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Veteran Salesian Fr. Joseph Topno Laid to Rest


By Fr. Bivan Mukhim SDB
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Guwahati, Aug. 30. The mortal remain of Fr. Joseph Topno (1919-2014) was laid to rest on 29th August in the Tezpur Cathedral Cemetery. The funeral Mass was attended by a large number of priests, religious and lay people. Bp. Akasius Toppo, the bishop of Tezpur presided over the funeral Mass. Bp. Robert Kerketta SDB, the bishop emeritus of Tezpur whom Fr. Joseph served as a secretary for many years was also a concelebrant at the Mass. Fr. VM Thomas, the provincial of Guwahati in the name of all the Salesians of the province of Guwahati expressed sincere condolences and gave the following funeral oration:
''The Salesian Province of Guwahati had already announced the jubilee celebration of its confreres on 19th September, and Fr. Joseph Topno headed the list of these jubilarians, this year being the platinum jubilee of his first profession.  However, the Lord had other plans for Fr. Joseph Topno.  With the passing away of Fr. Joseph Topno, the province and Salesian India has lost its oldest confrere, oldest as a Salesian who professed in 1939, and the second oldest in age, next only to Fr. Mario, having lived up to the ripe old age of 95.

Fr. Joseph Topno was born on 24th May 1919 to Neehimia Raphael and Marsa Kongadi at Bokajan, in the diocese of Tezpur. He did his novitiate at Sonada from December 1938 to 39, making his first religious profession on 22nd December 1939.  Salesian College, Sonada, Darjeeling served as the aspirantate, novitiate and philosophate for the Salesians of the province of north India, with its provincial house at Kolkata. Sonada was once again the community that witnessed his perpetual profession on 10th June 1945.

He did his theological studies at Sacred Heart College, Shillong, where he also received the ministries of lector and acolyte in July 1947 and January 1948 respectively. However, he was ordained a deacon in October 1950 at the Catholic Cathedral, Krishnagar, and was ordained priest at the same Cathedral on 7th December of the same year.

As a newly ordained priest, his first assignment was at Don Bosco, Tezpur from 1951 to 55, and then at Don Bosco, Guwahati from 1955 to 56. He was then transferred to Don Bosco, Liluah, a renowned training ground for the young Salesians of that time.

He spent the next twenty four years of his priestly life, from 1956 to 1980, in W. Bengal. After a brief stint at Don Bosco school, Liluah, Our Lady's house, Bandel and the parish of Maliapota, for practically a year each, he spent 9 years at Don Bosco school, Krishnagar. The next two years saw him serving the Church and the people as the Asst. Parish Priest of the Cathedral Parish at Krishnagar. As if 9 years in a particular place were not long enough, he lived and served 11 years in one of the oldest parishes of W. Bengal, namely, Azimganj, as a true pastor of souls, especially among the Santalis and Adivasis of that region. 1981 saw the Topno Brothers - Fr. Joseph and his brother Fr. John - return to their home province, the province of Guwahati.

Tezpur begot him, Tezpur called him back, and now Tezpur bids him farewell. He was born in the diocese of Tezpur. It was at Don Bosco, Tezpur that Fr. Joseph began his priestly ministry in 1951. On his return from W. Bengal to the Guwahati province, he found himself once again at Tezpur; this time, at the Bishop's house. He spent the next 28 years of his life at the Bishop's house, Tezpur, assisting Bishop Robert, and being a real companion to Bishop Robert. His presence at the Bishop's house enabled him to carry out his priestly ministry, especially by being a popular confessor to the clergy, religious and faithful.

In 2009, Fr. Joseph was transferred to the Pastoral centre, Tezpur, where he spent his old age in simplicity and serenity. He was practically confined to bed for the past two  years and was taken to Catholic Hospital at Borgaon on 25th June this year where  he had a fall from his bed, in which he sustained head injuries. He never recovered full consciousness thereafter. Immediately after the hospitalization, he showed signs of improvement; however, two weeks back, he experienced difficulty in breathing, and hence was put on oxygen. Last Sunday, 24th August, he was administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Fr. Joseph breathed his last on the 27th of this month, at 11.10 pm. Present by his beside were Fr. Cherian, the hospital director, Sr. Ancy, the hospital administrator and Sr. Flowerlet, the superior. Bishop Robert had been with Fr. Joseph for the final three days of his life.

I visited Fr. Joseph on Sunday, 24th August, and spent time with him and prayed for him along with Fr. Nestor, Provincial of Dimapur and other priests. Again I had the occasion to pray for him together with Bishop Akasius Toppo of Tezpur. He was semi-conscious and did not recognize the persons around. Even when he could speak, he was rather incoherent. The only thing he said when I asked him to smile was, ''No teeth''. On his sickbed he was behaving with a child like simplicity that was characteristic of him. I did personally invite him to come for the platinum Jubilee celebration of his religious profession on 19th September, but he is now celebrating with the Lord.

Fr. Joseph's religious and priestly life can be best summarized in the expression ''he was a good pastor''. Yes, he was indeed a good shepherd of souls who spent his life in proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments, hearing confessions, conversing with people, correcting everyone, and bringing all to the correct path. He travelled extensively through the villages  around Azimganj on cycle spreading the faith, visiting the sick and the poor.  Simplicity, humility, availability and joy were the hallmarks of this holy Salesian. God gave him a long span of life, 95 years on this earth, of which 75 were spent in serving the Lord and his people in the Don Bosco way.

He was always and everywhere a priest. He seemed to have personally lived the advice given by St. Paul to Timothy, to exhort, advise, correct and bring back everyone to the Lord. He might have crossed the boundaries at times; however, all acknowledged that there never was any malice or selfishness in his actions. He was indeed a 'man without guile'.  All that he did and said, pleasant and unpleasant, were all for the good of souls. In the passing away of Fr. Joseph,  we have lost a model pastor who seldom cared for his own well-being; instead, the priestly zeal always was the driving force of his life.

As a Salesian, he was always simple, humble, witty, cheerful, loving, patient, and enduring the sufferings without complaint but with a smile. He seemed to have been very popular in the hospital as many sisters constantly visited him and took care of him very lovingly ... as I myself saw it with my own eyes during my visit to the hospital. God gave him long years of life, and he inspired many by his words and advice, and above all, by his own life.

While grieving at the passing away of our dear Fr. Joseph Topno, I would like to offer my condolences, especially to Bishop Robert who has lost a companion and dear friend; to Bishop Akasius and the priests of the diocese who lost a model Pastor.  Our sincerest condolences also to all the near and dear ones of Fr. Joseph and to all his admirers and friends.

We are deeply obliged to Bishop Akasius of Tezpur for the loving care and attention given to Fr. Topno over the past several years, to Fr. Sebastian, the Chancellor, Fr.   the Parish Priest for all the arrangements, to the Choir from St. Joseph's convent and all others who have helped to make the arrangements for this funeral. Our thanks to Fr. Cherian,   Sr. Ancy, Sr. Flowerlet and other sisters, doctors and nurses of Catholic Hospital who assisted Fr. Joseph, especially during the period of his last hospitalization and my sincerest thanks to the very many priests, religious, faithful and others who visited Fr. Joseph very regularly, bringing him joy and peace through their prayerful solidarity with him. My thanks to all these individuals for having been personally close to Fr. Joseph, especially during these final years of his old age and physical suffering, and to all of you who have joined us to mourn the death of Fr. Joseph Topno.

Finally I believe Fr. Joseph Topno's prime legacy is to be found not in his external achievements but in the person that he was as a good priest and religious In the tension between doing and being, Fr. Joseph far outweighs in the ''being''. Rather than ''we are because of what we do'', Fr. Joseph's life proclaims that ''we do because of what we are''.  Fr. Joseph's earthly life was motivated and energised by an inner conviction that he could not but do what he did; give unconditional life and love to us. Fr. Joseph was essentially a person of faith, love and commitment. That is the legacy that he leaves us, a legacy that will never disappear because it is a legacy not written in brick and mortar but a living legacy, forever imprinted in our memory and forever challenging our spiritual DNA.

Adieu Fr. Joseph Topno ! May your soul rest with the Lord and may you intercede for us!''

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