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FR. HERMAN RASSCHAERT, S.J. (1922 – 1964)

Posted on: 17 Jan, 2024 | Modified on: 28 Apr, 2024

Herman Rasschaert was born in exile in the Netherlands on September 13, 1922. He entered the Society of Jesus on September 07, 1941. Arrived in India in November 1947. He was killed at Gerda on March 24, 1964.

On Tuesday of holy Week, 24 March 1964, an armed mob killed Ranchi Jesuit, Herman Rasschaert, as he heroically tried to save the lives of the hundreds of refugees, packed behind the low boundary wall of the mosque at Gerda, in his parish Kutungia. As he failed to save them and hundreds were slaughtered with him, he gave the supreme witness of his generous, Christ-like love.

Herman Rasschaert was born in exile in the Netherlands in 1922; his parents had married the year before, also in exile from their motherland Flanders (Belgium). Born in exile, Herman would spend his life "going from place to place. In the Netherlands and in Belgium, after their return (1932), the family Rasschaert moved from rented rooms to rented houses in five small towns. As a Jesuit, Herman stayed nowhere longer than four years; he lived only in modest provincial towns, formation-houses and rural parishes; he had no lasting city, no local roots.

His roots were personal; his loyalties had a wider range. To his mother he owed his sober faith; his father, an ardent Flemish nationalist, also during the German occupation of Belgium during World War I, had to flee into exile. Herman admired his father's strength and nobility of character and he too became an ardent Flemish nationalist, critical of the Belgian State. At the Jesuit School of Aalst, where he studied from 1936 to 1941, Herman joined the Catholic Students Action movement, rooted in a Christ-centred idealism and a moderate Flemish Nationalism; he became a leader.

He liked the marching, singing, flags, drums and bugles, the campfires, group-games and the camaraderie of the C.S.A (Catholic Students Action). He was also a talented orator and actor, at his best in tragic roles. In May 1940, when German troops once more over ran Belgium during the Second World War, he was the acknowledged leader of a group of 35 students, who fled on cycle to France amidst bombardments and traffic chaos; he kept the group together and safe by his undisguised Christian idealism and inspiring personal courage.

When he was 18, in his last year at School, he went through a vocation crisis: he was pulled by his ardent Flemish Nationalism and also by a personal call of God. He took his time to decide, but when he did, his resolve was uncompromising. To the astonishment of many, and with the reluctant consent of his father, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Drongen on September 07, 1941. at the end of his second year novitiate, he informed his parents in plain words that he had offered himself to be a missionary in India from where at that time no one returned. This decision was deeply resented by his father, who had seen his son as an influential Jesuit in Flanders. Herman explained that he did not give himself to God; it was God who had chosen him and Him he could not resist, as his acceptance of God's choice gave him peace and serenity. He no longer felt attached to Flanders, but free as if the whole world had been opened to him. on September 08, 1945, he took his first vows.

From 1943 to 1945 Herman was in the Indian Juniorate at La Pairelle (South Belgium), where he studied Sanskrit, Indian History, culture and Religion; he was happy in this genial community, led by a charismatic Rector. The property of his father was confiscated and he lost all his civil and political rights because he collaborated the German troops during the war. It was a great shock for Herman but he did not lose his faith in God and remained detached and tried to find God in all things. In November 1947 Herman Rasschaert left for India. After his arrival in India, he studied Hindi at Sitagarha. He wanted to know Hindi well enough to be able to converse with educated, cultured people.

In 1949 and 1950 Herman was regent in St. John's School, Ranchi. During this time he felt to help the Mundas who were slow and closed characters. He made up his mind to work among the Mundas. From 1951 to 1954 he studied theology at St. Mary's College, Kurseong. He proved himself as an excellent community-man, working at repairing roads, damaged by landslides, cleaning watertanks, caring for the sick and weak and he proved also a popular beadle. On the day of his ordination(21 Nov. 1953), he wrote that his priesthood made him aware only of the last sacrifices to be made, and they are not easy.

On completing his tertianship at Sitagarha, he was posted in November 1955 at Khunti. He whole-heartedly identified himself with the Mundas, appreciated their singing and drumming during the annual procession and by talking to the people and intense study, he came to know Mundari wll. He liked to take sick-calls, to tour the villages on cycle, but he felt tied down to the Middle School's administration. Two years later he was transferred to Torpa in the same capacity of "Chota Father". In 1958 he was made parish priest of Karra. He toured the villages at his heart's content, went for sick-calls, preached retreats also in other parishes and kept the administration of the parish and Co-operative Bank circle tidy and up-to-date. He served the people with touches of heroism as when he brought a wounded man to Ranchi - 40 km away - at night on cycle, holding the unconscious patient between his arms and the cycle-bar; this heroic cycle-ride saved the patient's life. His people loved him; he knew it and was not keen on leaving Karra.

At 38, Herman found himself posted at Kutungia; a lonely, far away and new Munda parish of 17 villages, in the outhills of the plateau, close to the border with Orissa. For more than 3 years, he was the only priest for the 2,500 Catholics of the parish. 3 - 4 times a year, he made his regular tours on cycle or on foot of all the 17 village-chapels.

From January 1964 onwards, atrocities had made thousands of Hindu refugees flee East Pakistan; hundreds of them, some with mutilated bodies, were sent by train from Calcutta through North Orissa to re-settlement areas in Madhya Pradesh. Their sight provoked riots in Jamshedpur and Rourkela; rumours swept through the villages along the railway-line, that Pakistan was going to attack, that local Muslims were poisoning wells, taking away fields or arming themselves. Armed bands began in panic to attack isolated Muslim houses and hamlets; Muslims fled North to bigger Muslim centres like Gerda, a village of 36 Muslim and 18 Catholic houses, 12 km away from Kutungia; hundreds of them jammed the compound of the mosque on Monday March 23, 1964; that same afternoon - a mob of thousands surrounded the mosque-compound and some Muslims were killed: the slaughter stopped when night fell. After Mass, the next day, Tuesday 24 March 1964, Herman's catechist told him what was happening in Gerda. After a prayer reflection he rode his cycle and went to Gerda to pacify them but he was killed. One who knew him well declared, "He died as he lived. He would have regretted it his whole life, if he had failed to go to Gerda".