August 21, 2015
In the midst of fiercely raging controversy over the choice of script for Konkani, which was on the verge of being introduced in the last decade as an optional language in schools, Fr Alexander F D’Souza, who passed away in Mangaluru on August 20, 2015 at the age of 89, was outside the range of cross-fire. He could have been in the thick of the controversy had he not laid down his office as President of Karnataka Sahitya Academy a few months earlier. In fact, he had initiated the process of including Konkani as an optional language during his three-year term started in October 2001. This is one of the score of portfolios he held over his nearly 60 years of creditable priestly service. These include journalism, hospital administration, editing, youth counseling, publishing and parish ministry.
Born on May 29, 1926 at Puttur, Fr Alexander did his SSLC from the local Board High School in 1943 and joined St Joseph’s Seminary at Jeppu for studies leading to priesthood. He was ordained priest in 1952. From 1955 to 1958 he studied at St Peter’s College, Rome, for post- graduation in Theology – earning a doctorate in the subject. In 1961, after a condensed course in journalism in Germany (about which more later), Fr Alexander plunged into the field of Konkani journalism and literature.
As Editor and Manager of Raknno, the official weekly of Mangaluru Diocese, Fr Alexander upgraded its editorial content and standard as also placed the circulation and advertisement on a sound footing – making the paper not only self-financing but also profit-earning. He spearheaded the Silver Jubilee celebration of Raknno in 1963, bringing out an impressive souvenir to mark the event. He encouraged young writing talent by organising annual training camps in journalism and also started paying contributors to the weekly. Raknno diversified into publishing under the banner of Raknno Prakashan. Serial stories were printed as centre-folds of the weekly so that subscribers could collect them for binding.
Fr Alexander has been Parish priest of important city parishes like Bendoor, Rosario Cathedral and Milagres where he organised the tri-centenary celebration of the church in 1980. While in this parish, he initiated a housing project at Nithyadhar Nagar to provide 135 houses for low income group.
There are three high points in Fr Alexander’s long priestly ministry. He was Vicar General of Mangaluru Diocese (a post next to the Bishop) for 15 years from 1972. In this capacity, he was the convenor for organising the historic visit of Pope Paul II to Mangaluru on February 6, 1986. For logistic and security reasons, the rally, addressed by the Pope, with an estimated five lakh people attending, was held on a plateau near Bajpe Airport where the Pope arrived in a special plane. A chapel has been now built on this spot.
The second high point was as Director of Father Muller Charitable Institutions from 1988 to 1991. In this capacity, Fr Alexander initiated action to establish Father Muller Medical College, dealing with the University and Government to the point of securing enabling orders, starting with Post- graduation course in Dermatology. There is an aftermath to this. Later on, for three years he has been back at Father Muller campus as Spiritual Director and was involved in editing the formidable Post-centenary Silver Jubilee Souvenir, as Chairman of the Souvenir Committee. It was my privilege to work with him harmoniously on this project.
Fr Alexander has been a member of the Gandhi Peace Foundation since 1952 and was closely involved in organising Gandhiji’s Birth Centenary Celebrations in Mangaluru. He has been involved in inter-religious interfaces. Outside the church setting he dressed nattily in pants and kurtas, often reinforced by Nehru jacket and drove a vehicle, given by his nephew, to get around in the city. He readily obliged by responding to invitations for nuptial and funeral masses.
Fr Alexander was so well respected among his peers and lay people at large that he was widely addressed as Monsignor, a Papal title given for exceptional service. It may surprise many that no such title has been conferred on him officially. He candidly admitted this when he was interviewed for this piece on the morrow of his retirement on June 30, 2005. A strong believer in the goodness and protection of God, Fr Alexander ardently held that the Lord will take care of him in his own chosen way. For the last few years Fr Alexander marked his retirement in the Senior Clergy Home on St Antony’s Asylum campus at Jeppu. A voracious reader and facile, versatile writer, his frail physique and failing eye-sight put breaks on his life-long passion for books and writing. He had beaten off an otherwise terminal disease – cancer - sacrificing his stomach and the joys of normal eating. But, he was nattily dressed even in his private study and lighted up when having visitors, recalling highlights of his long and eventful priestly ministry.
No account of Fr Alexander would be complete without reference to his twisted tryst with the first WW Beetle car in Mangaluru.
I have always considered that the substitution of the internal combustion engine for the horse marked a very gloomy milestone in the progress of mankind. – Winston Churchill.
Ignoring Churchill’s gloomy declaration, the aspiration of the upwardly mobile has been to own a car. One such aspirant was Fr Alexander, then the editor-designate of the Mangaluru diocesan weekly Raknno.
What is Beetle? It is a people’s car (like today’s Tata Nano) dreamt up by Hitler for the German citizens. The company to manufacture it was founded on May 28, 1937. But soon Second World War started and it switched to the production of armaments, with 20,000 forced labourers. After the war, the management of the company went into the British Military Government under Major Ivan Hirst and started with the production of Beetle.
Fr Alexander was in Germany in early 1960s for training in journalism, related to his editorship of Rakhnno. He fancied Beetle and bought one for Rs 6,000. Because he was unfamiliar with European highways, his German friend’s driver reached the car to Genova from where he sailed to Bombay with the car in the hold.
On landing at Ballard Pier, Fr Alexander had the car offloaded from the ship; but was not allowed to take it out without an import licence. It turned out that such a licence can only be had in Delhi. He went to Delhi by train and after checking at the Archbishop’s House, tried to figure out as to how to get the import licence. Then he was tipped off about Vincent Coelho, a Mangaluruan IAS officer. When contacted, he put him on to the concerned IAS officer and had his licence by paying a further Rs. 6,000. Back in Bombay, he cleared the car from Customs and had it taken to the Archbishop’s House complex at Wodehouse Road where he resided in transit.
Fr Alexander found it daunting to drive the car to Mangaluru by himself. As luck would have it, he was tipped off about a Mendonsa, a taxi driver, who was set to visit his native Pangla. He offered to drive the car.
They stayed overnight as guests Bishop Andrew D’Souza in Poona who gave them a road map to follow for the rest of the journey. Bad luck followed them to Belgaum where they received the news of the bursting of Khadakavasla dam that morning and the devastation suffered by Poona. The same heavy downpour lashed Belgaum and the road they had to travel south became impassable, with water overflowing the bridge across a nullaha (large stream) for four days. All the while Mendonsa’s family was worried about his no-show – as there were no mobiles in those days and his family had no telephone. It took eight days to reach Mangaluru and park Beetle in the Bishop’s House compound at Kodialbail where Fr Alexander was resident.
After some time the Beetle had a date with Chikamagalur where there was a function to send off his niece (later Sr Emma) before joining the convent. On the return journey, battered by heavy rain, the car slipped and its door got jammed. It was towed back to Chikamagalur only to find that there were no repair facilities there for Beetle. Checking with Mangaluru also drew a blank. Finally they had to cart the car to Bangalore on a lorry where Fr Alexander managed to find, after much scouting, a garage agreeing to handle the repair. It took three months to deliver the repaired car.
Once in Mangaluru for the second time, Fr Alexander made good use of the Beetle for visiting parishes to promote Rakhnno for seven years. But, at the end of it, with the early experience of its convoluted mishaps haunting him, he sold it to a Muslim gentleman for Rs 7,000.