William James Augustine Bourke: Jesuit. Missionary. Educator. Polyglot. Born May 28, 1925, in Halifax; died Nov. 29, 2019, in Gayaganga, India, of natural causes; aged 94.
“Expect the unexpected” was one of Uncle Bill’s favourite mantras, something he learned while serving as a Jesuit missionary in India for 65 years.
He didn’t expect to become a priest – he was headed for a career as a lawyer. He graduated with a BA (1946) and BCom (1947) from St. Mary’s, the Jesuit-run college in Halifax, and had just completed his first year of law at Dalhousie University. The years spent under the guidance of the Jesuits at St. Mary’s, however, had a profound effect on him. He entered the Jesuit Novitiate at 23.
He studied Latin and Greek, and discovered that language could be a portal to new cultures and peoples. Combining that with a sense of adventure, he volunteered to join the new Canadian Jesuit Mission in North Bengal, India, and was sent to Darjeeling in 1954. He was ordained in 1959, and graduated with a BEd from St. Xavier’s College (Kolkata) in 1963.
Bill was down to earth, self-effacing and funny, which made him a popular headmaster in Gayaganga, where he worked with children of the migrant Adivasi who worked in the tea gardens in the Terai, and later at St. Robert’s high school in Darjeeling.
Bill drove a motorcycle, had a German shepherd that slept under his bed and, for a period in the 1970s, he stopped cutting his hair. When he drove about in his jeep, he became known to local villagers as “the jeep with the long hair.”
Mastering Nepali proved to be particularly challenging for the English-speaking Jesuits. But Bill showed a stubborn resolve and eventually became fluent in Nepali, Hindi and Bengali, and could “get by” in Urdu, Sadri and several other languages. He would spend hours in front of the mirror, practising his articulation, in order to master each dialect.
In 1994, he founded the Bellarmine Institute of Language and, shortly thereafter, published Sahi Shabd (The Right Word), the first comprehensive Nepali thesaurus. It was born of his practice of jotting down every word he came across as he learned the language. He received the Madan Puraskar, Nepal’s highest literary award. He went on to complete a Nepali translation of the Bible (work started by Fr. Frank Farrell, SJ), and edited Proverbs for Today, a collection of English and Nepali proverbs. He continued to translate and publish texts well into his last year, at 94.
A meticulous record keeper, Bill kept every postcard, letter, birthday card or news clipping that came his way, in case it might be of use in the future. This served him well in his administrative roles, but was a challenge to anyone who tried to find a place to sit in his room.
Bill loved India and its people, but his family remained close to his heart. Whenever he said mass, he kept pictures of his mother and father on the altar, just below the crucifix. “I think he prayed with them, through them,” one of his fellow Jesuits said. “I haven’t seen any other priest do that.”
He was a voracious reader, including, perhaps oddly, the thrillers of Seymour, LeCarre and Grisham. But during his last visit to Canada, he read Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great. “Why?” I asked. He grinned and winked at me: “Know the opposition.”
My uncle faced many “unexpecteds” during his journey as a Jesuit missionary. He carried out his work in a low key, pragmatic way and made the world a better place for the thousands of people whose lives he touched.
He was the last Canadian Jesuit missionary in North Bengal.
David Mackett is William’s nephew.
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