Fr Pierre Ceyrac: Aid worker in Rwanda, Cambodia and India

A United Nations official described the priest as 'an unguided missile'. He was delighted with the epithet.

In 1980, Fr Pierre Ceyrac was dispatched from India by his Jesuit superiors to work with refugees pouring out of Cambodia into hastily constructed camps on the Thai border. Most of his colleagues returned after six months; he stayed for 13 years.

Ceyrac was a compassionate, driven man who believed that in addition to whatever material assistance the international community could provide it must also offer optimism. "There was a huge sense of despair in the camps," said Stephane Rousseau, a lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University who worked alongside Ceyrac. "Fr Ceyrac said that more than anything we must bring hope. He was always telling his team 'You have to bring hope'."

The challenges confronting the aid community were exacerbated by the shifting geopolitics of the cold war. Some camps inside Cambodia were under the control of the Vietnamese authorities, who in January 1979 had driven the Khmer Rouge rebels from Phnom Penh. Over the years, other camps would fall under the control of various factions of the Western-backed anti-Vietnamese Cambodian opposition. Ceyrac had little time for such considerations, believing that everyone was a worthy recipient of compassion whether they were refugees, UN officials, Thai military officers or members of paramilitary forces.

Another of Ceyrac's colleagues recalled how, on one occasion, an exasperated UN official described the priest as "an unguided missile". For a short while he was concerned that the official would seek to prevent him from entering the camps but when he realised there was no such restriction he delighted in the epithet, believing it underscored his status as a free individual.

Pierre Ceyrac was born in 1914 in Meyssac, France, one of seven siblings, one of whom, François, would become president of the National Council of French Employers. In 1931 he joined the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, and inspired by the example of an uncle, a Jesuit who had worked in southern India, he made up his mind to head to the subcontinent. He studied Sanskrit at the University of Paris and departed for Chennai in 1937. In addition to the studies that would see him ordained as a priest in 1945, Ceyrac also delved deeply into Tamil literature. Friends said he was fond of quoting a line of an 18th century Tamil poet and saint, Thayumanavar, who had written: "Apart from wanting people to be happy, I want nothing else from life, God."

After he was ordained in Kurseong, West Bengal, he spent a decade as chaplain of St Joseph's College in Tiruchirappalli. His subsequent appointment as chaplain to the All India Catholic University Federation gave the priest an opportunity to move around India. Many of his efforts were focused in Tamil Nadu where he helped establish roads, clinics, homes and spread best practice about digging wells and other such techniques. He also helped set up schools and colleges.

In 1969 he established a co-operative farm in Manamadurai that provided thousands of villagers with food and a place to work, helping over 250,000 people. In the villages around the farm he started the "Thousand Wells" campaign that allowed local people to use land that had never before been farmed. Many of those he helped were Dalits, or so-called Untouchables.

Yet it was his work in south-east Asia that would earn Ceyrac international attention. Fr Andrew Hamilton, a Jesuit priest from Australia, said Ceyrac, at that point already in his early 70s, appeared to "live on air and water". He said that any guest staying with him was faced by the challenge of finding something to eat. There might be a bottle of champagne or a piece of cheese, sitting untouched in the fridge having been sent from a friend in France, but there would be no fruit or bread or meat. The only clothes he possessed were a couple of pairs of trousers and baggy shirts, a pair of simple sandals and an Indian shawl.

Beatrice Montariol, who now works with the French NGO Sipar in Cambodia, recalled how, as a young volunteer at the border camps, she had been charmed by the priest. "He just said we need a French teacher. He never said, 'you have to do this or that'," she said. A few months later, back in France, she would receive a letter from Ceyrac offering a job. She said yes. "He had a great capacity to affect people."

After Cambodia, Ceyrac moved to Rwanda to try to assist those caught up in the genocide there. After a year he returned to southern India where he set up schools for orphans and children from the poorest families. Even into his nineties he continued his work, coming to the aid of fishing communities devastated by the 2004 tsunami. The French government recognised his work by awarding him the Grand Prix de l'Académie Universelle des Cultures and in 2005 the Légion d'Honneur.

Ceyrac spent his last years teaching at the Loyola College in Chennai. In an interview four years ago, he told a local newspaper: "I always feel I could have done better, I could have done more. If the Lord gives me time, I will start something new."

Andrew Buncombe

Pierre Ceyrac, Jesuit priest and aid worker: born Meyssac, Corrèze, France 4 February 1914; died Chennai, India 30 May 2012.

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