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The eleven Salesians were taken to see the various apostolic activities in the mission- station and met the brothers and sisters who managed the schools. They were delighted at what they saw, especially since they had imagined they would be coming to mud huts in the jungle! But they found a lovely town, semi-Europeanized, with an organized nucleus of evangelical activities. That day they sang a very solemn and heartfelt Te Deum in the Church. Fr. Lefebvre was the principal minister with assistants on both sides. Fr. Louis Mathias played the harmonium. That night they were treated to another sort of ‘welcome’ that reminded them of stern realities – the roar of the tiger and a slight tremor of an earthquake.
The First Sunday, 15th January 1922, which the new missionaries spent in Shillong was marked by a Holy Mass in which they all sang Perosi’s Te Deum Laudamus music: the ceremony was much appreciated by the Jesuit fathers and also by the Khasi people who were and are musically inclined. The sermon was in the Khasi language which the Salesians did not understand. “How are we ever going to speak that language?” they whispered one to another. Later they visited the cemetery and found it neat and tidy (another characteristic of the Khasis).
That evening the official welcoming was given to the newcomers before a large crowd of people who had been informed of the event. It was a good occasion for everyone to become acquainted. Fr. Mathias replied to the speech of welcome and since he spoke no Khasi his words were translated by Fr. Lefebvre. The speaker mentioned that Salesians were not people from Silesia but rather a religious congregation, under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, founded by Fr. John Bosco, a priest who lived in Turin, Italy, who gave his life for the spiritual and material welfare of the poor and unfortunate, especially young people.
He then distributed about 550 holy cards bearing an image of Mary Help of Christians, which gave Fr. Lefebvre the opportunity of explaining about the statue in the Church and the proposed new title it would be given. From that day onwards the Madonna of Don Bosco became part of the everyday life of the Khasis. The words of Don Bosco written to Fr. Cagliero must have re-echoed in their minds:
“Do the best you can: God will make up for what is lacking. Entrust everything to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Help of Christians: then, you will see what miracles really are!”
A few days later a local feast was to be held in a village several kilometers from Shillong and the Salesians thought they would attend it, in order, as they said, “to seek up some local colour”. They watched the Khasi dance with interest: in it the women, clothed from head to toe completely in silk, wore elaborate necklaces and a silver crown on their head. The women shuffled slowly around in a circle without ever lifting their feet off the ground, without uttering a word and with their heads bowed down. The men, dressed up in garish costumes, jump around and brandish swords while shouting so much and so frighteningly as to make one’s hair stand on end!
The feast at Umpling, as in other villages could not end without a Jingkhawai (a banquet) for all those present. On this occasion the Salesians tasted curry and rice for the first time. The rice was boiled (and still is) in water then eaten with a generous supply of a sort of sauce made of piquant chilies. Even the palate was getting its ‘education’!
Language was a barrier any missionary usually has to face. The Salesians had to become sufficiently proficient in the English language as well as in the vernacular of the place where they are working. For this reason, they used to attend classes in St. Edmund’s School to learn the rudiments of English: at home they tried to converse in that language. Given the ages of the missionaries the language of Shakespeare proved rather difficult to manage. Yet they kept at it: meanwhile several were trying to get the Khasi language around them.
“These Salesians,” wrote Fr. Lefebvre to the Archbishop of Calcutta, “are a fine set of men: they are full of good will and talents. Their greatest drawback is that, with the exception of three of them, they cannot speak English: two months have now passed since they arrived here, but they are still battling with the elements of the language.” Not for nothing had Cardinal Van Rossum advised Fr. Mathias to stay with the Jesuits as long as possible. He wanted the missionaries to learn the lingua franca first of all. No language is easy to pick up. But the situation was not stalemate, on 11th March 1922, Fr. Emmanuel Bars SDB went into the pulpit and gave his first sermon in Khasi! On 30th April it was the turn of Fr. Mathias. He preached in English to the European members of the congregation.
Not accustomed to sit twiddling their thumbs the Salesians cast about for other things to do besides getting to grips with the languages. They discovered in the house an old printing press and a case of letters: one evening they worked at it and were able to have it in working order. One of the first items they printed were holy cards with the image of Mary Help of Christians on them and on the reverse side they printed in Khasi the formula for the novena to Our Lady which Don Bosco had continually recommended to people. They were justly proud of their first apostolic activity and distributed the cards to the congregation in the church on the 24th May 1922.
The 24th was, and is, a very special day for the Salesian Family. It had particular meaning for the Salesians in Assam or North East India that May 1922, for it was the first occasion when they could show their devotion to the Mother of God and begin to communicate that enthusiasm to the people. There was a solemn procession in which the “re-entitled” statue was carried. The occasional discourse was given by Fr. Van Lamberghe SJ who, interpreting the desire of the missionaries, consecrated the entire mission to Mary Help of Christians our mother. This was the day when Fr. Loud Mathias read his first speech in Khasi.