22 February 2017 : A newsletter of the Australian Jesuits

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‘Baba’ Peter’s life with the poor


During the winter months Peter could have been seen each morning setting off from Arrupe Niwas, with a cheery ‘See you later’ to anyone around. He liked to walk the kilometre or so to his communication centre, Koyal Vani. It was in mid March that he complained of not feeling well, and went to Holy Family Hospital, Kurji, for a health check. While under treatment his condition deteriorated and a head scan revealed an accumulation of blood. Surgery was performed to drain the blood out. Peter had some periods of consciousness after that but then developed pneumonia and suffered heart failure. He breathed his last early on 28 March.


Peter was the second son of Dr Francis and Mary Doherty of Bendigo. Peter attended St Mary’s Convent and later the Marist Brothers’ School. His secondary education was in Xavier College, Melbourne. He tried his vocation for three years at Corpus Christi College, the Melbourne archdiocesan Seminary. He left the seminary and spent two years in part-time jobs as a labourer and also in a clerical post with the State Government.


On 3 February 1957 he was received into the Jesuit novitiate in Melbourne. From 1961 to 1963 he was teaching at St Ignatius College, Adelaide, and was appointed to Hazaribag early in 1964.


Seasoned by his working through his calling, Peter was restless to come to grips with what he saw as his mission – to bring the gospel to Indian society. After a short time teaching in St Xavier’s, Hazaribag, he sought a transfer to Mahuadanr to learn Hindi. Headmaster Ken McNamara gave him classes which included science, where Peter startled his students with rather original experiments. In the years ahead Peter was often to startle his companions with the originality of his apostolic ideas and plans.


Peter passed his B.A. from St Xavier’s College, Ranchi, as a private student. He worked on Hindi during his theology in Kurseong, and after ordination in St Stanislaus College, Sitagarha on 7 March 1968, he enrolled for a postgraduate degree in Hindi (1970- 1972). After the success of his M.A., he joined the staff of Hazaribag parish. Here, as an assistant in the parish, he launched into contact work with the various Harijan groups around Hazaribag. This apostolate was to be Peter’s preferred work for the rest of his priestly life. By working consistently among non-tribal Hindu groups Peter was quietly indicating a paradigm shift in the pastoral work of the Province and the Diocese.


In turn, he worked out of St Robert’s High School, Catholic Ashram Middle School, Primary Teachers Education College, Sitagarha, and Prerana Resource Centre. With a talent for music, Peter not only learnt a variety of bhajans but could accompany himself on the harmonium. In 1995 he settled in Tarwa and built himself a house. When Tarwa was accepted as a ministry of the Province, Peter decided to move on to fresher pastures. Meantime he had not only learnt Magahi, but composed a Magahi grammar to encourage his companions to learn it, and published the Gospel of Matthew in Magahi.


During his years in Prerana he often visited the slum colony of Harijans next to the State Bank, and became a favourite with the children, who eventually had to be discouraged from being too much at home in Prerana where their ‘Baba’ lived. Seeing the distance the women had to walk for water he negotiated with the town authorities and got a tube well for the colony.


In order to get the Gospel message across to village people Peter next launched into making charts, slides, and films. And so Koyal Vani was born.


Conversations with Peter or listening to him in meetings was a roller-coaster of ideas and plans from his ever fertile mind, often toppling accepted ways of proceeding or challenging various sacred cows. With the evolution of Peter’s ideas there was, however, one constant: he never wavered from his preference for working for the marginalised. There was one other constant: an annual trip to Gopalpur on Sea to swim, have a vacation and make a retreat.


The tall, gangly, hirsute figure in the outsize kurta and baggy pajamas became something of an icon. One might not always agree with Peter, but confronted with his encyclopedic knowledge and his compelling argumentation one could only be filled with astonishment and admiration. Not all his ideas won acceptance from his brethren and not all his writings got past the censors, but Peter, undeterred, took such small setbacks in a sporting spirit and got on with the job.


The news quickly spread that ‘Baba’ had died and there was a crowd of several hundred ‘satsanghis’ at the funeral Mass in Sitagarha. Their devout singing in their traditional mode and their participation in the Mass was a sign that the newcomers into the fold were bringing with them their own lively and attractive mode of worship. It was an assembly which would have pleased Baba Peter.


By Fr William Dwyer SJ.


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Joe Quigley


Thank you, Father Bill, for a testimonial worthy of a great priest and a great spirit.