DIVINE Word Missionaries Father Liam Horsfall may be 84, but age has yet to stop him from sharing his knowledge and compassion of the poorest of the poor with Australian youth.
We are not talking armchair stories, although Fr Liam’s sense of humour and gift of the gab would be perfect for such a setting.
No, Fr Liam still escorts an annual trip to India to visit and work among the poor, the marginalised and the outcast.
His latest trip just before Christmas involved a group of senior students from St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, on Brisbane’s northside, and, “God willing”, he will be off again at the end of this year.
Fr Liam didn’t expect to end up in India when he embarked on his chosen vocation inspired by two New Guinea chaplains during his own school days.
Liam was born in Graceville, Brisbane, one of three children.
“My father was a farmer at Graceville but there are no farms left now,” he said.
“I went to Marist Brothers Rosalie for primary and Marist Brothers Ashgrove for secondary and at the time we had a couple of men from (Papua) New Guinea that were rescued from the Japanese concentration camp up there and they were chaplains sent to the Marist Brothers.
“For a while we were in exile in (Mt) Tamborine and they had been in camp down at the foot of the range when that was a very big military camp.
“There is no sign of it left at all, not the skerrick of a stump.”
Fr Liam said after working for a year with Main Roads he joined the Divine Word Missionaries and went to Marburg, west of Brisbane, for three years then on to Techny, near Chicago in the United States, to study philosophy and theology.
“That was the English international group of Divine Word Missionaries at that time,” he said.
“There were a lot there – English, Irish and German, a few South Americans and rather a big number of American Negroes.
“It was something unique of its time.”
Fr Liam said he always wanted to work in overseas mission but expected to be posted closer to home.
“In those days New Guinea was all we knew so I presumed I’d go to New Guinea after I was ordained in the States in 1957, (but) by that time there was only the Australians and members of the British Commonwealth that could go to India so it was natural we would be sent (there),” he said.
His first posting was to the mission in Orissa, south-west of Calcutta (Kolkata).
“At the time it was a relatively new mission and it was a flourishing missionary of tribal people,” he said.
Fr Liam said there was little education and work for the people.
“Very soon after I got there the bishop said ‘we are short of teachers, can you please go and teach for awhile’,” he said.
For the next nine years he taught in Gaibira. “It means ‘cow fall’, well I’m a Horsfall, and that’s a cow fall.”
In 1966 Fr Liam became provincial of the area and went to work in Jharsuguda, which was then a small town.
Fr Liam said his early time as provincial wasn’t an easy job.
“The job was to make sure all the mission stations and all the mission institutions were staffed and ran,” he said.
“At that time we were just getting our first Indians who were ordained in 1965 and by that time there were no more foreigners coming in, so we were sure the Indians were coming but they weren’t there at the time so it was hard going.”
Fr Liam said it was also an imperative at that time to expand the mission work to other people in the area.
“And one of those was a place we went to (last) year, a place called Puri which is one of those holy cities of the Hindus and they believe that if they chose to die there they will go straight to Heaven so many people do go there just to die,” he said.
Fr Liam said the first missionary priest in Puri was Fr Marian Zelazek, the holiest person he ever met, which is high praise from someone who once celebrated Mass for Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta when he first arrived in India.
“At that time she only had 19 (Sisters), the numbers multiplied after that and then she became known all over the world,” he said.
“She was a very remarkable person and she always acknowledged me 20 years later as the person from Orissa. I thought very much of her and she was and is a saint and now it’s acknowledged.”
Fr Liam said Fr Marian was a Polish seminarian interned in Dachau for the whole of World War II.
“There were 22 of his class that went in to Dachau and only two survived and he was one of them, but he was truly remarkable,” he said.
“He had no animosity against those who had interned him and he was the right man to go to Puri and he was there until he died about six years ago.
“There are a lot of people who want to introduce his cause for beatification.”
Fr Liam said that during the recent immersion trip the Brisbane students visited the leper colony Fr Marian established in Puri and the adjoining St Beatrix school, set up to educate the children of lepers who were not allowed in the country’s state schools.
“It was a marvellous thing this year when I could bring the boys there and the priest could show them what has been accomplished,” Fr Liam said.
After 18 years in India, Fr Liam returned to Australian for a holiday.
“And then they made me provincial here,” he said.
He was Australian provincial from 1976-85 but never lost his ties to India and in 1977 took his first group of young men back to the country on an immersion trip.
“It was a rather big group of about 20 boys and some of those have been running their own trips to India since then,” he said.
“(Dr) Wayne Tinsey, (Edmund Rice Education Australia executive director) was in that first group and at that time he was still in Strathfield in teachers’ training college, and many times since he has taken a group of teachers and a group of Christian Brothers and employees to India and he is still doing it.”
Since 1977 Fr Liam has led an annual trip to India apart from the few years from 1985-91 when he was posted in Papua New Guinea.
While there he spent a year in Wewak and five years teaching and working as rector at the Divine Word University in Madang.
He said his early ties to India were still there today. During his most recent trip he and his immersion students visited the leper colony in Jharsuguda that Fr Liam started while provincial.
“The government has said they can’t take any new members into the lepers’ home so eventually it will die out,” he said.
Fr Liam has been based in Brisbane since returning from Papua New Guinea in 1991, first as parish priest at Hamilton and then as chaplain at both Emmaus nursing home and St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe.
God willing, 2012 will be a big year for Fr Liam. In June he will celebrate 55 years as a priest, August is his 85th birthday and, in November, it will be the 35th anniversary of his Indian immersions and “if all is well” he will again be the immersion leader.
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