The Winnipeg Free Press
The glory of bamboo
Winnipeg-born priest using wood to help transform Indian
In Canada, bamboo may be the
new trendy eco building material, but thanks to the effort of a
Winnipeg-born Jesuit priest, bamboo is the ticket to a new economy in the
Indian plantation village of Mungpoo.
"The people saw they could use bamboo for
many purposes. They can build buildings with it much cheaper (than concrete)
and just as sturdy," explains Rev. Gerard Van Walleghem, of how 200 acres of
bamboo is transforming the village of 25,000 in the Darjeeling district in
India. "They can use bamboo for crafts, clothes, bridges."
In Winnipeg for the next several weeks to
visit family, officiate at his sister-in-law's funeral and preside over the
wedding of a grandniece, Van Walleghem, 81, fondly called Father Van by his
former students and friends, has recently become an expert on bamboo.
That's because bamboo is the construction
material of choice for his next big project in India: raising nearly $1.5
million to construct a school complex on the site of a former cinchona
plantation in Mungpoo.
Cinchona, also known as Jesuit bark, is the
source of the quinine, an anti-fever agent used to treat malaria.
"The whole plantation has gone down,"
explains the retired teacher, principal and counsellor at the Jesuit-run St.
Joseph's School in Darjeeling of why the plantation is being converted to an
English-language secondary school for village children.
"They know their children won't get jobs
there. To get jobs, children need to learn English."
And to learn English, they need a school
with classrooms, laboratories, and a library. So far, the two-year-old
school has limited facilities for about 120 students in grades 5 to 8, and
no electricity or water. As funds come in, the school will be expanded,
explains Van Walleghem.
His trip to Winnipeg is sandwiched between
alumni meetings in Calgary, Toronto, and the American West Coast, where he
will greet former students and tell them about his latest project in Mungpoo,
also named St. Joseph's.
"Father Van has been a great binder," says
Ashok Malhotra, an alumnus who runs Yash Global, an Indian jewelry, clothing
and handicraft shop at The Forks.
"He's pulled the whole alumni across the
Now retired from teaching, Van Walleghem
serves as a counsellor to staff and students at the 120-year-old St.
Joseph's, and as a connecting point for its large alumni body (www.npalumni.org/),
who like Malhotra, are scattered across the globe.
"My work with the alumni is not just to
collect (funds) but to remind them of the values they have to serve the
community," says the graduate of St. Paul's High School, who received an
honourary doctorate of laws from the University of Manitoba in 2002.
"Collecting the money is a side issue."
The Bombay-born Malhotra, who has lived in
Winnipeg for the past dozen or so years, is eager to meet Van Wallegham
again and catch up on the news of his former classmates. And the lessons of
service working with people with leprosy and tuberculosis while at the
Jesuit-run school are still fresh in his memory.
"My first job (as a student) was to go out
on to the street with a rickshaw and pick them up, bring them back, wash
them and feed them," recalls the father of two.
"I'm not Catholic, I'm Hindu, but all of
those experiences were worthwhile."
As one of only seven Jesuits left at St.
Joseph's working with a student body of Hindus and Buddhists, Van Walleghem
says his 57 years in India has provided him with a new home, a huge circle
of friends and a broader understanding of the divine.
"All of us went over there to give something
but we gained more than we could ever give," says Van Wallegham, who
celebrates his 50th year as a Jesuit next month in Toronto.
"We gained the knowledge that God was there
many centuries before we were there. It's a spiritual nation."
In return, Van Wallegham has helped many,
many people in and around Darjeeling and is undertaking the huge school
project at a time when others his age have long retired, says a Winnipeg
Buddhist who met the Jesuit last year while she was studying in India.
"I admire him very much. He's a wonderful
person. He's a great spiritual leader to everyone, no matter what their
background," says Donna Brown, president of Dakshong Gonpa Retreat Centre in
Lac du Bonnet.