Missionary in India taught, practiced sustainable development for half a century

Father Jerome Ziliak, 1921-2012

Ziliak,_Fr_Jerome_for_webRev. Jerome Ziliak SVD, a pioneer in sustainable development in India and subject of a 2002 documentary, passed away at Techny, Ill., on July 17 at age 92.

Father Ziliak began introducing modern agricultural methods and sustainable development practices in India nearly 40 years before a United Nations commission coined the phrase "sustainable development."

"He talked about Karpur and [the Diocese of] Khandwa unceasingly because his heart was here at the Karpur mission," wrote Most Rev. A.A.S. Durairaj SVD, bishop of Khandwa in central India. "He has imprinted his name in the history of Khandwa Diocese with his unique missionary approach at Karpur mission parish. We will gratefully remember him forever."

Arriving in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in 1948, Father Ziliak worked as a parish priest, farmer, teacher and community organizer. For more than three decades, he managed the Karpur Adaptive Research Farm near Khandwa.

Father Ziliak revolutionized farming in the region and staved off famine by teaching the villagers modern and environmentally-friendly agricultural methods. In Karpur, he established a dairy farm and developed a cooling pool for water buffaloes so that milk production would remain consistent year-round. He designed mechanisms within the pool to carry leftover water and animal manure to the fields, naturally irrigating and fertilizing them.

He also introduced high-yield seed varieties, which increased wheat and corn production. Father Ziliak taught the villagers how to double crop, which gave them two annual yields instead of one, and how to process maize and milo (grain sorghum) stalks into livestock feed. He even built a small recycling plant that converts manure into methane gas for cooking.

In addition to introducing these and other agricultural practices, Father Ziliak led the effort to build schools and medical dispensaries for tribals, the aboriginal people of India, and dalits, who traditionally were known as the untouchables and historically were least respected in the caste system.

Producer Caroline Nellis captured Father Ziliak’s work in the documentary "Heroes Still Walk" (Captured Images: 2002).

Born in Haubstadt, a farming community near Evansville, Ind., Jerome Ziliak was the fifth of Edward and Anna (nee Fehrenbacher) Ziliak’s nine children. He attended St. James Catholic School in Haubstadt as a child and the Society of the Divine Word’s St. Mary’s Seminary at Techny as a high school student.

He professed vows as a Divine Word Missionary in 1942 and was ordained to the priesthood on Aug. 15, 1947, the day that India became independent from Great Britain. In addition to the Karpur mission, Father Ziliak also cared for parishes in other Madhya Pradesh cities and villages, including Indore, Jhabua and Udaigarh. He retired and returned to the United States in 1998.

Father Ziliak is survived by two sisters-in-law (Mary Ellen and Shirley Ziliak), one brother-in-law (Walter Weis) and many nieces and nephews.

A wake took place on July 23 and his funeral was the following day in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Techny (Northbrook), Ill. He is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Techny.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Ziliak can be made for the care of retired missionaries and may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.

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