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

By Fr. Alex Ekka SJ

Michael Van den Bogaert was born on October 16, 1928 at Willebroek near Mechelen an industrial town in Belgium. He was the fourth child to Xavier Van den Bogaert and Maria De Jonghe. His maternal uncle, late Fr. Henry De Jonghe SJ of the Ranchi Province, had a great influence on his decision to become a missionary in India.

He joined the novitiate on September 7, 1947 and took his first vows on September 8, 1949 at Drongen. He also did his juniorate at Drongen from 1949 - 1950 and from 1950 - 1952 at Wepion in India. He did one year of philosophy from De Nobili College, Pune in 1951-1952 and two years of philosophy at Shembagnur in 1952 - 1954. Thereafter he did language studies at Manresa House, Ranchi in 1954 - 1955 and special studies in Bombay in 1956 - 1957 and in Belgium in 1957 - 1958. He did his theology at De Nobili College, Pune in 1958 - 1961 and was ordained a priest on March 23, 1961. He did his tertianship at Sitagarha in Hazaribagh in 1961 - 1962.

His professional career began as the Director of Xavier Institute of Social Service, Ranchi in1963 when he succeeded Fr. Michael Albert Windey SJ, the founder Director of XISS. Fr. Bogaert obtained the M. Sc. Degree from Wisconsin University in USA in Industrial Relations in 1967 and his Doctorate from Ranchi University in 1979. His Ph.D. thesis was titled "To Stand Together and To Sit Together", the case of the Chotanagpur Catholic Mission Cooperative Credit Society.

Though Fr. Bogaert had a multi dimensional personality, he was known first of all as an institution builder in Management Studies. He served at XISS for 23 long years. During his tenure of office he changed the Social Service League started by Fr. Windey into Labour Welfare Programme and later into a Postgraduate Diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations. He also started the Business Management Programme, which he stopped in 1982 with the starting of the Integrated Rural Development Course in 1975. This showed his option for the rural poor. It was Fr. Bogaert who brought XISS to its present premises in 1978. He will be remembered for his pioneering role in the establishment of Vikas Maitri in 1967, which was the outcome of the Chotanagpur Survey, a research project conducted by Dr. Francis Ivern SJ, Director of Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. It was during his Directorship at XISS that the Chotanagpur Survey , II was conducted in 1985 during the centenary year of Fr. Constant Lievens SJ. His predilection for the rural poor was reflected in his pioneering role in organizing a consortium for National Adult Education Programme in the late 70s and early 80s. Similarly, he started the Entrepreneurship Development Programme for the rural and the urban poor giving them self-employment. He will also be remembered for struggling with the for the rural and the urban poor giving them self-employment. He will also be remembered for struggling with the potentially displaced people at Koel Karo in Gumla District of Jharkhand on account of the upcoming mega hydropower project in the early 1980s.

Two other places where Fr. Bogaert showed his management genius were first at the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, Orissa with his starting of a new institute of Rural Development called CENDERT (Centre for Development, Research and Training) during his stay there from 1987 - 1995; and the second at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh with the establishment of a Rural Management Institute called Xavier Institute of Development Action and Studies (XIDAS) during his stay there from 1995 - 2008. Both in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, he worked specially for the poor and the down trodden through the adult literacy and the watershed development programmes.

Fr. Bogaert cared for everybody - the management professionals, the Lion's Club and the Rotary Club members, the YMCA associates, the rural and the urban poor as well as the struggling masses for justice. That was why he was known to people practically in every part of the country and abroad. Everyone who has known him has some wonderful experience to narrate. He read a lot and wrote a lot. He was a very good teacher and a thinker too. He was a great social worker too and above all he was a fine human being. He worked hard, sometimes round the clock and brought perfection to whatever he accomplished. His smiling demeanor and care free laughter revealed that he indeed had a heart of a child. Despite all his hectic wok, he prayed a lot and was sincere to his religious and priestly duties. The community members and friends enjoyed his companionship in conversation, in sharing a joke and in discussing serious issues.
His last assignment since June 2008 was as Professor Emeritus at Xavier Institute of Social Action (XISA), Raipur, where he had great dreams as usual to do a lot for the rural and the urban poor. His last visit to his people in Belgium was in May 2009. He returned to India with a lot of plans and enthusiasm. But he didn't realize that he was getting older and that he needed to be more careful wherever he was.

Unlike the rest of his life, Fr. Bogaert's last days were painful as one could observe. The first tragedy started on 10th July 2009 as he arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi by an Austrian Airline at 00.20 a.m. He came all right to the Domestic Airport by the bus of the Airport. But then nobody knows how he landed at Dwarka, a fast growing metropolis, which is 12 KM from the Airport to the west. Did some auto driver or taxi driver bring him there and rob him of the sum of about Rs. 39,000/-? Or did Fr. Bogaert walk all the way to Dwarka being forgetful as to where he was heading? His arrival at Dwarka and sleeping on the pavement in the morning of 10th July was a mystery indeed. Many of those who saw him ignored him. But one Sardarji, Mr. Gajendra Singh came to him and with great difficulty managed to talk to him. He brought Fr. Bogaert to his house and after knowing who he was from his visiting card, contacted the Fathers at Campion Community, Raipur. Fr. Kalyan Minj SJ received the fateful news about Fr. Bogaert and informed Br. Fulgence at Jor Bagh, New Delhi about his plight. Soon Br. Fulgence went to Gajendra's house at Dwarka and brought him to Jor Bagh and then flew with him to Raipur on 11th July 2009. Fr. Bogaert did recover from the tragedy at New Delhi and Dwarka but sometimes was becoming forgetful. Nevertheless he took part in the tree plantation drive on 27th August. He said his last mass on 29th August, the Feast of John the Baptist and gave a meaningful sermon on his words: "He must increase and we must decrease". On 30th August morning he was found semi conscious lying on his bed. He was rushed to the best hospital in Raipur where after performing the CT scan on him the Doctors diagnosed that Fr. Bogaert had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. He never recovered and slept in the Lord at 4.00 a.m. on 31st August 2009. His body was brought to the Jesuit Novitiate at Namna, Ambikapur where he was buried on 1st September 2009 after a moving funeral mass with the Bishop of Ambikapur, Rev. Patras Minj SJ; the Bishop of Jabalpur Rev. Gerald Almeida and the Bishop of Raigarh, Rev. Paul Toppo besides the Provincial of Ranchi, Fr. Ranjit Pascal Toppo SJ and of Madhya Pradesh, Fr. Boniface Panna SJ. A group of 200 friends and acquaintances of Fr. Bogaert had gathered from various places especially from XISS, Ranchi; XIMB, Bhubaneswar and XIDAS Jabalpur. All paid rich tributes to him for the great person he was living his life like leaven in the dough, on which he so often preached.