Fr. IAN CHARLES WEATHRALL: A SOLDIER AND A PRIEST
The medical report of 1950 assessed Ian, 28 years of age, fit for missionary work in India. Here he had committed himself to work at the Cambridge Mission of Ascension, now the Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ, Delhi. It was not a new place for him as he had earlier in visited the Brotherhood House in 1945 as a young officer of the Indian Army during the war years.
Fr. Ian joined the army in 1941 and was soon transferred to the XVI-Punjab Regiment. The training for the Indian Army was not easy. He not only had to learn to work in an entirely different climate, hot and arid but had to learn Urdu and the art of commanding a Company of Indian soldier, a very different set of people than what he must have been used to in Lancashire where he was brought up. At some point of time his parents, Ian Alister Macdonald and Wilhelmina, had shifted to London. In the Punjab Regiment he was commissioned as a Captain of its Company. This led him to undertake missions in difficult terrains of the Afghan borders (western frontiers of India then) where he was a part of larger operation to counter the German instigated disturbances. The enemy's strategy was to distract the Indian army's attention to the west thereby help the Japanese to enter India from the east. The Japanese were in occupation of Burma (Myanmar now) and were knocking the doors of Nagaland. For his distinguished services in the Army during the difficult times of the Second World War he was decorated with the Order of the British Empire (OBE)in1975.
Ian was a deeply religious man. He desired to be a priest, but nothing could draw him away from the land which had become his karma-bhoomi. Yet the closest he could get to a regimented style of life of a disciplined soldier was a monastic community. Indeed he had already made up his mind for the Cambridge Brotherhood in Delhi. So after completing the army obligation Ian returned to the U.K. in 1946 to study theology at Kings College, Cambridge. He did a term in Cuddesdon, and he was ordained in 1947 at the glorious Winchester Cathedral. Something of this part of his life he cherished to the end. This was obvious in his habit to privately use the Cuddesdon Office book of the Hours. The time had now come for him to return to the land of his calling. For this he signed a contract in 1950 with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (later USPG and now United Society, US). In January 1950 he arrived at the Brotherhood House in Delhi, a city of magnificent history which he came to know and to love so dearly.
His first appointment was as a Vicar at the Church of St. James, Kashmiri Gate in Delhi where he was much loved. People in the streets soon became acquainted with this tall man with a straight body often wearing a white cassock riding a bicycle. At St James Church he met many distinguished people. Some among these were Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru and Queen Elizabeth and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the founder of modern Indian State along with Mahatma Gandhi. He had several meetings with him between December 1952 and January 1953 in the Church. Their discussions mainly were on religion and society. Besides the mundane work of the pastorate, the round of Sunday Services through the year and the care of the Christian flock, his contact with the leprosy patients living in slums next to the cremation grounds on the river Yamuna bank was most important. The significance of this was to unfold many decades later. The story of this work begins 1957 when two beggars affected with leprosy approached Fr Ian asking him to conduct a burial of one among them. They were Christians who had come from southern India. Fr Ian did this for them but it also opened a field of new work for him in the form of St. Francis Chapel which was later in the year 1962 shifted to its present location in Anand Gram St. Francis Church. He organized them into a community and a church. He registered their marriages, as they were until now cohabiting. Thereafter he baptized their children. He provided them regular services and helped them set up economically viable trades, poultry, on a small scale. All this he did till 1967 when he gave this responsibility to Fr Amos, who had then joined the Brotherhood.
In 1969 Fr. Ian was chosen as the Head of the Brotherhood. He remained so till 1988. In this capacity he had to oversee and help the work of other members which included organizing retreats, hosting meetings, publishing, and assisting in the diocesan churches. There were events in the Brotherhood House that were ecumenical and inter-religious. He had to see that all these were properly facilitated. However, his support to Fr Amos was the most important one. He enabled contacts with the right people at local and global levels. Most useful contacts were in the UK. The support generated from these contacts made the outreach work especially for the education of the poor children expands in a proper and effective way. He was again elected as the Head of the Brotherhood by his fraternity in 2004 and remained so till he died. These years were more challenging for him than the earlier ones. In the deepening crisis of the Brotherhood he needed to make his stand firmly understood to his brethren. When in 2005 this crisis spilled over to the Delhi Brotherhood Society he had to decide with a very clear mind what needed to be done. In a way he could not escape this responsibility as the chairman of this Society and one of its seven founding members when it was registered in 1973. In this critical juncture he supported the brethren to the hilt. He ordered the banks to freeze the accounts till the administration was duly cleaned up. There were losses in this, but he encouraged the brethren to be confident and calm. Although the decision of the brethren to settle the matters amicably caused some setbacks to the Society, he accepted it and gave his approval to the MoU they had signed.
Fr Ian's contribution to the society was well acknowledged. In 1995 he was awarded by the All India Christian Higher Education Board as an “eminent ecumenist, educator and friend of India. The synod of the Church of North India in its silver jubilee celebrations facilitated him. He actively served as a member of the governing body of the Sherwood College in Nainital, Oxford Mission in Kolkata, St. Stephen's Hospital, and Vice-Chairman of the governing body of St. Stephen's College in Delhi till he died.
He has seen historical changes in India—the world war, the quit India movement, the end of the colonial rule and the rise and establishment of the independent India. He never expressed any anguish for any of these events even about the missionaries leaving after independence. As far as he was concerned he had decided to stay on in Delhi. He was at St Stephen's Hospital for more than a year undergoing his chemotherapy and care. Here the good and the great of the city routinely visited him. His close friends and the brethren kept watch on him and were pleased with the excellent care that the hospital was providing him. Mark Tully and Gillian, his closest friends sometimes played music for him knowing that he could hear it as he kept sinking. Dr. Paul Swarup, the Priest of the Redemption Cathedral where he had regularly worshipped, gave him the last communion. As his days drew closer he became slower in speech and movements, and was confined to his bed. He breathed his last on April 30, 2013 at 4.30 pm when Ms. Nirmala Fenn was with him at his bedside. He was last of the Scottish protestant missionaries who served in Delhi and North Western India. His passing has brought an era to a close.
His funeral was held on May 4, 2013 at the Nicholas Cemetery, Delhi.