Father Gerard Adhelson Van Walleghem, SJ died on June 1, 2015 in Darjeeling, India, at the age of 88. He was a Jesuit for 70 years.
“Fr Van,” as he was known, was born in Winnipeg on March 7, 1927 into a large Belgian family, which ran a dairy business. He joined the Jesuits on September 7, 1944. After completing his early Jesuit training in Guelph and at Regis College, he went to Darjeeling in 1951 and was ordained on March 19,1958.
Growing up, Fr. Van had seen many challenges. These experiences played a role in shaping his future as a Jesuit. He displayed great flexibility – a man ever ready to pitch-in and help as needed.
In the field of education, he taught, counselled and administered. His students invariably felt that he was someone who knew and loved each one of them. Given his talents, Fr. Van was chosen repeatedly for leadership roles and filled many posts in virtually every part of the Darjeeling Mission, and even some beyond Darjeeling.
During his early days in Darjeeling, Fr. Van worked directly with young people, teaching, camping, counselling, etc. As the years went by, administrative responsibilities encroached on his time, but he never forgot the formative years of the many young people whose lives he touched. He cared little about status – the person was the focus of his attention. Young people returned the favour, giving him a permanent place in their hearts.
Fr. Van had a profound care for “the least of my brothers and sisters,” (Mt 25:40). Whether it was acquiring a job, getting decent housing, gaining admission to one of the many schools he ran, he put the focus on the most disadvantaged.
Jesuit responsibilities were Fr. Van’s constant companion. He fulfilled the role of novice master, rector, principal, teacher and everything else on demand. His legacy at St Joseph’s School, North Point, is permanent.
Many visitors to North Point stand in awe at the beautiful mountainside below the school, now dotted with whitewashed homes and flowers of every description. His success in leading young men through Jesuit formation was awesome. One of his novitiate training sessions involved a 500 km walk from Kalimpong to Kolkatta begging for food and shelter. Memories of “the pilgrimage” are fully alive forty years later!
In all these roles, Fr. Van built strong bridges between faith and culture and service among the poor and disadvantaged.
As an octogenarian, Fr. Van still travelled the globe. Each stop was a reunion, an occasion to carry on his lifetime work. His great extended family and his network of alumni saw him through thick and thin.
On his final visit to Canada in 2012, it became apparent his ability to travel solo and even to write letters was waning. Fr. Van spent his final days at St Joseph’s, North Point. He breathed his last, ever so peacefully, on June 1, 2015.
Fr. Van’s Funeral Mass took place on June 2, at 1:30 pm in the chapel of St. Joseph’s School, North Point, Darjeeling, and the burial took place in the school compound itself.
Donations in Fr. Van’s memory can be made to Canadian Jesuits International online.