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Last of British priests in India passes away

Father Ian Weathrall, the last British member of the Church of North India’s Delhi Brotherhood died at the age of 91 on Tuesday. He joined the Brotherhood, a community of priests, in 1951 and lived in their Delhi house until his death after a long battle against cancer.

delhi Updated: May 02, 2013 00:42 IST
Mark Tully

Father Ian Weathrall, the last British member of the Church of North India’s Delhi Brotherhood died at the age of 91 on Tuesday. He joined the Brotherhood, a community of priests, in 1951 and lived in their Delhi house until his death after a long battle against cancer.

The Brotherhood, founded in 1877, has made substantial contributions to Delhi. Among the institutions the brothers founded are the prestigious St. Stephens College of Delhi University, and St. Stephens Hospital. As head of the Brotherhood, Ian was a member of the Supreme Council of St. Stephen’s College until the day he died, and a member of the governing body of St Stephen’s Hospital.

Ian was one of those people who managed to be a citizen of two countries. He first came to know India during the Second World War as an officer in the 16th Punjab Regiment. After the war he obtained a degree in theology from Kings College London, and served as an assistant priest in Southampton for a short time, but he had set his heart on coming back to India. Although he gave his life to India he remained proud of his Scottish origins and returned there every year.

With the government’s ban on missionaries coming to India the British members of the Brotherhood declined in numbers and under Ian’s leadership it became very much an Indian community. There are now six members. They have such respect for Ian that they reelected him the head of the Brotherhood and he was due to serve in that office until October.

The Brotherhood is now deeply involved in social work in East Delhi, providing education for deprived children, care for the elderly, and for leprosy patients too, among other services. Ian was the pioneer of this social service.

While he was vicar of the historic St James Church in old Delhi, leprosy patients used to wait outside the church hoping that members of the congregation would give them some money. Once they told Ian they were Christians and asked him to conduct a burial service for one of their members. That led Ian to hold regular services for them and to start social work among them.

When the Anglican Church in India merged with other protestant churches it had to surrender many of its traditions. Although Ian treasured Anglicanism, he readily accepted the merger and was one of the theologians who composed the service which formalised the merger.

It will be as a pastor that Ian is most missed. Until he became too ill to leave his hospital room, he participated in the Sunday service at Delhi’s Cathedral Church of the Redemption. He was renowned for his magnificent voice and the way he managed to pack so much into commendably brief sermons. Although he set himself the highest standards, he was warm, gentle, and generous with anyone who went to him when in doubt or trouble.

(Sir Mark Tully is the former bureau chief of BBC, New Delhi. He has authored several books, including No Full Stops in India)