Mumbai Suburban district collector Shekhar Channe awarded the Certificate of Naturalisation to Fr. Gussi Frederick Sopena, proclaiming him to be an Indian citizen under the law, at a small function in the collectorate two days ago.
An ecstatic Fr. Sopena savoured the moment by saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” before a gathering of various activists, social and religious groups.
“I am very happy that my grave will be in India, that of an Indian citizen … the country where I worked, got so much love and made so many friends, Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” said Fr. Sopena, who speaks Hindi and Marathi fluently.
Sopena was 22 years old when he arrived in India in 1947 to serve humanity and the poor through the Society of Jesus, founded in the mid-1530s by Spanish counter-reformist St. Ignatius of Loyola — the Patron Saint of soldiers.
He spent 67 years serving the poor, needy and sick people, spreading the message of love of God and creating awareness of government schemes for the masses in Mumbai, Thane, Palghar, Raigad and Nashik districts.
‘Sopena Baba’ — as he is reverently known — had first applied for Indian citizenship in 1978.
His application was rejected in 1978 and his re-application was also spiked in 1988.
Undeterred Fr. Sopena applied for citizenship yet again in 2012, but his file was lost, forcing him to begin all the formalities again which were finally completed in October 2015.
“I want to be an Indian … that’s all,” Fr. Sopena had said to a question on why he wanted Indian citizenship.
While struggling to fulfil his dream, in 1986 he cleared the Hindi elementary exams, learned Marathi and Agri, a local tribal dialect, graduated in philosophy from St. Xaviers Institute and continued his social work.
“There is no country like India … I have lived and worked here for 67 years … I am very happy now,” Fr. Sopena said after getting his citizenship papers.
Fr. Sopena lives at Vinalaya, a home for aged Jesuits near Holy Family Church in Andheri.
In the 1990s, Fr. Sopena met with an accident resulting in foot amputation and now he walks with a Jaipur Foot. The zeal for serving society, however, remains unabated in his heart.
Prominent anti-nuclear activist Vaishali Patil, who has worked with him for over four decades, said Fr. Sopena founded the Janhit Vikas Manch and worked for women’s empowerment, tribal children’s education and skill development for landless peasants.