Father Edgar Peter Burns, SJ, was born in Montreal, Canada in 1925 and since his father worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway he learnt to adapt to changing surroundings very early in life, which stood him in good stead while adapting to India and to the Darjeeling Hills where he lived for over fifty years. It was in high school that Edgar Burns first truly understood that he love the poor people. The students collected old clothes and passed them out in the poorest district of Montreal. Father Burns wrote, "They were so grateful. I could spend hours with them. They all had a story, man of which could bring tears to my eyes."
He was educated in a Jesuit School in Canada. While at boarding school, waiting for the train, the boys witnessed a scene that would stay with Fr. Burns for the rest of his life: It was about 40 degrees below zero and the boys were huddled around a cast iron stove. A little girl of about twelve wearing a thin frock and scarf came in and begged for money for food and firewood. In the corner of the room was man in a raccoon coat, drinking whisky from a bottle. When the little girl pulled at his sleeve, he exploded, "Begging at this hour of the night! I haven't eaten for two days and you don't see me begging!" he shouted. The little girl handed him all the money she'd collected, "Here sir, there is an eating place that is open all night across the street. Please take this." This was too much for the half-drunken man. Crying he admitted that he was lying, he had had plenty to eat and too much to drink. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills and gave them all to the little girl. "Thank you, God!" she sang. "God bless you and thank you. Thank you God!"
He entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1943. Even while he was in the novitiate, his superiors recognized his ability to reach people and his effectiveness as a preacher. He arrived in India in early January, 1952. His skill in sports, particularly boxing and hockey, helped him in his first post a sub-prefect of the Upper Division of St Joseph' School (North Point). Fr Burns learned to play cricket, he edited a newsletter, preached student retreats, directed plays, led hiking trips and coached North Point's Winnie football and boxing teams. He then went on to St Alphonsus' High School, Kurseong, where he studied Nepali and learnt to speak, read and write the language fluently. He also studied theology at St Mary's Kurseong. From Kurseong, he came back to St Robert's High School, Darjeeling where he taught English from 1960 until 1985. He served as hostel superintendent, student adviser and coordinator of co-curricular activities, particularly football and dramatics.
From 1968 to 1974, he was the Regional Superior of the Darjeeling Jesuits of North Bengal and initiated works of compassion and mercy that spread throughout the district; Jesu Ashram in Siliguri, SASAC with Father Murray Abraham, the Gandhi Youth Club with Fr Edward McGuire. He was also a spiritual adviser to the Diocese of Darjeeling and those of the many faiths in the region.
After the devastating landslides of 1968, Father Burns was very instrumental in getting houses built at Frymal Village, below Government College. Around the same time, there were Bangladeshi and Tibetan refugees who needed food, shelter, health care and schooling. Working with the National Social Scheme (NSS), the Food for Work program, and St Joseph's College students and teachers, Father Burns began to formulate what would become his 'integrated developmental dream' -Hayden Hall.
However, with the landslides, a devastating fire in Darjeeling and the incoming refugees from Tibet and Bangladesh, the focus of the work began to change, and more medical programs, more nutrition programs and other income generating programs. He began to write a series of letters to the Canadian benefactors he had met over the course of the years, a tradition that continued almost right up to the year of his death. The letters were brilliant fund-raising vehicles: he informed his donors back home exactly where their dollars had been spent, and exactly what Hayden Hall and the Canadian donors were accomplishing together. He reminded his readers of what the scriptures had to say about helping those less fortunate and about how even a small donation can multiply and achieve greatness when it is joined with other small donations. He painted vivid pictures of life in the Darjeeling Hills- the cold (and the need for blankets), the landslides (and the need for housing), the children (and the need for school uniforms, for books, for scholarships).
His benefactors in Canada were also generous and timely. In less than fifteen years, Hayden Hall had expanded to two new buildings, housing literacy courses and other adult education programs, after school programs for the students, a crèche for working mothers, an x-ray machine and mass x-ray program for identifying and eradicating tuberculosis, a dispensary, a laboratory, a delivery room and ward for expectant mothers and malnourished children. There was a paramedical training program that then extended medical treatment into the rural villages. There were also over 100 literacy centers dotting the hillsides. Weaving, carpet making, knitting, sewing - Father Burns called these "functional Literacy programs," where the women learned a skill and also learnt to read and write.
The expansive and comprehensive development work went on until the first Gorkhaland Agitation in 1985. During this period it was difficult to go walking freely through the countryside, organizing village committees for literacy classes and even the staff that had been trained to do this work went on to other employment. Father Burns spent half of one of those difficult years in Canada, meeting benefactors and showing slides and telling stories of the work in Darjeeling. Hayden Hall continued with Father Burns at the helm and his faithful staff carrying on.
Father Edgar Peter Burns, SJ, died on May 17th, 2010.