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Rev. T. Gavan Duffy (1888-1942) by Paula Kurth

"HE WAS A GREAT MAN. . ." The words leap spontaneously to the lips when we speak of Father Gavan Duffy, author, educator, and missioner, who died in India in 1942. And the words are no platitude, but his true epitaph.

Born in 1888, in the south of France, Thomas Gavan Duffy . was the son of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, one of the brilliant patriot leaders of the Young Ireland Movement who was associated with Davis, Mitchel, Mangan and the mother of Oscar Wilde (Speranza of The Nation) and who later served as Prime Minister for Australia. The boy inherited his father's brilliance and originality, what might perhaps be called his genius. He early began his cosmopolitan existence, being educated at Stonyhurst, Thurles and in Paris. At eighteen he joined the Paris Foreign Mission Society, nursery of so many glorious martyrs, and was ordained in 1911. He went at once to India, and the little town of Tindivanam ­ "Tindy" he affectionately called it ­ in South Arcot, not far from Madras and the equator, became his headquarters.

It was at Tindivanam that Father Gavan Duffy established his famous Training school for Catechists - five hundred in number - which Monsignor John J. Hunt of Detroit called "the ecclesiastical West Point of India." In fact when people thought of Father Duffy they automatically thought of catechists too; and that is exactly what he wanted. "More and better catechists" was his watchword for over a quarter of a century, and it was the idea in forming the delightful periodical Hope which he wrote at unpredictable intervals, whcn maybe he could snatch a few midnight hours from his busy round, and sent back to his helpers on the home front. In doggerel, in fine verse, in amusing anecdote, in characteristically clipped, lucid prose-it was all the same to him provided he got his idea over-, he sang the song of the catechist.

Father Gavan Duffy looked upon the catechist, the native lay missioner, as an invaluable means of multiplying the priest who, with all the zealous good will in the world, is not ubiquitous. The catechist, usually complete with wife and family, settles in some remote small village, melts into its background, and proceeds to Christianize it from the inside. As Father Gavan Duffy said, "The preaching of the priest is from the outside, and also it is too fleeting in character to produce the full result. But the catechist lives the life of the village, exemplifies Christian family life, chats with the people at their work and during their leisure hours, patiently teaches the children, gives neighborly help in time of trouble, and in every way makes Christianity the property of the people. . .. Without catechists a priest is a knight errant; with catechists he is an organized and far-reaching force." The "Catechist Idea" has the endorsement of bishops throughout the missionary world.

Catechists, however, are worse than useless unless they are well trained-ergo, the Training School at Tindivanam where students were taken as young lads and shepherded through a preparatory course carefully planned by Father Gavan Duffy. Pedagogical methods were stressed of course-the interested person may refer to The Sower Went Out for details as to their uniqueness and efficiency-but even more stressed was character formation. Father Duffy had faith in the potential goodness of "that sunbeam of mankind," the human boy, and spared no effort to make it a permanent actuality for the citizens of his Boystown. St. Tarcisius was a special favorite and in his poem honoring this young martyr of the Blessed Sacrament, he says, "Any real boy, if chance allowed, would be so slain." He early recognized the advantages of Boy Scouting as a factor in character training, and, choosing what was best and most suitable from the movement, he supplemented it by a high spirituality. The result was his Knights of the Blessed Sacrament at which we heirs of Catholic tradition can look with wondering admiration. He personally oversaw the details of the organization, made it a point to be present at the campfires, and even wrote a series of Scout Songs for use at them. The songs are mostly set to well-known airs, though a few were his own composition, and the Hindu moon must have had reason for astonishment as the troop of darkskinned Tamilian youths enthusiastically struck up new versions of "Au Clair de la Lune," "The Stein Song," "Parigi O cara," or Gilbert and Sullivan favorites like "Tit Willow." Father Duffy found Gilbertian humor particularly congenial: he must have needed a good supply of it in that land where, as he hints in a characteristic essay on Chesterton, "Everything is either at sixes or at sevens." He believed in allowing idleness no quarter and interesting activities were ingeniously planned for recreation times. On his last begging trip to the United States he was jubilant over the purchase of a Charlie McCarthy dummy which he knew would thrill his boys, and a book on ventriloquism also went back to India with him, together with a box of dime-store treasures such as Tindy had never known.

Teacher extraordinary that he was, and driven by that thirst for souls which is the underlying theme of the most beautiful poems in his books Wayfarer for Christ, Father Gavan Duffy left nothing undone which he thought would help spread knowledge of the Kingdom. How literally he took the command to go and teach is seen in his "Mission Message in the Sunday Gospels"incorporated in his volume The Seven Last Words -where God is found to say: "You have your orders 'Going, teach all nations.' I cannot make it any clearer; all right then, sonny, you just go." He served for years as Diocesan Inspector of Schools; and his great educational labor, the set of Catechism Folders, is "A complete course in religion, based on the unity of the Gospels, dogmas, and sacraments, and providing for the greatest. freedom and originality in the teacher" for which, as Bishop Cushing points out, "he quarried the stones from within himself," If such quarrying is the hardest kind of work even in favorable circumstance, what must it be in 110° of humid heat.

No mere missionologist was Father Gavan Duffy but a dyed-in-the-wool practical man. On his four begging trips to America he contrived to visit other mission lands en route, and to study the methods used in them. So he passed through Annam, where Theophane Venard won his crown; through Korea where Just de Bretanieres suffered, and through China and Japan. And he made a pioneering trip in a motor truck four thousand miles across the heart of Africa although he had been told such a trip was absolutely impossible. His fascinating experiences can be found in Let's Go, illustrated by himself.

It is just because Father Duffy knew his missions so thoroughly that he could speak with authority on matters of mission importance. And that too, is why his books (there are sixteen of them in the New Hope Series) are, as one reviewer put it, "A whole library of mission lore." This Series covers many angles of mission work and should be represented in every Catholic library. Father James J. Daly said of them, "They contain the varied experience of an unusually talented man during twenty five years of intensely hard work among the natives of Southern India. They sparkle with wit, wise reflection, interesting information and keen intelligence in touch with the world of books and men and expressing itself with a fine literary taste." Particularly to be recommended are Fantastic Uncle, The Blind Spot, The Voyager and The Sower Went Out, which purport to be letters to a seminarian nephew from a veteran missioner relaying "the smell of powder from the front." Certainly they achieve their aim of reproducing the mission atmosphere-the spiritual oppression of surrounding paganism, the loneliness, the endless round, the dirt, the heat, the sustained self-sacrifice in small things that add up to heroism. Yet through them all runs an undercurrent of humor that reaches its glorious heroic peak in The Voyager, as poor Father Joly bumps along the dusty road on the pillion of his missioner friend's motorcycle.

Catechists have to be maintained at their stations as well as trained, and their humble salaries of five dollars a month have to be found regularly. Moreover the money "is not easy in the uptake" as Father Duffy soon discovered, and after 1929 it became almost napoo. His own private fortune had early gone into mission work. He could not afford to overlook any way of rousing interest among the home folk, so he turned movie producer. Most men would have been appalled by the stupendous job of producing a movie in the backwoods of India. But not for nothing had Father Duffy that red hair. A script was written in short order, a camera and photographer hired, an elephant borrowed, a cast assembled which proved quite as temperamental as some of our own stars, and the film miraculously kept from melting in the heat. The result was The Catechist of Kilarni (yes, the actual name of an Indian town-not made up) which subsequently brought American audiences face to face with the missioner's probIems.

Father Gavan Duffy was not a good beggar; it would be hard to discover a man less fitted to the role. But it all came in the day's work. Nothing, however, would convert him to the snake stories school-he found it hard to believe that Catholics should need any other reason for helping the missions than a genuine desire to spread God's Kingdom. "We have the finest cause there is," he wrote. "It goes straight to the roots of faith. And it does not need to be bolstered up with fairy tales," Witness his Father Gus Butterworthy on a begging tour lugging those heavy bags of mission literature and lantern slides up steep steps while the sweat poured from his brow, trudging the winter streets sniflling with cold, being handed a cigar-and nothing more-by an old school-mate turned millionaire, sitting in clerical parlors during hungry noons while the pleasant odors of lunch in progress floated under the door-and all the time the home folks wondered that he could be spared so long from his work in India, while the people in India envied him his long delightful holiday.

Father Gavan Duffy's was not a character readily understood. Association with him for several months while he was arranging for the publication of his books gave me ample opportunity of observing him at close range. His love of truth was almost a passion; and, concentrated in purpose and absolutely sincere, he found it hard to be patient with petty subterfuges which his keen light blue eyes penetrated quickly. Mission life, he held, did not leave room for the pursuit of the amenities. Yet he was the sort of man who could have reveled in amenities. You would think, for instance what fun he would be on a house party. A certain Gaelic sense of fighting a losing cause was canceled out in him by the supernatural virtue of hope-or Hope rather: he spelled it with a capital.

Father Gavan Duffy was a prodigious worker. He knew how to manage time and get the most out of every minute. And he was order personified; his files were methodical, correct, and up. to-date, his handwriting was small, artistic, and neat, and the very pencil on his writing table was always sharpened and laid in readiness. "Tables" would have been the more correct word in that last sentence for his favorite idiosyncracy towards time saving was to have several tables on which to work, one for each particular job in hand with all the data and papers connected with that job together on it, ready for attention. He had unusual mental grasp of complicated situations, a foresight that often enabled him to forestall difficulties, and, perhaps most important. all the sticking power in the world. Big as was the task of manag. ing the Training School, to say nothing of his educational and literary work and vast correspondence, not long before his death he was also acting as parish priest for two extensive areas. This huge stint is the more extraordinary when it is recalled that he had not had robust health for many years.

But no long last illness was to be his. Always expeditious, like some saint we read of, Father Gavan Duffy did quickly what had to be done. He was ill only twenty-four hours. we are fortunate in having a detailed account of exactly what happened. It was written by Father Michael Curtin, his great friend and loyal co-worker; and because his death was not without heroism, and because it was so of a piece with his life, we cannot do better than quote briefly from that account:

"Tom died of tetanus," writes Father Curtin, "physically not at all a pleasant death. He had the first touch of it Sunday morning (last September seventh) on rising. Previous evening nothing, only plenty of good humor. . ., By noon undisguisable pain had set in. . . From then on and through Sunday night he did suffer considerably but cheerfully. . . we did not want him to speak much but he did speak quite a little. He had the boys brought into the room in groups and spoke to them. His real desire in this connection was that the boys should see the Father Gavan Duffy, they so reverenced, in his last wrestlings with death, that they should realize what a humble weak thing the poor body is at its last end. He was the educator to the last and . . . appeared never so much his authentic self as 'at the breaking' of his body." Anti-tetanus injections had been given and the Archbishop made arrangements for him to be taken in an ambulance to the hospital in Pondicherry, and this was done early the next morning. At first the doctors were not unhopeful but, to go on with Father Curtin's account, "Our grand big-souled Tom died at twelve forty-five Monday, the Feast of Our Lady's Nativity." The date particularly touched Father Curtin who continues: "Our Blessed Mother Tom loved with a special love. With a boldness of Faith, I will say. Somebody wanted to give Her on Her birthday one of the fixed stars, one of the unblinking stars seen far below on this earth of ours." Very solemn and very beautiful were the words Father Gavan Duffy spoke to his friend their last evening together. Father Curtin tells of the charm they threw "over Tom's cruel death, a charm that got me and would certainly get each and everyone of you. It was on Sunday evening about five o'clock he made his general confession to me. He preluded it with a five or seven minutes' conversation. My bad memory will set it down as well as I can. He said, 'Michael, it is all but a certainty that I am going to die. I would like to make a simple act of Faith. I believe in the Catholic Church and her Divine Sacramental System. I love Christ and now offer my life utterly to Him. I know with a glance of His eye He can rub the slate clean. I call at this moment on my Mother Mary and I appeal to my Patron, St. Thomas. One thing I am very glad of here and now. I loved truth. And I think I have been loyal to it all my life. This can even now make me tremble with joy. As to death I am not merely resigned to it, I definitely prefer it to life. Yet let things be as God wills. I think I have done the work God meant to be done by both my hands.' "

Father Gavan Duffy is buried at Tindivanam in the school garden. As a rule Indian boys are not demonstrative: their hard lot in the native villages too often deadens their finer feelings and gives them that impassive attitude towards loss and calamity which is almost a national characteristic. But Father Curtin tells of the Tindy boys kneeling in relays at the grave and keeping it continually covered with flowers and green things though it was not the season for green things and flowers in that part of India -while their poverty stricken pockets provided the stipend for a sung Requiem Mass.

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three, copyright 1945

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