A requiem for Mission High School DalwalArchive
It was 1940, and the Germans had occupied Belgium for a second time in 30 years when Father Sylvester announced to students of the Belgium Mission High School in Dalwal village, that funding for the institution had run out.
Father Sylvester was the principal of the school, which had been established in a small village in the Salt Range in the Chakwal district.
“One morning, Father Sylvester announced the shocking news that Belgium had been overrun by Germany and funds to run the school had been stopped, but he had not bowed down to this challenge,” said former Punjab governor retired Lt Gen Mohammad Safdar, who studied at the Mission High School as a child.
“I am not going to close it down,” Mr Safdar recalled the principal as saying.
At the time, students and villagers had feared the school would close, but the principal not only pulled the institution out of its financial problems, but maintained its standard of education even during difficult times.
Riding his motorcycle – a hallmark of his at a time when no one else had one – Father Sylvester would drive to the nearby villages of Dulmial, Tatral, Waulah and Katas, to raise funds for the school.
“The locals supported him because they considered him to be their hero,” Mr Safdar said.
Father Sylvester was appointed as manager of the school’s Catholic hostel on April 1, 1923, and appointed principal on April 1, 1932.
He served at the school for 36 years – after 28 years, he handed over management of the school to the diocese of Rawalpindi on Nov 1, 1960. During his 36-year stint, Father Sylvester only went on home leave twice.
The construction of mission schools began in Punjab in 1888, when control of the diocese of Lahore, erected by Rome in 1886, was given to Capuchins missionaries, who in turn extended the diocese of Lahore across the Punjab province and the state of Bahawalpur.
The land for the Belgium Mission High School in Dalwal was donated by Raja Shakir Mehdi, an influential villager who coverted to Christianity as a teenager.
Although the school’s main building states that the school was built in 1900, construction on the school began in the last years of the 19th century.
In Capuchins Missionaries in the Punjab (India and Pakistan), co-authors Fidentian van den Brouke and Daniel Suply write that it was Father Godfrey – appointed as apostolic administrator of the diocese and the third bishop of Lahore by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 – who laid the foundation of the school, along with a priest house, chapel and dispensary.
In May 1898, Father Vincent was transferred to the school, where he attempted – unsuccessfully – to open a mission centre.
According to the book, Father Anthon was transferred to the school on Sept 18, 1899, to repair and extend the school building.
“The building of the middle and high schools were blessed by Bishop Pelckmans on January 18, 1900,” the book states.
This would mean that the school originally opened as a primary school, before being upgraded to a middle school in 1903 and a high school in 1905.
On March 1, 1900, Father Matthew was appointed principal, and served there until 1930, aside from a two-year interruption in November 1920, when he was called to Lahore as the rector of a cathedral.
The book says he returned as principal in February 1922, because the school in Dalwal “could not manage without him”.
Under Father Matthew, the school followed the government’s Anglo-Vernacular syllabus, and the principal also built a complex of 15 classrooms and separate boarding rooms for Christian, Muslim and Hindu students, with a priest house and a chapel nearby and a well that was 60 metres deep.
By the time Father Matthew left Dalwal, the school had over 500 students, and he was awarded the golden Kaisar-i-Hind medal for his services in the field of education by the government.
“BM School Dalwal was the first high school in the area, which changed the fate of residents of adjoining villages. At the time of independence in 1947, there were 30 commissioned officers in the army from this area alone who were all students of the school,” Mr Safdar said.
Over the years, the school has produced numerous military officers and bureaucrats. “[The travel writer] Salman Rashid wrote that had there been no Mission High School in this area, all the generals and other officers would be tending goats and sheep these days,” he added.
Malik Riaz Ahmed from the neighbouring Dulmial village and a Mission High School student, said that there were 766 soldiers from Dulmial who fought in the Second World War, and most of them studied in Dalwal.
“I got admitted into the school in 1948,” said retired Lt Gen Rehmdil Bhatti, recalling how Father Sylvester would prod his head with his finger to remember something.
“I got commissioned in the army in 1959. My achievement made Father Sylvester proud and excited; when I went to meet him, he recognised me after prodding his head with is finger.”
“Being the sole school in the area, its students became army officers, bureaucrats, engineers and other professionals,” said Mumtaz Malik, who completed his matriculation from the school and now lives in the United Kingdom. “The quality of education lifted the entire area.”
At one time, the school also boasted one of the best science laboratories in Punjab, according to Capuchins Missionaries in the Punjab.
A missionary, Brother Joachim, began building the laboratory after taking over from his brother Marcus, who passed away.
Joachim worked as the science teacher for 22 years. He died in Dalwal in January 1932, and is buried in the small garden by the priest house.
During the Bhutto government, the school was included in the government’s nationalisation drive, which has been criticised by former PPP prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
After Gen Pervez Musharraf devolved powers and denationalised all the private entities nationalised by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the school was returned to its original owners, but the damage had already been done.
The school’s standard of education had fallen, its records were missing and statues on the school premises had been stolen.
According to an inquiry into the school’s missing belongings – a copy of which was obtained by Dawn – conducted in November 2014, the then executive district education officer said that in 1991 or 1992, the Choa Saidan Shah assistant commissioner, Jamal Yusuf, removed 12 statues and a pulpit to move them to a safer location in case the building collapsed. The antiques have not yet been located.
As of October this year, there are 373 students enrolled in the school.
In a June 2001 interview with the Defence Journal, war veteran Cecil Chaudhry regretted that the school was ruined by nationalisation in 1972.
“The management of this school needs our patronage, and the government should support it as they are imparting quality education to our children,” said Mr Safdar.
“Today, this school should have been the university of the Salt Range,” he said.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2017