Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Father Emmanuel Garcia, S.J.: The First Native-born Priest of Bangladesh -- 1

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Father Emmanuel Garcia, S.J.

The sketch drawn from imagination
(Toronto: Feb. 5, 2011) © Joachim Romeo D'Costa


Father Emmanuel Garcia, S.J., in the 17th century, was the first native-born (Bangali) Roman Catholic priest in the territory now comprising Bangladesh. He was a priest belonging to the Jesuit Order.

Before we deal with him any further, let’s see the state of the Catholic Church in India and Bangladesh.

The Portuguese in India

After Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo), an Italian navigator, on behalf of the monarchy of Spain, discovered America in 1492, Portuguese navigator Vasco-da-Gama did his bit by discovering the sea route to India in 1498 by landing at Calicut (the present-day Kozhikode) of the State of Kerala in India. This event starts the Portuguese presence in India for the next five centuries. The main motive of these daring adventures was getting access to the profitable spices of India and other Asian countries. Before this, the Venetians of Italy had the sole European monopoly of trading in spices imported through land routes of the western Asia.

In 1500, Pedro Alvarez Cabral sets up a factory -- a trading post or a business establishment for purchase and sale of goods -- at Calicut. It was the first European factory in India. In 1503, Alfonso de Albuquerque erected the first Portuguese fortress in India at Cochin (Kochi). In 1505, Dom Francisco de Almeida arrives in Cochin as the first Portuguese Viceroy of India.

The Portuguese then gradually acquired territories in western India by conquests. In 1510, they conquered Goa, and later Daman and Diu. At the same time, the Portuguese began to send their traders to visit different ports of India along its coasts, including Bengal. With the adventurers and traders came Catholic missionaries of different Religious Orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits). They began to erect churches in different mission centres. Later, they also set up seminaries and colleges in Goa to give formation to candidates to priesthood.

From 1517 onwards, Portuguese began to call on ports in Bengal. In 1537, they were given permission to settle and open factories at Satgaon, near Hooghly, of West Bengal and in Chittagong of present Bangladesh. In 1577, Mughal emperor Akbar allowed them to build permanent settlements and churches in Bengal. Antonio Tavares, founded the new Portuguese settlement of Ugolim (Hooghly) in 1579-1580. This was at the mouth of the Ganges near their first settlement at Satgaon, which was the Mughal government port but in decline at the time. This new town grew fast and, in 1603, it had about 5,000 Portuguese inhabitants with a number of Catholic churches and other institutions.

The First Church in Bangladesh

The Jesuits were keen to preach Christianity in Bengal. In 1598, two of their missionaries, Father Francesco Fernandes, S.J., and Father Domingo da Sousa, S.J. came to Hooghly from Goa. After some months, they headed for East Bengal through the Sunderbans forest. On their way, they visited Chandika (also known as Chandecan in Portuguese, Iswaripur or Old Jessore) near Kaliganj in the present district of Satkhira. Chandika was the main city of the kingdom of Raja Pratapadittya. (This king was one of the renowned Baaro Bhuiyans --twelve chieftains -- of Bengal. These Bhuiyas were powerful and had revolted against the Mughal emperor). The king was gracious to his foreign guests and after knowing their intention of coming to Bengal, eagerly gave them permission to preach and build churches in his territory.

Within a short period, these two priests were able to preach and convert 200 Bangalis of Chandika to Christianity. In 1599, Father Fernandes built a church and a rectory at Chandika. The new church, called the ‘Church of the Holy Name of Jesus,’ was dedicated on January 1, 1600. King Pratapadittya himself was present at the ceremony. This was the first church in Bangladesh area.

Sripur: The Homeland of Father Emmanuel Garcia, S.J.

Sripur was an important port on the bank of the Kaliganga River, a branch of the mighty Padma River. It was situated in the present Bangladesh district of Munshiganj, 18 miles (29 kilometers) south of Sonargaon. Once a busy port, it was completely eroded by the furious currents of the river around 1882. Presently there’s no sign of its existence.

In its hey days, Sripur boasted of being the capital city of Raja Chand Rai and his son Raja Kedar Rai, two Bhuiyans of Bengal. Its ship building and repairing facilities were well-known at the time. Many Portuguese, living there, were engaged in commerce. Other Portuguese also got their ships repaired there. Ralph Fitch (c.1550-1611), a British merchant, traveler and explorer, mentions Sripur as an emporium of trade and commerce and describes his trip from Sripur to Pegu of the present-day Myanmar (Burma) in a ship belonging to Alberto Carvalho, a Portuguese. In 1612, Portuguese Augustinian priests built a church at Sripur and, by 1616, it became an official Catholic missionary centre. There were about 1,000 Portuguese and Bangali Catholics in Sripur.

After their mission in Chandika in 1599, when Father Fernandes, S.J. and Father da Sousa, S.J. reached Sripur for a visit, Raja Kedar Rai welcomed them with friendly gestures. While being there, these two priests came across two Bangali young men who were eager to join their Order and become priests. They were ultimately sent to Goa for higher studies at the famous Santa Fe Theology College. This college accommodated students from different parts of India where the Portuguese had their settlements. One of these two students was Emmanuel Garcia (as converts to Christianity at the time had to take a Christian name as the first name and a Portuguese surname, his original Bangla or Bengali name is not recorded anywhere).

(Continued)


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