Poor tea and rubber estate workers are mourning the death of an Italian Jesuit missioner who worked for 58 years in Sri Lanka and who was “more important than Gandhi” to them.
Father Angelo Stefanizzi, S.J, passed away at Lewella in Kandy on Feb. 3 due to illness. His funeral was held today [Feb. 5] at 3 p.m. “He is considered a saint among [tea and rubber] estate workers,” said S.P. Anthonimutthu, a Tamil coordinating officer of Caritas Sri Lanka who knew Father Angelo for more than 30 years.For poor Tamils, he took the place of “Gandhi,” Anthonimutthu said. “He went through painful struggles to free them from poverty.” Father Maria Anthony, the Jesuit provincial in the country, said, “We have lost a veteran missioner, a man for the poor. He was ready to work under any inconvenient circumstances [and] never liked to lead a comfortable life,”
Father Anthony said. Fluent in Tamil, Sinhalese, Latin and many European languages, the priest often preached in Tamil and Sinhalese. He frequently trekked into tea and rubber estates to spend time with the poor workers of Indian origin, who are mostly Hindus.Tamil plantation workers were cruelly exploited by the British and, after independence, by the local masters. They were constantly mired in debt. “His flesh and bones are to be buried in our soil,” said Edward Kumaragamage, a Kolping worker and Christian activist in the plantation sector. Kumaragamage said the priest had “dared to come to their aid” during the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and 1983.
Father Stefanizzi joined the Kolping Movement and was deeply impressed by its potential to help in faith and community development. He started the Kolping Centers and developed the group’s work in the plantation sector.During his final days, he was in the Jesuit Infirmary at Lewella, confined to his wheelchair due to arthritis. There are five Jesuit missioners presently serving in Sri Lanka. Father Stefanizzi was born in Matino Lecce, Italy, in 1919.
He entered the Jesuit novitiate in Naples in 1936 and did his philosophical studies in Gallarate. After his practical work experience in Bari, he came to Kurseong in India to study theology and was ordained a priest there on Nov. 21, 1949.After studying Tamil, he came to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, in 1952.