Four Centuries of Carmelite Presence in India

Author: Fr Saverio Cannistra, OCD

Four Centuries of Carmelite Presence in India

Fr Saverio Cannistra, OCD

The Order celebrates a milestone in the mission

Saint Teresa’s desire that her sons and daughters cultivate devotion to the missions has been fulfilled in many parts of the world. The 400-year-old history of the Carmelite presence in India can be divided into two phases: Carmel at the Service of the Church and its expansion (1619-1902); and Carmel’s implantation and expansion in India (1902-2018).

Phase I: Carmel at the service of the Church, and the Order’s expansion

The first batch of Carmelites comprised of three missionaries from Italy left for Persia in 1604 (modern day Iran), and from there began to explore the possibilities of founding a home in Portuguese India. Fr Leander of the Annunciation, who had been sent to the Persian mission, came to Goa in 1619 and the Carmelites were able to establish roots there in 1621. In 1638, having finished their novitiate in Old Goa, Fr Dionysius of the Nativity (a Frenchman) and Br Redemptus of the Cross (Portuguese), proceeded to Sumatra (present-day Indonesia) with a Portuguese delegation headed by Francis D’Souza. Detained and martyred there, they were beatified in 1900 by Pope Leo XIII, and are considered the proto-martyrs of the Discalced Carmelite Order.

But the unfortunate tussle between the Padroado and the Propaganda interfered with their stay in Portuguese territory. In 1707 a royal decree ordered that the Carmelite convent at Old Goa should be handed over to the Portuguese Oratorians of Philip Neri. In 1709 they had to quit the place but found some refuge with the English in Sunkeri (Karwar). Their presence appears to have continued in Karwar with few interruptions until 1850. Meanwhile, Bombay had passed from the Portuguese to the British, who, however, suspected the Portuguese clergy of resisting the British take-over. Hence the British decided to expel the Portuguese clergy. To replace them, in 1720, the British Governor in Mumbai (Charles Boone), invited the Carmelites to care for the Catholics in Bombay (entrusting 6 parishes to them) of which they later became Vicars Apostolic.

Due to conflicts with the Portuguese in the 1650s, the Syrian Christians requested that Rome should send Carmelites to them. Fr Joseph Sebastiani and his companions arrived in the 1660s and the Vicariate Apostolic of Verapoly was entrusted to the Carmelites for over 200 years, 1701-1934, resulting in an unbroken chain of 17 Carmelite Vicars Apostolic for “Malabar” (now known as Verapoly).

The separation of Quilon, as a new Apostolic Vicariate, suffragan to Verapoly, was decreed and was provisionally executed on May 12, 1845. The first of its prelates, Msgr Bernardine of Saint Teresa would be the first in a series of Carmelite vicars apostolic and bishops of Quilon for a 90-year period. Inconvenienced by such an arrangement, the Catholics of Mangalore who had been placed under the jurisdiction of Verapoly requested that the Holy See make Mangalore an independent diocese or vicariate. Accordingly, Mangalore became an Apostolic Vicariate and was entrusted to the Carmelites (1845-1873).

In 1874, Msgr Leonardo Mellano, OCD, Vicar Apostolic of Verapoly, constructed the Manjummel Monastery for the Carmelite Tertiaries (TOC'D), who had had their beginnings in 1857. In 1886 the vicars apostolic were made bishops, Verapoly became an Archdiocese and Quilon a Diocese, both entrusted to the Discalced Carmelites.

Though Carmelites have been present in India since 1620, for three centuries it was the European Carmelites who worked as missionaries, vicars apostolic, and bishops.

Phase II: Implantation and expansion of the Order in India

Implantation of the Order in India

The second phase in the history of Indian Carmel has seen a solid implantation and growth of the Order. In a span of about 100 years, seven Discalced Carmelite Provinces, three regional vicariates, two provincial delegations were established. Today there are around 1,000 Discalced Carmelite friars and some 500 Discalced Carmelite nuns (34 monasteries) spread across India.

The Indian-born, however, were not admitted to the First Order till the beginning of the 1900s. It was Msgr Aloysius (Adalric) Benziger of the Discalced Carmelite Flanders Province (Belgium), Bishop of Quilon (1905-1931), who pressed provincial and general superiors to finally open the doors of the First Order to Indian candidates from 1902. On 19 March 1902, the first house of regular observance of the First Order was blessed at Cotton Hill in Trivandrum, which was later renamed Carmel Hill and in the 1920s, became a novitiate. A similar house of observance was opened at Ernakulam.

In order to establish an Indian Province of the Order, the monasteries at Carmel Hill and Thuckalay were separated from the jurisdiction of the Flanders Province and brought directly under the General Definitory in Rome on 24 April 1936. On 10 February 1937, under the leadership of Fr Gulielmus, Superior General, the Semi-Province of Malabar was canonically erected under the patronage of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Later, in 1967, the Semi-Province of Malabar was raised to the status of a Province, and now includes the Ranchi delegation (2002) and the Regional Vicariate of North Malabar (2008). In 1979 the Province assumed the Mission of Punjab in the Diocese of Jalandhar, North India and within a span of 30 years, thanks to the strenuous efforts and selfless dedication of its missionaries, has flourished. Delhi became a full-fledged Province in 2010.

The Manjummel Province was also established in 1967. It began at Koonammavu as an independent and indigenous Carmelite Religious Congregation, known as the Tertiaries of the Discalced Carmelite Order (TOCD), sanctioned in 1857. On 26 April 1874, a monastery was inaugurated at Manjummel and later, the Congregation began efforts to join the First Order of the Discalced Carmelites. The Order readily accepted this move in 1951, and appointed Fr Zacharias of Saint Teresa, OCD, as Commissary General. The members had to pass through a period of probation for three years from 1953 to 1956. On 8 December 1964, the Manjummel General Delegation became a Semi-Province and three years later it was officially raised to a full-fledged Province of the Order.

Manjummel Province took up a mission in Andhra Pradesh in 1973 with Kothagudem as headquarters. Through persistent efforts, it has flourished, becoming a full-fledged Province in 2011. Manjummel Province has assumed the promising Mission of Indonesia. The province also cares for the Regional Vicariate of Odisha and the Mission of Zambia.

The Karnataka-Goa Province, initially sliced off from the Manjummel Province, began with three houses: A Karnataka-Goa-Bombay Provincial delegation — Margao (1938), Mangalore (1947) and Mysore (1965) — was created in 1979. On 2 March 1981 this delegation was raised to the status of a Province. The regional vicariate of Tanzania is a fruit of this province’s efforts.

In April 1981, under the leadership of Fr Philip Sainz de Baranda, Superior General, the Varapuzha unit of the Order was established at the monastery of Varapuzha for those members of the Latin origin from Kerala. Members of the Latin rite from the south Kerala region in the provinces of Malabar and Manjummel were united in a new unit. This unit grew steadily and in 2001 became a full-fledged Province known as South Kerala Province. The Province took up a mission in West Bengal in 1997 and later extended its reach to almost all the states of the North East. Today it is a Regional Vicariate.

At the same time, Tamilnadu General Delegation was also formed. Similarly, with four houses from Malabar Province and two from Manjummel Province with the Tamil-speaking members from both Provinces who voluntarily opted for the Tamilnadu General Delegation. This unit became a commissariate in 1990 and in 1993, the full-fledged Tamilnadu Province comprising the mission territories of Chattisgarh and Srilanka.

Expansion of the Carmelite Monasteries of Nuns in India

Fr Gaston Laurent Coeurdoux, a Jesuit missionary on his way from France to Pondicherry, was caught in a tempest off the coast of Mozambique. He prayed to Saint Teresa, vowing to found a Teresian Carmel in the place of his arrival should he reach land safely. This he did in 1748 at Pondicherry. Through the efforts of Bishop Bonnand, in 1859, this Carmel was received officially into the. Second Order of Discalced Carmelites. Following that in Pondicherry, other Carmels were founded across the territory. Today there are 34 Teresian Cloistered Carmels in India.

The publication of this article was facilitated by the Malabar Province of the Discalced Carmelites, which publishes ‘L'Osservatore Romano’ in English for India and the Far East, and in Malayalam, the vernacular of Kerala.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 February 2019, page 11

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