Eulogy to Father Edgar Peter Burns: Darjeeling’s Great Soul

Eulogy to Father Edgar Peter Burns: Darjeeling’s Great Soul – From 26th April 1925 to 17th May 2010 when 10 million  refugees poured into India from Bangladesh, Fr. Burns threw himself into serving them …. Bengal forgets so easily ?!!

From Darjeeling Times
By Noreen Dunne

Father Burns in office - a hard act for anyone to follow ?!! (Photo from Darjeeling Times)

To merely introduce someone like Fr. Burns is the easy part, because everyone knows him, or knows of him.

(Fr. Burns’s white cassock, white shock of hair, with rosary in hand, walking along the streets of Darjeeling, Namaste-ing everyone, stopping by to speak to and help every beggar on the road, used to be a familiar sight, and something which the old-timers now miss since Fr.’s illness and prosthetic surgery, which unfortunately keeps him indoors).

But to explain what he has done and who he is, is the tough part, because never has so much been done by ONE man for so many, particularly the poor, in Darjeeling

So, it is my proud privilege to say more than a few words about Fr. Burns, on behalf of the North Point College Alumni Association, and on behalf of all the poor we work for and with, particularly in the Darjeeling Hills.

Fr. Burns was born in Montreal Canada, in 1925, but because Fr. Burns’s father worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Fr. Burns learnt early in life to adapt to new surroundings, a quality which has so helped him to adapt to India and to the Hills for the last 58 years, so much so that he considers Darjeeling his home.

Fr. Burns was educated in Jesuit schools in Canada, where he was an all-round student, till he entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1943. Even while he was in the Novitiate, his superiors recognized his ability to win friends and influence people, and his effectiveness as a popular preacher.

In 1951 he came to India.

His sports skills, particularly boxing, helped him in his first post as sub-prefect of the Upper Division in North Point School, where he was for one year, from 1951-1952. Supremely adaptable, Fr. Burns even learnt to play cricket, edited a U.D. Newsletter, preached student retreats, directed plays, led boys on hikes, and coached North Point’s winning football and boxing teams.

Fr. Burns then went on to St. Alphonsus High School, Kurseong, where he was for two years, from 1952-1954, to learn Nepali (which he now speaks, reads and writes fluently), followed by a one year stint, from 1954-1955, at St. Robert’s High School, Darjeeling, where be became a great  friend of the late Bishop Eric Benjamin, whose Vicar General (Assistant) he was to later become for 12 years.

During his theology in St. Mary’s Kurseong, Fr. Burns would spend his off days dispensing medicine and caring for the poor, a foreshadowing of his future apostolate in and through Hayden Hall.

Fr. Burns was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1958 in Kurseong.

After finishing theology, Fr. Burns joined St. Joseph’s College, Darjeeling, where he taught English for 25 full years, from 1960-1985. He was also hostel Superintendent, Student Adviser and Co-ordinator of Co-Curricular activities, particularly football and dramatics.

During his 25 years at the college, North Point was football champion for 4 years in succession, and staged plays as varied as Judgement at Nuremburg, (that were challenging and thought-provoking), and Annie Get Your Gun, (that were pure fun and entertainment).

However, Fr. Burns’s love for his students and his interest in their spiritual as much as their academic development, was shown in his initiating spiritual retreats for non-Christian students, for exposing them to the lives of the poor in villages, and for collecting funds for Campion Hall, a student activities wing of the college.

He revitalized the N.P.A.A. (the North Point Alumni Association) and focused their attention on various social issues in our Hills. The N.P.A.A.’s pioneering Hike for Health (to raise funds for the Prevention and Cure of Tuberculosis in the Hills), and the Clean Darjeeling Campaign (to create an awareness of the polluted environment of Darjeeling), were just some of the results of that initiative, as was the Housing Programme, called Model or Fryml Village, below Government College, which was an attempt at rehabilitating the homeless victims of the devastating landslides of 1968.

In fact, it was when Fr. Burns was Regional Superior of the Darjeeling Jesuits of North Bengal, from 1968-1974, that other works of mercy and compassion began in the District.

To quote the Superior-General of the Jesuits, Fr. Hans. Kolvenbach, it was then that “Jesu Ashram began  serving the destitute of Siliguri. And when 10 million  refugees poured into India from Bangladesh, Fr. Burns threw himself into serving them – and soon the whole Darjeeling Region followed him into this work.”

In fact, under his guidance, Jesu Ashram began with Bro. Bob Mittleholtz, SASAC began with Fr. Murray Abraham, the Gandhi Youth Club began with Fr. Ed.McGuire, and above all, Hayden Hall began in 1969 under Fr. Burns himself.

It was at this time that Fr. Burns developed a net-work of collaborators throughout the world by regular letters. These letters have made a difference in so many lives. These form his written Gospel. His many talks to sisters, priests, and laity, form his vocal Gospel. But the Gospel par excellence is that of his life, according to his great and good friend, Fr. Van, in his homily, when Fr. Burns celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a Jesuit.

Even while all this was going on, Fr. Burns was also becoming very well-known as a spiritual adviser to the Diocese of Darjeeling and to its many religious congregations.

The numerous retreats, recollections, and talks, that Fr has given, and the innumerable religious meetings that he has attended, is clear witness of this, proving too his strong support of the local Church, through his support of the local Bishop and the Diocese of Darjeeling.

However, if Fr.Burns is well-known as a teacher and a preacher from his college and teaching days, and became better known for his pastoral and evangelical work with various religious communities, then he is perhaps best known today for his social work and community development activities for the poor, through Hayden Hall, of which he is the founder and was the Director for 37 years, from 1969 to 2006.

Begun in 1969, Hayden Hall was the concrete realization of Fr. Burns’s dreams to have a centre in town where students and alumni of St. Joseph’s College, Darjeeling, could have hands-on experience of working with and for their poorer brothers and sisters, for their development and for the development of the Hills; and in providing an opportunity for educated local lay people to become agents of change and men and women for others, by allowing them to express their concern, through loving service and skill, for those less fortunate than themselves.

Since Fr. Burns believed that the poor should only get the best, in terms of education, medical care, skills training and income generating opportunities, a new Hayden Hall was built in 1972, where the old Albert Lodge used to be.

It was opened by Fr. Hayden, an old Irish Jesuit teacher at St. Joseph’s College, (whose legendary discipline, sense of fair play, love of the poor, and support of our work in Hayden Hall, inspired us to name this institute for the poor after him.)

Hayden Hall II was in built in 1976, (opened by Cardinal Picachy, a Darjeeling born Jesuit and an ex-North Pointer). Hayden Hall III was built in 1994.

All 3 buildings, and our Extension work in the Villages of Darjeeling,  run  programmes of Adult Education, Pre-School Education, Primary Education, Supervised after-schools tuition for poor children from the poorer neighbourhood schools,  Mother and Child Care, Community Health, Prevention and Cure of Tuberculosis, Paramedic Training, Housing, Income Generation, Feeding and Nutrition Rehabilitation, Help to the Old.

All enshrine Fr. Burns’s beliefs: a love for the poor, a belief in local lay people working for the development of their own people, and a desire to witness to God’s love for man by serving the sick, the handicapped, the slow, the illiterate, the unskilled, the old, the homeless, the abandoned and the hopeless.

To conclude, Fr. Burns is a man of God, having been a powerful witness of God’s love for man for the last 65 years; a prayerful man, a faithful companion of Jesus, having tried to live Christ’s gospel values of love and compassion through all his works, especially Hayden Hall; a man for others, however poor or wretched the other might be; a teacher and a pioneer, since a number of ex-students are now on the Staff, the Managing Committee and the Governing Board of Hayden Hall Institute.

But, above all, thank God, Fr. Burns is human, with all his weaknesses. His unfortunate illnesses, as a result of his 7 major operations, have left him a little frail and sometimes bedridden.

But, when one looks at what he has done in one life span, I think we can all agree that he is an inspiring icon, a charismatic leader and a living legend. They don’t make them like Fr. Burns anymore. And he will be a very difficult act to follow for religious or lay.

And so, while thanking God, his family, (and we are so happy that they are here today from Canada and America), and his Jesuit brethren, for the gift of Fr. Burns, we would also like to thank each and every one of you, Alumni and guests, who have helped Fr. Burns and Hayden Hall, and thus encouraged us all these many years.

But a very special thanks go to the North Point College Alumni for having organized this public thank you for Frs. Burns and Van.  They are like the 10th leper in the Gospel story who comes back to express his gratitude for having been cleansed of leprosy by Jesus Christ, even though 9 other lepers were also cleansed,  eliciting even from Christ his now famous remark: “Where are the other nine?”

The famous sculptor, Henry Moore, once said, “To be obsessed with some Vision, (and Hayden Hall’s Vision is true Human Development), and to have continuous opportunity of working towards that Vision, can be looked upon as God’s greatest gift to any man, woman or child.”

Today, we are grateful that Fr. Burns was obsessed with just such a Vision, and we thank God, through Fr. Burns, for giving us this opportunity, through Hayden Hall, to work towards that Vision.

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3 Responses to “Eulogy to Father Edgar Peter Burns: Darjeeling’s Great Soul”

  1. Cathy Whalen Says:

    What a wonderful eulogy for a man of God who walked in the footsteps of the Lord and did His work so well.

    Although I did not know Fr. Edgar Burns I heard about him all my life as he was a great friend of my mother’s. They grew up together around Loyola High School and College. My mother last spoke with “Edgar”, as she called him,on Monday,May10th.

    She too, is ailing and I brought her home from the Hospital so she could try and reach him by phone. She had been trying to get through to him for a few months and had spoken with Noreen many times. Miraculously,this time she did get a chance to speak with him and say “I’ll see you in Heaven.”

  2. Cathy Whalen Says:

    My Mom’s name is Theresa Dawson and she was a great friend of Fr. Edgar Burns.

    She felt he was a”Saint” working amongst the poor and needy.

    She loved getting his letters and sharing them with each of her 11 children and their children and grandchildren.

    I am so glad that she got to speak with him that one last time on May 10th…it was a great gift to her and a comfort as she is fighting cancer at present.

  3. Morricone Says:

    Yeah, it’s good, very useful, thanks 🙂


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