How a Fearless Catholic Bishop Built a Local Church in Northeast India
First as a Salesian missionary priest and then as the first shepherd of the Diocese of Miao, Bishop Pallipparambil George has had a remarkable impact on the faith and welfare of the local people.
When Salesian Bishop Pallipparambil George first entered the northeast region of India as a young priest in 1979, he knew he was in mission territory.
The area, known as Arunachal Pradesh, was populated by tribal people. Almost inaccessible, it borders China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Tibet.
“It was a violent and dark place ruled by superstition and fear. There was no concept of medicine,” said Deacon Rory Desmond, head of the Christopher Missions Foundation which raises money for this part of India. “The people were animists and head-hunters. The man who cut off the most heads was made the chief.”
Bishop George’s impact on this area of India during the past 43 years has been compared to that of St. Patrick when he arrived in Ireland. Because of Bishop George’s efforts, Arunachal Pradesh has been transformed into one of the most Catholic areas of India.
How It Began
During the mid-1970s a group of teenagers from the region began to hear about the outside world and wandered south. Arunachal Pradesh has always been governed by the Indian military. To this day, no one can enter the region unless they get special permission.
“The teenagers came to the town of Tinsukia, where Bishop George was living as a young seminarian. He noticed that these kids were tribals, because they were completely naked except for loincloths. He was immediately concerned. Because of the caste system in India, tribal people were considered lower than the untouchables,” said Deacon Rory.
Seminarian George gathered up the boys and brought them to a Salesian residence. He, likewise, gathered up the girls and brought them to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity sisters.
“He took it upon himself to be their shepherd. He got them clothes and had them go to school. He kept them safe and fed them,” said Deacon Rory.
After one year, the teenagers went back to their villages up north and astounded their families.
“First of all, the kids were now strong because they had been fed three meals a day for a year. They had all grown. The area where they had come was so poor that everyone was malnourished. Now the kids were reading and writing and talking about a new God,” he said.
The elders of Arunachal Pradesh held a conference among the major tribes to compare notes. When the teenagers went down south again, they went with a group of headhunters who now wanted to meet with the young Father George.
“Their message to Father George was: ‘Please come to us and tell us about this God, Jesus, who has done so much for our children,’” said Deacon Rory. “Father George realized that he had just received a calling from the Holy Spirit.”
Father George went to speak to his bishop about going up north. The problem was that it was illegal for any Christian, particularly a Catholic, to go into the region. Doing so was punishable by death. But Father George’s bishop said, ‘You must take the risk.’”
In 1979, Father George smuggled himself into the region by wearing lay clothes. Because each of the tribes had their own language, the original group of teenagers went with Father George and became his translators.
“These kids were the key components,” said Deacon Rory.
The region had no roads nor infrastructure. Everything had to be done by walking and canoeing, but Father George’s work and sufferings would pay off.
“The people began to flock to the Catholic faith like wildfire. The tribals are strong and proud people and would not accept the caste system of India. But Catholicism told them that they were all children of God and loved,” said Deacon Rory. “And they loved this.”
Eventually, 900 adults requested to be baptized. Though the Indian army was looking for Father George to shoot him, the 900 adults went to the Indian army commander of the region and demanded the right to be baptized.
“Had the group been smaller, the army commander might have shot them,” said Deacon Rory.
The Diocese of Miao Today
Today, after 40 years of Bishop George’s work in the region of Arunachal Pradesh, there are 100,000 Catholics out of a population of over 1.6 million. A Catholic diocese called Miao was formed there in 2006.
Bishop George’s accomplishments are vast: There are 38 parishes, 52 schools, 1 college, 1 hospital, hundreds of clean water wells, 17 medical dispensaries and 1 junior seminary. Infant mortality rates have declined by 80% in the region of the hospital.
Besides Bishop George, there are now 28 diocesan priests, 68 religious order priests, 165 women religious, 156 catechists and 2 touring catechists. Catechists are lay men and women who work in the villages.
“They are very important,” said Deacon Rory, “because they prepare people all year round. Some people are so remote that they only see a priest a few times a year.”
Bishop George has built hundreds of churches. In Miao, there are many stages to the building of a church: a home, a mud floor bamboo hut, a house with a tin roof and some brick, and finally a brick building. Every parish has several mini-parishes, which might be a bamboo hut in the highlands for 20 families in a remote village.
“Jesus has transformed the culture. People are now literate and running their own society. Bishop George established vocational training programs for woodworking and tailoring. The woman’s place in society has been transformed,” said Deacon Rory.
Before learning about Catholicism, women were considered chattel. Girls were traded from one family to the other and had no rights. But through vocational training, girls have become tailors and weavers. Before learning to sew, women were married off in arranged marriages where they had little say. Now, the girls are picking their own husbands.
“Many of the girls have become nuns with the Missionaries of Charity. Our first native priest will be ordained in 2024,” said Bishop George.
Prior to embracing the Catholic faith, children with birth defects were killed at birth because they were deemed ‘infected’ by an evil spirit. No amount of explanation could stop them. Bishop George realized that the people of the region did not think conceptually. Finally, he proposed that the Missionaries of Charity Sisters take the handicapped children.
“The first two groups of handicapped children were adopted. The third group had parents who finally said, ‘We know now that there is nothing wrong with them’,” said Deacon Rory.
Lessons from the Diocese of Miao
Considering the growth of the Catholic Church in Miao, and the contraction of the Catholic faithful in the West, Bishop George sees some lessons.
“The people there focus on their relationship with God. Their faith is not so intellectual — but it is founded on emotions and a relationship. If you ask them what the Ten Commandments are, they may not know them in order, but they will say: ‘We know that Jesus Christ chose us.’ When they see a priest, they say ‘Jesus,’” said Bishop George.
Families gather for prayer meetings three times per week in their villages. In every village, there is a lay man, lay woman and youth minister. Families have daily prayer in their own homes. They will build a small altar in their bamboo huts with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary.
“Every morning they will gather to pray for the safety of the family, and then in the evening they will thank Jesus and Mary for keeping them safe during the day. They love the rosary and singing hymns,” said Bishop George. “Prayer is central to family life there.”
Friends in Faith: Miao’s Relationship to the US
The Archdiocese of San Francisco and Diocese of Miao established a pastoral relationship in 2009 under Archbishop George Niederauer with Deacon Rory as the official liaison between the two dioceses. The Archdiocese of San Francisco raises funds for Miao, and every two years Deacon Rory visits Miao for one month. Furthermore, the children of Miao pray for the Archdiocese of San Francisco every day.
Bishop George travels to the U.S. as often as he can to raise funds for Miao. Despite all the advances there, it is still a very poor area.
One of the parishes that “adopted” Miao is St. Columba in Chester, New York — a county about 1.5 hours north of New York City.
“I remember that Deacon Rory came to the parish about seven years ago as part of the annual appeal for the Propagation of the Faith. He spoke about Miao. Afterwards in the rectory, he told me the whole story about Bishop George,” said Bishop John Bonnici, the former pastor at St. Columba’s, who is now auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York and pastor of Sts. John and Paul Church in Larchmont, New York.
This conversation sparked an interest in then-Father Bonnici, who had the chance to have Bishop George visit in-person a few months later to speak to the parish.
“He is an incredibly inspiring human being,” said Bishop Bonnici.
At the time of his talk, Miao was undergoing a desperate famine and Bishop George needed to raise money quickly to stave off a disaster back home.
“Even though the parish was a small country parish of working-class families, God’s people pleasantly surprised us. They came together and supported Miao,” said Bishop Bonnici.
“This parish literally stopped the famine,” said Deacon Rory, his voice breaking up. “It was unbelievable.”
Another group that has been helping the diocese of Miao is Aid to the Church in Need, of which Bishop Bonnici is a board member.
“There is a lot we can learn from them. The people of Miao have a simple faith and there is nothing wrong with that. We are asked by our Lord to have a child-like faith. That child-like sense of awe before the sacred can sadly be lost when we grow up. And they have that still — and that sets them apart in a beautiful way,” said Bishop Bonnici.
He remembers an event that occurred recently in June when Bishop George went to visit the USCCB in Washington, D.C. One of the bishops was asking Bishop George to explain the “hierarchical structure” that was established in the Diocese of Miao.
“He looks at the bishops and says, ‘It’s about the people.’ So, the bishop says, ‘Bishop George, with all due respect, I don’t think you understand the question.’ And Bishop George looks at him without hesitation and says, ‘With all due respect bishop, I don’t think you understand the answer.’”
“He is fearless,” said Bishop Bonnici. “Years ago, he made that choice to go into this region and he changed life there. I find him to be the real deal.”
- Diocese of Miao, Bishop Pallipparambil George
- diocese of miao
- catholic church in india