Father Michael Anthony Windey, S.J. founder of the Village Reconstruction Organization (VRO), died on Sept. 20 at Heverle in Belgium, where he had been undergoing treatment for liver cancer since January. He was 88.
Sabien Arnaut, Father Windey's niece, told UCA News from Belgium that her uncle's last wish was to return to India, but doctors ruled it out, saying he would not survive a flight back.
"He was very weak and could barely walk. Though the doctors gave him only a few weeks to live, his sudden death was unexpected," she said. His funeral is scheduled for Sept. 26 in Belgium.
Father Windey was born in 1921, the fourth of 12 children. He joined the Jesuits in 1938, traveled to India in 1946 and was ordained a priest in 1950. Until 1969 he worked in Ranchi, eastern India, where he began social work in 1967 when a famine hit Bihar state.He shifted to the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in 1969 to work among cyclone victims and later set up VRO, following Mahatma Gandhi's call to reconstruct village life as the way to bring about India's advancement.
Father Windey "believed in the Gandhian way of developing villages, and understood the Indian ethos and culture," said Father Anthoniraj Thumma, secretary of the ecumenical Andhra Pradesh Federation of Churches. "He was more Indian than Belgian, and we will miss him and his social service."
According to Father Peter Raj, a Jesuit from Andhra Pradesh and secretary to the Jesuit provincial of South Asia, Father Windey succeeded in transforming village life.
"He made ordinary people self-reliant and dignified," the priest told UCA News.
Father Xavier Jeyaraj, secretary for the social department of the Jesuits' South Asia region, noted that Father Windey developed contacts with people of all religions. "His simplicity, openness and friendly approach toward the poor was wonderful," he said.
Nagender Swamy, a Hindu and secretary of the VRO governing body, eulogized the missioner as "a great proponent" of village development and renewal.
"His loss is difficult to replace, but his hard work has a tremendous future for village development," he added.
Sister Martin Maliekal, another long-term associate, said that even though Father Windey wanted to die in India, he resigned himself to God's will when his superiors asked him to go to Belgium for treatment.
"When I met him in Belgium, he was always talking about how to help villagers and make them happy," recalled the Jesus, Mary and Joseph nun.
Father Arulanandam Elango, another Jesuit priest based in Andhra Pradesh, described Father Windey as an adventurous and enterprising social worker who ventured where other NGOs did not dare to go.
In the words of Jose Vincent, who worked with Father Windey for three decades, the priest was a perfectionist "who was always in a hurry to get things done."
Father Windey was "never bothered about the religion of the person he helped," added Father A.X.J. Bosco, a former head of the Jesuits' Andhra Pradesh province who has worked as VRO's operational director. "While selecting villages, he always chose to help the poorest village."
Jesuit Father Peter Daniel, currently in charge of Jesuit projects in the state, said the foreign missioner's death had saddened his confreres in India.
"We will hold a Mass for Father Windey on the day of his funeral in Belgium," he told UCA News. The Andhra Pradesh Jesuits also plan to conduct a 30th-day memorial service and to erect a memorial at the VRO headquarters in Guntur.
Father Daniel said donors have expressed their willingness to support VRO's future projects.