How old is Mangalore diocese?

The 11th and 12th of February, 2012, have witnessed spectacular celebrations of what was termed the post-centenary silver jubilee celebrations of Mangalore diocese.

The grounds of Rosario Cathedral on Saturday, 11th February, and of Nehru Maidan on Sunday, 12th February, were packed to capacity.  The Eucharistic celebrations on both days were resplendent; the homilies preached by Archbishop Dr Savio Hon Tai-Fai at Rosario Cathedral and by Oswald Cardinal Gracias at Nehru Maidan were both inspiring.

So too were the felicitation ceremonies and the cultural programmes. Indeed, the celebrations could hardly have been better.

But...

As a historian of Catholic community, I have a serious criticism.  The term ‘post-centenary silver jubilee celebrations’ has conveyed the impression, both to the parishioners of Mangalore diocese as well as to the distinguished guests, that the diocese is only 125 years of age. Ergo..., it has conveyed the erroneous impression that prior to February 1887, the town of Mangalore and the surrounding district of South Kanara formed part of another larger diocese and that the diocese of Mangalore was carved out of this parent unit in February 1887.

Not true...

In fact, Mangalore diocese has been running continuously as an independent ecclesiastical unit since the year 1845. And if I were asked to select a specific date to mark the birth of Mangalore diocese, I would pick the 8th of November, 1845.  On that date, the sailing ship St Antony docked at Mangalore, and the Italian Bishop Bernardine, who had been appointed by Pope Gregory XVI in May that year to assume charge at Mangalore, was solemnly led to Rosario Church (soon to be raised to the status of a Cathedral), where he celebrated a pontifical high mass.

Prior to 1845, dating back to the origins of Christianity in Mangalore in the 16th century, the area now known as Kanara had been, by and large, a mission station of the vast Archdiocese of Goa. 

There had been a brief period in the late 17th century, when the Holy See had appointed a Goan bishop, Thomas de Castro, to assume charge in Mangalore. But the time was not then ripe for this area to attain independent diocesan status, and, following the death of Bishop de Castro in 1684, the area reverted to its erstwhile status as a dependency of the Archdiocese of Goa.

Following the return of the captives from Seringapatam in the year 1799, the Mangalorean Catholics slowly rebuilt their lives... and by the year 1840, its leading members felt that the time was now ripe for Mangalore to be independent of Goa and be erected into a diocese in its own right.  Several leading Mangaloreans of the era took up the cause in earnest, including Fr Joachim Pio Noronha (the first native Mangalorean priest), Boniface Fernandes (the first Mangalorean to attain the position of Deputy Collector; one of his grandsons was the famous Dr L P Fernandes), John Joseph Saldanha (a subjudge in North Kanara; his youngest son was the famous Joseph Saldanha, poet and editor of the Christian Purana), and Martin Basil Coelho, head of the illustrious Falnir Coelho family of timber merchants.

Some of the correspondence between John Joseph Saldanha and Martin Basil Coelho with ecclesiastical authorities in Rome and India has been preserved (not the originals, unfortunately). 

And when Bishop Bernardine was appointed to assume charge at Mangalore in 1845, he was escorted from the older diocese of Verapoly (near Cochin) in a sailing ship, the St Antony, belonging to the Falnir Coelho family (built from the family’s own timber industry).

Six young men formed the bishop’s escort, headed by Venantius Peter Coelho, eldest son of Martin Basil Coelho.

Ever since 1845, Mangalore has been an independent ecclesiastical unit - headed by a bishop, reporting directly to the Holy See.  Why then did the current diocesan council decide to adopt 1886-87 as the year of birth of the diocese?

It is simply a matter of nomenclature.

In the 19th century not all dioceses were referred to by this name. Ecclesiastical units were graded in a hierarchy - Pro Vicariate, Vicariate, Diocese and Archdiocese - depending on their size and population, number of churches, and overall importance.

Few units attained diocesan and archdiocesan status; for centuries, Goa and Mylapore were the only two archdioceses in India - and the latter was inactive. When Mangalore became independent of Goa in 1845, it was initially accorded the status of a Pro-Vicariate, being promoted to the status of a full Vicariate eight years later.

Ironically, so far as size is concerned, the Pro Vicariate of Mangalore was much larger than the current diocese of Mangalore - it stretched northwards into North Kanara, southwards as far as Calicut and eastwards into the Western Ghats. Also ironically, when Mangalore was promoted to the status of a full Vicariate in 1853, it had reduced in size, the Western Ghats having been ceded to the new Vicariate of Mysore, which had been created in 1850 (carved out of the older Vicariate of Pondicherry). 

And still more ironically, when Mangalore was eventually promoted to the status of a diocese in 1886, it reduced still further in size, its parishes in North Kanara reverting to Goa (Calicut separated in 1923).

The promotion of Mangalore to the status of a diocese in 1886 was part of a general decision made by the Vatican to promote all vicariates in India to diocesan status. The so-called Hierarchy of India, proclaimed by Pope Leo XIII on 1st September 1886 created six new archdioceses: Agra, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras (which merged with Mylapore), Pondicherry and Verapoly - and 12 new dioceses: Allahabad and Lahore (both suffragan to the Archdiocese of Agra), Poona (suffragan to Bombay), Krishnagar and Dacca (suffragan to Calcutta), Hyderabad, Vishakapatnam, Trichinopoly and Mangalore (all suffragan to Madras; but Mangalore was later made suffragan to Bombay), Coimbatore and Mysore (suffragan to Pondicherry) and Quilon (suffragan to Verapoly).  Incidentally, Bangalore formed part of the diocese of Mysore, with St Patrick’s Church as the Cathedral (it was not until 1940 that Bangalore and Mysore were separated - the former being elevated as an archdiocese in 1953).

Just like Mangalore, all these archdioceses and dioceses could well have celebrated their post centenary silver jubilee this past year!

But perhaps they have a better sense of history than we do.

But for the fact that the term ‘Vicariate of Mangalore’ was replaced by the term ‘Diocese of Mangalore,’ the year 1886 has no particular significance in the ecclesiastical history of Mangalore.  

Far more significant was the year 1870 (the foundation of the Cloistered and Apostolic Carmel - and of St Ann’s School) and the year 1879-80 (the advent of the Jesuits and the foundation of St Aloysius College and other institutions).  There were also other significant events in the 40-year-period from 1845 to 1885. All these events ought to form an integral part of any history of the Diocese of Mangalore - and thus it is necessary that the history of the Diocese of Mangalore should commence from the year 1845. But for the accident of nomenclature, this is indeed the true year of birth of the Diocese of Mangalore.

The diocese of Mangalore has just celebrated its post centenary silver jubilee.  Normally, one would expect a fifty-year interval between silver jubilee and platinum jubilee celebrations.  

But I would strongly urge the Diocesan Council to seriously consider celebrating the post-centenary platinum jubilee eight years from now - in the year 2020. 

And use the occasion to commemorate and honour the leading Mangalorean Catholics of the 1840s, who put in great efforts to make their home town of Mangalore a diocese in its own right - quite independent from its parent diocese, Goa.

(Author is genealogist who brought out a voluminous genealogical encyclopadiea of Mangalorean Catholic families) 

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