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Fr. Ante Gabric, S.J. - An Apostle of the Sundarbans, Croatian missionary in Bengal, India
By Fr. Irudaya Jothi SJ | Published  07/7/2013 | Croatian spirituality , People , In Memoriam , Friends In Action , Education , Charity , Religion | Unrated
Love the poor and the sick, the poorest, the rejected. Have a special love for them!

Fr. Ante Gabrić (1915-1988), S.J., Croatian missionary in Bengal, India

Fr. Ante Gabric, S.J. - An Apostle of the Sundarbans

“Debota Amader Modhe chilen... Chinte parlam na...” (A divine being was amidst us.. but we didn’t recognise him...!) says Mr. Nicholas Naskar, the present Catechist who worked with Fr. Ante Gabric from the beginning of his ministry in Basanti and later in Maria Pally, as he silently wipes the tears from his eyes and remains speechless for a while. Similar is the love and sentiments people have in the Sundarbans for Fr. Ante even after 25 years of his death. The district of South 24 Parganas is situated in the southern coastal area of West Bengal. Vast areas of it is at the estuary of river Ganges comprising hundreds of islands.. To this difficult terrain was missioned Fr. Ante Gabrić, who later on came to be known as the apostle of the Sundarbans.

The Boy from Metković

Fr. Ante was born in Metković, Croatia, on 28th February 1915, one of nine children of Petar and Katarina Gabrić. He was the eighth child of the Gabrićs – little Ante, who would later become the pride, not only of his family and hometown Metković, but of the entire Croatian people and Sundarbans in West Bengal. A large family with several of his cousins living under the same roof, was indeed a real school of the heart, of love and joy for Ante. He later would write, “It seems that I have been carrying the happiness and joy of my childhood throughout all my life. And that was of huge help in the hardest moments of life.” Without doubt, it was a beautiful childhood. As a boy, Ante daily rushed to serve at the Alter for the Eucharist and he wanted some day to be doing the things his pastor was doing – hold Jesus in his hands and give Him to others. He was particularly impressed by that: a priest can GIVE Jesus to other people. Thus the seed of vocation was sown deep in his young heart.

Vocation to the Society of Jesus

The Franciscans who ministered in the home parish had great influence on Ante, but the Lord had other plans for him - to be a Jesuit missionary to India.

In Travnik, spiritual and intellectual hub, there was already a grammar school. It was to this school that Ante Gabrić came on the eve of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, in 1926. It was a breakup with the known and an invitation to the unknown. He felt insecure and helpless. He decided to facew the challenge. “What always made me so happy in the seminary was the thought that Jesus was under the same roof,” Ante later told his friends. “We often went to the chapel: Jesus was truly a part of our daily life.”

Immediately after graduation from school, on 15th May 1933, Ante expressed his desire to join the Jesuits in these words, 'My main reason is: there I will be able to do a lot of work for Jesus, for his glory, and to make a complete sacrifice for Him. I also have a desire to go to the missions in India’. On the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, he was received in to the novitiate at, Jordanovac in Zagreb, and thus began his Jesuit formation.

Man of the Spiritual Exercises

Since his novitiate time, Ante grew up to be a ‘Man of the Spiritual Exercises’ as expected in the Constitutions No VII. Some of the notings by Fr. Ante reveal deep devotion, discipline and austerity as a man of God. He made resolutions during the annual Spiritual Exercises and practiced them till the end of his life, growing and excelling spiritually every year.

  • ‘Never candy... or pudding’ (1943)
  • ‘Patience to the utmost limits!’
  • ‘Gentleness and kindness in small things. Whenever you can, cheer up others.’ (1951, 1971)
  • ‘Sleeping on hard surface’ (1954)
  • ‘Fasting two times a week: on Tuesdays and Fridays’ (1954)
  • ‘Wake up and stand up like a hero and without hesitation – at 3.30 in the morning’ (1954); ‘at 4.00 o’clock in the morning’ (1971)
  • ‘Love the poor and the sick, the poorest, the rejected. Have a special love for them!’ (1963)

The Missionary to India

On 20th October 1938, after obtaining special permission from Fr. General, Ante left for India, his ‘promised land’, by Steamship ‘Victoria’. Exactly fifty years later, on the same date, 20th October 1988, he left for his Eternal Home. Was it just coincidence or God’s special design?

Fr. Ante was ordained on 21st November 1943 at St. Mary's, Kurseong and was sent for pastoral work in South 24 Parganas. From then on Fr. Ante was a man on fire and man for the frontiers even before these terms were used in the documents of the Society, finding new avenues and opportunities to reach out to the unreached and unreachable in the dacoits-infested and Communist-ruled islands of the Sundarbans.

On difficult terrains such as the Sundarbans, he was always on the move walking and cycling and using whatever available mode of communication was available, ever willing to reach out and touch as many lives as possible. His apparent ill health and fragile look did not deter him on his way to 'Magis'- a true son of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was a prolific letter writer, just like Ignatius, to his family members, friends, acquaintances and most importantly, benefactors. This helped him greatly in getting the needed help in feeding the starving, clothing the naked and saving lives. both at the time of natural disasters, which was an annual phenomenon, and at other times.

The Economic and Social Empowerment of People

Fr. Ante was not just giving food and money to the needy. He introduced some viable income generating activities, like carpentry, stitching and tailoring and embroidery. Today we speak of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Fr. Ante engaged the BATA Company already some 40 years ago and sustained many families with the income leading towards economic empowerment and upward mobility.

Most of the tailors today in many of the Islands were trained by Fr. Ante's ‘Tailoring school’ and they are ever thankful to this Croatian missionary.

He had a close relationship with Mother Theresa of Kolkata and their mutual respect and admiration intensified in their love for Christ, trying to excel the other in following Christ daily. There are very many stories going around in the Islands of their mutual support and vision for the people in Bengal, especially the poor.

Fr. Ante Gabric cultivated a special relationship with people in the Government, who made decision and this helped in many ways in reaching out to the needy at the time of floods, cyclones and other natural calamities.

Ante had his adversaries and critics as well. Some criticised him for his way of approach while others for his unquenchable thirst for souls.

Towards the Altar of the Lord

Twenty five years after his physical death people still consider him ‘God sent’ and pray to him at the time of difficulties and sickness. Most of the Catholic houses in the Sunderbans have picture of Fr. Ante at the altar.

People in Croatia and the Official Church is working towards the ‘cause for canonization’. The Postulator of the Society, Fr. Antoni Witwer SJ in Rome, has commissioned Fr. Zdravko knezevic, S.J. as vice-postulator to help him in this process.

Five books as well as many articles have already been published on Fr. Ante Gabric, both in Croation and English.

Many Jesuits, other Religious women and men, Priests, and laity who worked and lived with Fr. Ante continue to give witness to the holiness of this great missionary they knew. While some are convinced like the Catechist, ‘God visited us in the form of Fr. Ante Gabric’.

The work started by Fr. Ante and other missionaries is being continued today among the Santals, who are much more deserving and are still in the periphery, but witnessing to the faith by their lives.

The Calcutta Jesuit province while thanking the Lord for giving a worthy and zealous missionary to Bengal thank also the Croatian Province and the people Croatia for their continued prayerful support for the ever growing mission today.

Fr. Irudaya Jothi SJ
Calcutta Jesuit Province

Fr. Irudaya Jothi SJ, India, lecturing about Fr. Ante Gabrić in the Basilica of the Society of Jesus in Zagreb on 20th October 2013.


Fr. Irudaya Jothi SJ

I am Fr. Irudaya Jothi SJ, A Jesuit Priest of Calcutta Province. I joined as a Jesuit candidate for Calcutta Province after finishing schooling in 1986 and joined the Society of Jesus in 1987.

I had an opportunity to be in ‘Maria Polly’ in the year 1987 for the Holy Week and came to know Fr. Ante Gabric SJ very closely in his mission.

I was ordained a Priest in 2002 since then I am engaged in the ‘Social Action Ministry’ of the Province as its coordinator and Director of the Social Wing, “Udayani Social Action Forum” demanding the Government with the people for their ‘Rights’ and training people on ‘Rights Based Approach’ for Empowerment.

Last Two years I have given an additional responsibility of “Province Development Director”.

My deep interest in the ‘life and works of Fr. Gabric’ rejuvenated with the 150 years celebration of Calcutta Province in 2009. I did some research from the Jesuit Archives in the Province Curia and went around the villages and islands where Fr. Ante Gabric worked to learn about people’s life long experience of this ‘God man’. I was extremely happy to learn that great steps were taken by the Croatian Jesuits and People in Croatia and all over to elevate Fr. Ante to ‘the Alter of the Lord’ and started do my bit of helping my companion Jesuits when they visit India. I also met the Postulator of the Society who is working on the Causus in Rome Fr. Antony Witwer SJ and discussed about this Issue.

I have very many plans to make this Saintly man known to the people of Calcutta city and West Bengal by Organising Symposiums, Seminars and Exhibitions.

I would welcome any one to join me in Calcutta on this ‘mission’. In the 25th year of Fr. Ante Gabric's Death anniversary and the coming year of the ‘Centenary of his Birth’.

Fr. Irudaya Jothi SJ
Calcutta Jesuit Province

o. Ante Gabrić: O svom misijskom radu (Solin, 1976.) MP3 15:04

o. Ante Gabrić: O patnji i djelotvornoj ljubavi (Zagreb, karitativni tjedan 1984.), MP3 15:45

o. Ante Gabrić: Iz propovjedi (Zagreb, Karitativni tjedan 1984.) MP3 16:49

o. Ante Gabrić: Oproštajna propovjed (Zagreb, 9. studenog 1984.) MP3 15:01

Zahvaljujemo časnom bratu Ivi Domazetu, DI Zagreb, na ljubaznom dopuštenju da ove propovjedi budu dostupne čitateljima (i slušateljima!) CROWNa, te prof.dr. Hrvoju Domitroviću na pomoći. Popratna pjesma na tonskim zapisima je "Tamo gdje palme cvatu" (I. Žan i J. Vrdoljak).


Bog plati! (in Croatian - God will pay!)

Fr. Ante Gabrić teaching in Bengali language, which he spoke fluently

Croatian Coat of Arms in  St. Xavier's Cottage, Mumbai, India

Formated for CROWN by Darko Žubrinić
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