Obituary of Most Rev. Robert Kerketta SDB, Emeritus Bishop of the Diocese of Tezpur

Ref: CBCI-Gen/Cir-02/2019                                                                                                        4th January 2019



MOST REV. ROBERT KERKETTA, SDB (Emeritus Bishop of Tezpur Diocese)

 22-10-1932 to 22-12-2018

Your Eminence, Your Beatitude, Your Excellency, Your Grace, Your Lordship,

Greetings from the CBCI Secretariat.

Most Rev. Robert Kerketta, SDD, the Emeritus Bishop of Tezpur was a for 55 years and a Bishop for 48 years. He was the Bishop of the undivided Diocese of Dibrugarh comprising the present Dioceses of Kohima and Imphal and part of Arunachal Pradesh from the year 1970 to 1980. After that he was the Bishop of the undivided Diocese of Tezpur (from which the present Dioceses of Bongaigaon, Guwahati and Itanagar were carved out) from 1980 to 2007. Although Bishop Robert had a little heart problem and diabetes, he was keeping quite hale and healthy till the middle of November last year (2018). It was on 19th November 2018, that he developed fever, flu and his blood sugar suddenly went up. On the same day he was taken to our own Catholic Hospital at Borgang for checkup and medical treatment. For a day or two he seems to have been improving but at the same time he was not picking up and responding to the treatment as we expected and would sometimes go into delirium. As a result, he was taken to the Baptist Christian Hospital, Tezpur on 29th of November for further check up and better treatment. After thorough investigation and tests it was discovered that he was suffering from Tuberculosis and lack of sodium and potassium in his body. He was given all the possible treatment and care by the Doctors and nurses but his health was not improving. On 19th December soon after the breakfast he became serious and was administered the last Sacrament by the Bishop. He was at once rushed to the Intensive Care Unit and was put on Ventilation and life supporting system. But gradually he became weaker and weaker and breathed his last on 22nd December 2018 at 12.30 Noon in the presence of Bishop Michael Akasius Toppo, many Fathers and Sisters and the family members. He was buried and laid to rest on 27th December 2018 at the Priests Cemetery, Tezpur in a very befitting manner. Altogether 14 Bishops, about 250 priests, 500 religious sisters and more than 6000 faithful came to pay homage and bid farewell to the long serving shepherd of Tezpur Diocese.

Most Rev. Robert Kerketta, SDB was born on 22-10-1932 at Kacharigaon T.E. under Rangapara Parish within the Diocese of Tezpur, Sonitpur Dt., Assam. Later on, they shifted to Amdanga village under the present Parish of Missamari. His parents Late Mr. Elias Kerketta and Late Mrs. Rachael Kandulna belonged to the munda tribe in Kuttra, Rourkhela in Orissa. They migrated along with others to the Tea gardens of Assam in search of better livelihood. He had 1 brother and 2 sisters.

The young Robert was lucky to come in contact with the pioneering Salesian Italian Missionaries. The entire family was baptized when he was 3 years old. Robert Kerketta was admitted to the newly started Don Bosco School and Boarding at Tezpur on 24th December 1939 in Class I and remained in the same school till he passed Class VI in 1945. He showed remarkable intellectual ability and keenness in religious matters. The missionaries found him suitable for religious life and in the year 1946 he was sent to the Salesian Aspirantate at Sonada, West Bengal to continue his studies and discern his vocation more clearly. 

He joined the Salesian Novitiate in 1950 at Kotagiri in Madras. After his Religious profession in 1951 he came back to Sonada for his philosophical studies which he completed in 1953 along with his I.A. and B.A. degrees. He also did his regency in Sonada teaching and assisting students of philosophy. He acquired a Licentiate in Philosophy from the Pontifical Salesian Atheneum, Turin where he also completed his Theological Studies and was ordained priest on 11th of February, 1963, by His Eminence, Cardinal M. Fossati of Turin. At the completion of his Theological Studies he also obtained a Licentiate in Theology. After his ordination he returned to India and taught Philosophy at Salesian College, Sonada. Here he completed M.A securing the First Class First Rank with Gold Medal from the Calcutta University in 1965. In 1967 he was appointed the Rector of Don Bosco Higher Secondary and Technical School Krishnagar in West Bengal about 120 Kms. from Calcutta. After three years, to his great surprise and bewilderment he was appointed Bishop of Dibrugarh.

The Government of India served a “Quit” Order on all the European Missionaries working in Assam and they had to leave immediately. The Bishop elect was told to take charge of the Diocese even before his Episcopal Ordination which he did on 6th July 1970. The Diocese then comprised the whole of Nagaland, the whole of Manipur, part of Arunachal Pradesh and part of Assam. He was ordained Bishop on Mission Sunday 18th October 1970. Bishop Robert worked for about 11 years in Dibrugarh Diocese and was transferred to Tezpur on 31st January 1981. It is worth mentioning that Bishop Robert is the first Adivasi Bishop in the Region and also the first Adivasi Bishop from the Diaspora and the first Bishop in the Church from the Munda tribe.

Tezpur Diocese was then bigger in area and more complex than Dibrugarh. It comprised the whole of the north bank of the Brahmaputra River bordering China including two-thirds of Arunachal Pradesh and a good portion of Assam on both sides of the Brahmaputra River with a larger number of tribal population and more complex situations. He worked more than 27 years in Tezpur Diocese as an active Bishop and 11 years as a retired Bishop.

Times were difficult. He had left Assam in 1946 at the tender age of 13 and he never went back to work there till he became Bishop. He had spent 25 years outside Assam - 19 years in

W. Bengal and 6 years in Europe. In this way he was practically cut off all these years from the people, life and work in Assam and returned only in 1970 after his appointment as Bishop. He was then 38 years old. He found the territory very vast and extensive, comprising hills and valleys with different tribes, languages and cultures. There were the Adivasis, Assamese and various Tribes in Assam, the Arunachalis in Arunachal Pradesh, the Nagas in Nagaland and the Manipuris with several tribes in Manipur, bordering on China and Burma. Arunachal Pradesh was a forbidden land to the Christian Missionaries. In his first visit to Arunachal Pradesh he did not find a single Catholic. Everything and everybody seemed to be strange to him.

The Quit Order to foreign Missionaries was a bolt from the blue that left the entire Church in the North east in turmoil. Bishop Orestes Marengo SDB of Tezpur was forced to resign. So also Bishop Ferrando SDB of Shillong. Bishop Stephen Ferrando returned to Italy. Bishop Orestes Marengo of Tezpur remained on but his place was taken by Rt. Rev. Joseph Mittathany, the first Indian Bishop from the Clergy of Tezpur Diocese. And Bishop Robert Kerketta took the place of Rt. Rev. Hubert D'Rosario SDB of Dibrugarh after he had been transferred to Shillong as Archbishop following the resignation of Bishop Ferrando.

After their departure from Assam the European Missionaries were substituted by a group of Salesian Missionaries who came up from the South with great enthusiasm and hopes, making immense sacrifices. They too found themselves in the midst of new people with different cultures and languages and along with the new Bishop found themselves in the same boat. But, with remarkable faith in God, Bishop Robert was able with the grace of God, to gradually face the challenges.

The Bishop worked for 11 years in Dibrugarh Diocese. In the meantime, the Diocese was divided and the new Diocese of Kohima was erected. Nagaland and Manipur were separated from Dibrugarh. In 1981 Bishop Robert was transferred to Tezpur. He had endeared himself to the people and Clergy of Dibrugarh and as he himself states ‘he found it difficult to separate himself from his beloved people’

His work in Tezpur was much heavier. Tezpur was vast - 800 Kms. from east to west bordering on W. Bengal. Its border on the north coincided with that of China and Tibet and on the south it reached Lumding. It comprised the lofty mountains of the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh and the green tea gardens and broad Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. In Assam there were the Adivasis, the Boros, the Garos, the Santals, the Rabhas, the Karbis and in Arunachal Pradesh there were the Arunachalis. The work, which was started by Bishop O. Marengo and expanded by Bishop J. Mittathany and their co­-Missionaries, was carried on. Since Arunachal Pradesh was a forbidden land most of the work was carried on, in the plains of Assam.

In 1992 the Diocese of Tezpur was divided, and the new Diocese of Guwahati was erected comprising the territories taken from Shillong Archdiocese and Tezpur Diocese. But 80% of its territories, Christian population and Mission Centres were from Tezpur Diocese.

In 1992 also the gates of Arunachal Pradesh were opened though not officially. The Mother Teresa Sisters were allowed, though not officially, to work there. Then began a free movement of Missionaries from the plains of Assam, gladly going to work in Arunachal Pradesh. Though the anti-Christian bill was still in place, the Government did not implement it seriously because Christians had increased in number, and were also occupying Government posts. The terrible persecutions unleashed on the first Christians there began to bear fruit just as in the apostolic times. The ordinary people – young boys and girls were the carriers of the faith to their own people in the remote mountain villages. Schools were opened. Dispensaries were set up. Churches and presbyteries were built and convents and boarding and dispensaries were established. As a matter of fact within, a period of 10 years i.e. from 1992 to 2002 as many as 17 full-fledged Mission Centres were established in western Arunachal Pradesh. And the crowning event of it all, to the great joy of Bishop Robert and all concerned, 2 dioceses were established in Arunachal Pradesh namely Itanagar in the West with Bishop John Thomas Kattrukudiyil as first Bishop and Miao with Bishop George Plliparampil sdb as Bishop in the years 2005-2006. And on 3rd December, 2007, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, after accepting the resignation of Bishop Robert Kerketta on his completion of 75 years, appointed Michael Akasius Toppo as his successor as the new Bishop of Tezpur.

Bishop Robert Kerketta had been Bishop for the past 48 years working in the two Dioceses of Dibrugarh and Tezpur. Each of these dioceses has now been further divided into four thus totalling 8 dioceses including 2 dioceses in Arunachal Pradesh. Thus he has been Bishop of the whole of Nagaland, the whole of Manipur, the whole of Arunachal Pradesh and more than half of Assam. Out of an area of 255,100 sq. kms. which is the area of the whole of N.E. India, Bishop Robert has been Bishop of an area comprising about 175,900 sq. Km which is more than ? of the total area of N. E. India.

By dint of hard work not only the number of Christians in Tezpur Diocese has increased but also the number of Mission Centres, Institutions and priestly and Religious vocations. The local Priests both Diocesan and Religious has risen to more than 60. And in the last 37 years as Bishop of Tezpur, the Diocese of Tezpur has contributed from her Clergy 5 more Bishops to the Church who are working today in different Dioceses of the Region. It is a singular grace of God. Wherever he went he insisted and made every effort to stress on the need of preserving unity among all tribes, groups and sections of people (not excluding priests and Religious) irrespective of their origin, place, language and background in order to foster understanding, cooperation, peace and harmony which paid off dividends.

He loves to say that he was ‘born with the Church and grown with the Church’. When Bishop Kerketta was born, the Church of Tezpur was already existing but there was not a single Diocese in the whole of N.E. India. When Bishop was baptized in 1935 there was already a diocese in the N.E. India in Shillong (1934) with its Bishop, Msgr. Stephen Ferrando SDB. And when Bishop Robert was appointed Bishop in 1970 there were already 4 dioceses (Tezpur being one), and 5 Bishops. And during the year of the Platinum Jubilee as the Bishop laid down his office he was overjoyed at the tremendous growth of the Church in the region with 15 Dioceses and 18 Bishops in the North Eastern Region, a remarkable achievement and a marvel of God’s work!

Today, as he is no more with us, we pray that God may overlook his failures and grant him eternal reward for the tireless work in vineyard.

Obituary sent from the Diocese of Tezpur.