We honour today a Manitoban who has spent half a century in the work of development in India. Gerard Adelson Van Walleghem was born on March 7, 1927 in Winnipeg, the seventh son of Jules and Eliza Van Walleghem, and into a large Belgian family that owned and operated a respected dairy farm on which he learned the values of hard work and of productive use of the morning hours that were to stand him in good stead his whole life.
Following his graduation from St. Paul's High School in 1944, Gerard decided to enter the Society of Jesus and become a Jesuit priest. He completed the novitiate at the Jesuit Seminary in Guelph, Ontario and began scholastic studies there and in Toronto which would lead to the BA degree granted by the University of Montreal. During these studies, he decided to dedicate his life to helping the disadvantaged, and to this end, he volunteered for service in Darjeeling, India where the Canadian Jesuits had gone in the 1940s gradually to replace the Belgian Jesuits who had founded St. Joseph's College. This offer was accepted by his Jesuit superiors, and in January, 1951 Gerard arrived in India where he completed his theological education, was ordained to the priesthood in 1958, and with some exceptions has lived and worked ever since.
For much of the past 50 years, Fr. Van, as Gerard has come to be affectionately known, has served as a teacher, counselor, headmaster, vice-rector, and rector at St. Joseph's College in North Point, Darjeeling, a College which has high school and university sections. He currently is the Rector of the College and Headmaster of the School as well as being the superior of the Jesuits of the Hill Area and of Bhutan. Originally established to serve a mostly elite population of wealthy boys, the school expanded its dilentele to include boys from all socio-economic classes. The Jesuits opened the university section, which is now affiliated with the University of North Bengal, to young women. In addition to his work at St. Joseph's, Fr. Van has also been principal of St. Alphonsus High School in Kurseong.
The aim of these educational institutions has been to empower the students and their families to arrest the cycle of poverty. In the Darjeeling area, various work projects introducing relatively advanced Canadian methods and technologies have been integrated with the curriculum. Vegetable farming, land cultivation, animal husbandry, and well drilling have been improved and have contributed to development in the region. Many of the graduates of these schools have come to Canada for further education, and some have remained to become contributing citizens of this country.
Fr. Van has been a leader in areas other than education, As a parish priest, community superior, regional consultor, advisor to bishops, and friend and supporter of a number of congregations of nuns, he has been active in promoting the social, health, and economic development throughout the Darjeeling hill region and in the surrounding plains. Natural calamities are a feature of life in West Bengal, and he has worked diligently and compassionately in assisting those made homeless by rains and landslides. He has also worked in the refugee camps created by Pakistani War in 1971 and the civil war of 1986-1989. In the spirit of peacekeeping, he has used his substantial influence to maintain harmony between the diverse religious and ethnic groups and the regional authorities. Further, he has worked to develop programs for abused mothers and children. Through these activities, he and his colleagues have earned the respect and admiration of the Jesuit people.
The esteem in which he is held by his fellow Jesuits is evidenced by his selection as the Master of Novices, first at the Mount Carmel Novitiate in Kurseong and later as the founder of the Manresa Novitiate in Kalimpong. He worked for ten years in this critically important task of formation among the young Indian Jesuits who are replacing the aging Canadian Jesuits in the operation of schools and colleges in India.
Although deeply religious, Father Van Walleghem and the other Canadian Jesuits are not in Darjeeling as religious missionaries but as educators and humanitarians. Their philosophy, enacted over a 50 year period, has led to beneficial results leading some observers to describe the work as among the most impressive and sustainable social and development projects seen anywhere. These projects have been supported financially by Canadians, some through contributions to the Jesuits directly and others through the programs of the Canadian International Development Agency.
Fr. Gerard Van Walleghem has spent nearly a lifetime serving, educating, and improving the living standards as well as the outlook of the Indian people in the shadow of the Himalayas. As an unofficial ambassador, educator, and community developer, he has been the embodiment of the Jesuit ideal of a man for others, and it is most appropriate at this time to recognize his effort and achievements.
Mr. Chancellor, it is an honour and a privilege for me to ask in the name of the Senate of the University of Manitoba that you confer upon Gerard A. Van Walleghem, the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.