway is Sundargarh District as his residence. Kalunga then was an important railway station where all the long distance trains used to halt. He had to accommodate himself and the Parish Priest in a dilapidated building, which earlier belonged to the railways. Its verandha served the purpose of the Cathedral. Without having the minimum furnishing or comforts for an office and a living room, he began his work.

HIS INFLUENCE ON THE HANDMAIDS OF MARY : When Bishop Herman Westermann took over Sambalpur Diocese as its first Bishop, the Handmaids of Mary, founded by Fr. Edmund Harrison SJ were only 9 in number. It was a time when the Congregation was struggling for its existence and identity. As a veteran missionary Bishop Westermann realised the special needs of this indigenous Congregation and wholeheartedly began to support it both spiritually and financially. His experience, farsightedness and the broad vision convinced him that evangelisation of his mission in general and the upliftment of the Handmaids of Mary.

The Handmaids too sensed his fatherly concern for them during their very first meeting with him at Gaibira. Their anxiety was assuaged by his reassuring words, “I am for you”. To quote his from his own reflections on the Handmaids of Mary on a later date: “When the higher Superiors of the Daughters of the Cross refused to take these candidates Fr. Harrison went about with the consent of Bishop Oscar Severin SJ and founded a new congregation in the lines of the Daughters of St. Ann. Here the question turns up – Why did Bishop Severin not simply tell the candidates to join the Daughters of St. Ann who belonged to the same Adivasi group as the candidates from Gangpur, speak the same language and familiar with the same custom. After pronouncing their vows they could have been sent to Gangpur. This was actually done with the candidates from Raigarh – Ambikapur, when this part of Ranchi was separated from Ranchi and constituted a Diocese at the same time at Gangpur. This would in a way have made things much easier but we would never know an answer to this question ........... Whatever be the reason, by consenting to Fr. Harrison’s idea, to found a new Congregation he did the new Diocese of Sambalpur a service which can surely be rated high enough ............. Without the Handmaids it would not have been possible to establish so many new stations, so many girl’s high schools and so may other schools ........... Without our own independent congregation(Handmaids of Mary) the Diocese of Sambalpur would not have developed as fast as it actually did and so many other institutions at Rourkela ............(Archives).

True to his assurance the Novitiate of the Handmaids of Mary was shifted from Gaibira to Kalunga where his residence was and ensuring the Handmaids independence from the Daughters of the Cross by asking them to chose their own Suoeriors. This was in 1952 and the change facilitated him to give proper personal attention to their needs and their growth. As the Diocese at that time was short of priests, he himself took over the responsibility of training the novices and postulants. He offered daily Holy Mass with them, took classes on different subjects and even taught liturgical hymns as none else were available for doing these. Till 1952, the sisters were only from Chotanagpur belt. The universality of the Church and its farsightedness prompted him to recruit candidates from other parts of the country too.

His simplicity, cheerfulness and punctuality were contagious and remarkable. He was a man of prayer and had great devotion to the Holy Spirit and our Blessed Mother. Hid trust in Divine Providence enabled him to undertake difficult task. He had a great sense of humour and could easily mingle with the postulants and novices. They were greatly impressed by his simple way of life. This has encouraged them to suffer privation and hardship in life. He was always cheerful and exhorted them to be cheerful and generous in the service of the Lord. In short, his way of life was a constant inspiration to them to labour untiringly for the kingdom of God. His constant and prayerful assurance fro a bright future, kept them ever active, cheerful and ready to brave difficulties of life. His repeated reminder to them was “My daughters you are here to become saints”.

The Bishop wanted that the Handmaids should take up various responsibilities in catering the needs of the then new Diocese. There were practically no educational institutions in the Diocese in those days and literacy rate specially among the tribal people was almost nill. Therefore he gave priority for education. He desired to entrust the Handmaids with the education of the people, particularly that of the young women. He found ways and means to get the sisters qualified in all possible apostolates and sent them for higher studies and training in different places, even as far as Germany. With Sr. Anastasia a Daughter of the Cross for 18 years joining the Handmaids and the appointment of Fr. Charles Schmidt SVD to Kalunga to help the Bishop in the formation of spiritual direction of the sisters, the Bishop was able to pay more attention to the different other needs of the Diocese. Many schools primary and secondary were opened in almost all the parishes. Bishop Westermann was able to get the first girls High School established at Sundargarh in the year 1954. It was because of his keen interest in education that our people in Sundargarh District have been able to achive high status in every walk of life today.

Gradually the sisters grew in number and quality and began shouldering responsibility particularly in Catechetical, Education and Medical fields. He assigned sisters for various responsibilities keeping in view of their talents and abilities as far as possible. He looked after their needs and they rendered free services whenever required.

As the years passed by Bishop wanted that the Handmaids should learn to stand on their own leg. And so, he started to give them remuneration to those who worked in different apostolates to meet their day to day needs. However, he still financed all their special needs. Thus with his support and encouragement they went ahead working successfully.

The Handmaids experienced the love, concern and protection of the Heavenly Father in the person of Bishop Westermann. Inspite of difficult situation in which they had to live in the early years, they always found joy in his presence. He reminded them often to have Mary – like confidence in God and set her example before them.

GROWTH OF SAMBALPUR DIOCESE : Along with other developments, the number of Catholics in the Diocese increased to 1,50,000 from 70,000. Many Churches, presbyteries, village Chapels, Schools, Dispensaries, a well equipped hospital and other social centers well built and functioned successfully. With the fast development of the mission, the Bishop’s responsibility and the demands of him were increased.

With the establishment of a Hindustan Steel Plant, Rourkela developed into a city and Bishop Westermann shifted his residence to Rourkela in 1966 for a better functioning. Knowing the good works done by the Handmaids in Sambalpur Diocese especially in the Catechetical field, several Bishops from the neighbouring Diocese requested him for Handmaids to their Diocese too. But he did not allow them to go till the needs of his Diocese was sufficiently met.

RETIREMENT : 41 years of life in the mission, in the hot tropical climate and the stress and strains of his office had weakened his health so much that he was forced to retire and go back to his home country in the year 1974. He had the satisfaction of seeing his mission developed into a full fledged Diocese and his successor Msgr. Raphael Cheenath S.V.D. installed as Bishop. The number of Indian Priests was 70 and the sisters 300 by then. His was a successful mission and the Diocese was soon bifurcated into Sambalpur and Rourkela. After his return to Germany he continued his priestly ministry in his own Diocese, as long as his health permitted. He celebrated the Golden  Jubilee of his priesthood at St. Arnold, the SVD Mission House, in 1982 and his 80th Birthday in 1985. Right upto the last days he loved and cared for his mission in India. His last days were very painful. Yet he was very thoughtful of the mission and suffered everything patiently for the spread of the Kingdom of God. During his last days he reminded his benefactors saying, “When you come to my grave do not come with flowers but come with money for my Mission”. At last on 23rd October 1985, he breathed his last at St. Francis Hospital, Munster. He was laid to rest in St. Arnold’s cemetery.

Bishop Westermann’s simplicity, friendliness, straight forwardness in conversation and his humour endeared him to all.

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