Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jul - Dec 2003

The 150 years of Evangelisation
of the Pearl Fishery Coast after St Francis Xavier

(or On the importance of Catechism and of Catechists to pass on the Faith)

1) The Spiritual Progress under Fr. Henriques

During the latter part of the sixteenth century, well informed persons like the Jesuit visitor, Fr. Valignano, had no hesitation to say that the Christians of the Pearl Fishery Coast, especially those from Manappad to Vembar, were the best among the new Christians of India. The man chiefly responsible for bringing about this happy result was Fr. Henry Henriques who laboured with great dedication on this coast.

church front
church interior
A Baroque Church in Manapad, on the Pearl Fishery Coast

Though Xavier had left the Fishery Coast and gone to work in Malacca and in the Moluccas, he did not forget that the Fishery Coast needed more and better suited evangelical workers than the ones to whom he had handed over charge when leaving. In March 1546 he ordered Fr. Antony Criminal!, a very zealous man, to go to the Fishery Coast. Fr. Criminal! was the first missionary who learned to read and write Tamil. A year later he was joined by Fr. Henry Henriques and others. In January - February 1548, Xavier was back again on the Fishery Coast for a visit. He appointed Fr. Criminal! as superior of the mission. At the same time he ordered Fr. Henriques to learn Tamil well and to compose a Tamil grammar on the model of the Latin and Greek grammars. The father obeyed, and in less than one year was able to speak and to write Tamil. When Fr. Criminal! was killed towards the middle of 1549 in a military entanglement between the Badaga troops and the Portuguese at Vedalai, the missionaries elected Fr. Henry Henriques as their superior. Xavier confirmed their choice by letter.

Fr. Henriques threw himself whole-heartedly into the work as soon as he arrived on the coast. Already in 1547 he was in charge of the two most important villages on the coast, viz. Tuticorin and Punnaikayal, and also of some other villages of lesser importance, like Kombuturei. These he used to visit every ninth day. The reason for such frequent visits was the high rate of infant mortality on the coast. The catechists were not always sufficiently diligent about baptizing the sickly children, and hence many died without receiving baptism. Fr. Henriques wanted to prevent this as far as possible. Besides being directly in charge of these villages, he had to do some sort of supervisory work in the villages of Vaippar and Vembar, where there was a local priest. Fr. Henriques had to go there once in two months, since the people did not fear the local priest very much and did not always obey him.

As was the case with Francis Xavier, Henriques too laid special stress on the Christian training of the young. He taught the prayers to the girls in the mornings and to the boys in the evenings. It seems that till his arrival on the coast the girls were not attending the catechism classes. The boys used to go twice a day. But now that system was changed. The girls were asked to go in the mornings and the boys in the evenings. In every Christian village on the coast there was now a teacher of catechism and a person to gather the children every day.

As for adults, Xavier ordered that, apart from their daily instruction depending on convenience, all the men should be assembled is church on Sundays and the women on Saturdays for special instruction and prayers followed by the reading of the explanation of the articles of faith, which he had composed when he was in Malacca in 1546, and which he got translated into Tamil by an Indian priest, Francis Coelho. To make sure that all the women went to church, the missionaries arranged that all the older women and the widows should go on a separate day, i.e., on Friday. Formerly very few such women used to go to church. To wean the old women from idols, to which they were still somewhat attached, it was necessary to talk to them for long and to give them many reasons. Another disorder which was noticed was that female slaves, as a rule, did not attend church services. To remedy this situation it was now arranged that they should go to church on Sundays, after their masters returned home from the church.

It was only in 1549 that the Christians of the Pearl Fishery Coast began to receive the sacrament of penance. Till then no confession had been heard, because none of the missionaries knew enough Tamil to hear the confessions of the people. But now Fr. Henriques knew the language sufficiently well. Tuticorin was the first place where the sacrament was administered. Many of the people were very eager to make their confession. In fact, there were complaints from some of the other villages, because the father was not able to go to them as yet.

One of the works which kept Fr. Henriques very busy at this time was the correction of the Tamil prayers which had been made by Xavier and his collaborators in 1542, and which contained a number of mistakes.

There were about thirty churches on this coast in 1551 Though they were quite spacious, they were still very simple, being made of clay and wood, and covered with palm leaves. The reports drawn up 25 years later continue to say the same thing, though they give us the additional, information that the churches had rich ornaments and that the Christian kept them very neat and tidy. The first stone church of the Fishery Coast was the beautiful chapel in honor: of the holy Cross, built at Manappad in 1581.

Most of the inhabitants of the villages, on the Fishery Coast were already Christians by the middle of the sixteenth century. Hence there was not much scope for adult baptism on this coast. The larger or smaller groups of adults who were baptized from time to time on the coast later in the century, were mostly either people from the interior or salves bought by the Christians. One of the most prominent converts of this period was a learned yogi, baptized by Fr. Henriques at Punnaikayal in 1550. He was a native of Vembar and was very much respected by the Hindus for his learning and uprightness of life. He believed in one God. He disliked idols and used to scold idolworshippers. Sincel 1548 Fr. Henriques was having friendly contacts with him. The Portuguese captain of the coast stood as godfather, at his solemn baptism on the feast of Pentecost. The Hindus of the locality were considerably upset by his becoming a Christian, since he was so learned and so upright. For the same reasons, the Christians felt very much encouraged by his baptism.

From 1549 onwards Fr. Henriques began to select from among the most exemplary and the best instructed Christians of the coast some persons who would also be ready to spend their entire lives in the service of the faith. They consecrated themselves to God by means of a public act of oblation and offered to serve the Christian community without receiving any salary. Their duties were manifold. They had to teach catechism in the villages, preach to the people at times, go from village to village to obtain information about the conduct of the Christians and, more especially, of the kanakkappillais, baptize the sick children, punish the Christians for light faults, inform the fathers about more serious ones, and, in general, help the missionaries. In 1550 there were ten such persons on the coast. They set a wonderful example for the Christians because of their disinterested service. They were ready to go wherever they were sent and even to lay down their lives for the love of Christ. The missionaries felt that they too could learn something from the virtuous lives of these men. Their work brought about a big change in the region. The importance of the role played by these men becomes even more evident, when one realizes that for some years after March 1552 there were only two Jesuit missionaries in the whole of the Fishery Coast. In spite of the dire need for personnel, Fr. Henriques was extremely strict in the selection of candidates for this choice group, and admitted only the very best applicants.

Since there were not enough men of this group to be stationed at each of the Christian, villages, some specially trained young men of good character were sent as teachers of catechism to the remaining villages. The grown-up men were asked by the missionaries to visit use villages from time to time, in order to supervise the work of the younger men.

Another initiative of Fr. Henriques for the better instruction of the Christians was the composition of a book, dealing briefly with the creation of the world, the angels, men and other allied topics. The book then went on to treat of the life of Christ from the moment of the Incarnation up to the resurrection. A hand-written copy of this book was available at each of the important Christian villages. A further help was provided when several scenes from this book were painted on canvas and sent to the villages.

Already in 1552 Henriques could write to Ignatius of Loyola that the Christians of the Fishery Coast were firm in their faith, that the catechists were sticking to their places of work, and that the Christians would be able to persevere in their faith, even if there were no longer any Portuguese in the region to support them. According to a careful census taken by Fr. Henriques at about this time, the Christians of the Fishery Coast numbered more than forty thousand. Most of them, excepting the very old who were no longer able to learn anything, knew by heart the "Pater noster" and "Ave Maria" in Latin or Tamil, and the creed in Tamil. Many were also learning the rest of the prayers with great diligence. Some of the boys from the leading families were being sent to the colleges (schools) of Goa and Quilon for higher education and better formation. It was hoped that much good would result from this, since these carefully trained boys would eventually become the rulers and teachers of the people.

With the year 1553, there began a period of ten or twelve tears which were marked by considerable trouble and restlessness on the fishery coast. Attacks from outside, quarrels and divisions among the paravas themselves, and finally migration to the island of Mannar were the most striking events of this period.

By the year 1565 there were six Jesuit fathers and three brothers working on the Fishery coast. Several of them, however, did not know Tamil. This drawback considerably restricted their capacity to be of help to the people. In 1566 Bishop George Temudo of Cochin paid the first episcopal visit to the region. Confirmation was administered to the people of the coast for the first time.

For the spiritual well-being of the Christians; Fr. Henriques relied on, three special means: In the first place, there were the spiritual talks that were being given to the more devout people of the coast. Later on, these people would be organized, as we shall see, into the Confraternity of Charity. Secondly, there was the enterprising and sacrificing work of the lay helpers of the mission. With their words and deeds they urged the people to live virtuous lives. The third pillar that Fr. Henriques relied upon was the sacrament of penance. More and more people, were now receiving it with great fruit. Unfortunately there were as yet (1566) not enough fathers who could hear the confessions of all the people who wanted to confess.

In his report on the Indian province of the Jesuits (1579-80) Fr. Valignano, the visitor, speaks of thirty Christian villages with as many churches on the Pearl Fishery Coast. The Christians were estimated to number about forty to fifty thousand.

The Jesuits lived in five or six residences. The churches of this coast were richer and better furnished than those elsewhere. Many of the Christians lived exemplary lives. All things considered, it was the best Christian community under the care of the Jesuits in India. Twelve to fifteen Jesuits worked among them. Regarding the fervour of the Christians, the annual letter of 1575 from Goa has this to add "the confessors testify, that many people pass the whole year without committing any mortal sin." The same letter affirmed that the children of the Fishery Coast knew the catechism better than the children in many parts of Europe.

In 1582 one thousand two hundred and fifty persons of the coast made general confessions (confessions covering their whole life). The entire thing was done very seriously. The members of the Confraternity of Charity helped the people to prepare themselves. A large number of restitutions were made as a result of those confessions. The women came forward to encourage their husbands to confess and to give back ill-gotten wealth, offering to work for the maintenance of their families, if they were reduced to penury because of necessary restitution. Three patangatis publicly asked pardon of the people for the scandals they had caused.

Now that we have come to the last years of the life of Fr. Henriques, it is opportune to give a brief account of the Confraternity of Charity founded by him. Already before the migration of the Christians to Mannar in 1560, when he was still at Punnaikayal, Fr. Henriques had begun to gather once or twice a week, especially on Fridays, certain men who were eager to have a deeper knowledge of the truths of faith. In Mannar these people were so many, that they could not any longer find enough place in the house of the fathers. Also the women now wanted to be instructed in a similar way. The spiritual talks which he and the other fathers gave to these devout men and women, were considered by him as one of the chief means of improving the quality of the Christian life on the Fishery Coast. After the return of the Christians from Mannar, Fr. Henriques wanted to give a more stable form to these meetings, and wished to organize these devout men and women into a "Confraternity of Charity", because he wanted to have groups of fervent Christians in the various villages. The confraternity was "based on the love of God and the love of one's neighbour", and "was almost like a religious society for married people". The aim of the members of the Confraternity was to live good Christian lives and help others to do so. The men attended spiritual talks on Fridays, the women on Tuesdays. The members confessed and communicated several times in the year. According to the rules drawn up by Fr. Henriques in 1578, the members had to lead an exemplary Christian life, strive for personal perfection, and help the brethren in need, especially the dying and the sick who were poor or abandoned. In fact they established some small hospitals in some of the villages, and saw to the needs of these hospitals. In times of pestilence several of them took up the work of nursing the sick. They also helped in settling quarrels.

Fr. Henriques died at Punnaikayal on 6 February 1600 after more than fifty years of painstaking and sacrificing work on the coast. In spite of initial difficulties, he learned Tamil, composed a grammar and a dictionary of that language, and wrote several other works, some of which were printed during his life time. The Christians of the Fishery Coast, of course, venerated him almost as a saint. What is more surprising is to hear of the great respect which the Hindus and the Muslims of the nearby villages had for him. When he died, the Muslims of Kayalpatnam fasted for a day, while the Hindus of the nearby places declared a two days' fast in his honour, and closed all the shops as a sign of respect.

2) The XVIIth century

According to the annual letter of 1600, the Fishery Coast had by then several rich and beautiful churches, made of stone, and covered with tiles.

There were now twenty Jesuits (17 fathers, 2 brothers and 1 scholastic) distributed in seven residences on the coast. They looked after 22 churches, 16 of which were on the coast. The rest were in the interior and in Mannar. In Tuticorin the bishop of Cochin had one of his vicars and two beneficiaries, besides the Jesuits. On Sundays there were sermons at each mass. These Sunday instructions were meant especially for the men. On Saturdays there was a special instruction for the women. Catechism was taught in Tamil every day, in the morning to the girls and in the evening to the boys. From 1587 onwards there was a seminary attached to the "college" (school) of Tuticorin. Portuguese, Tamil, Latin, moral theology and chant were the subjects taught there. We know that in 1588-9 there were thirty students in this seminary, 22 of whom were studying Latin.

A very special effort was made in 1601 to give a chance to all the people of the coast to make their confession. Till then, this had not been possible because of the lack of a sufficient number of priests who knew Tamil, and because some of the fathers had been busy with other works. Six priests who knew Tamil started their mission at Punnaikayal. In 15 days they heard the confessions of more than a thousand persons. They were hearing the confessions of only those who had never been to confession for a long time. Most of the penitents made a general confession of their whole lives. The priests also went to all the other villages, doing the same thing. At the end of this mission one could say that finally all the Christians of the Pearl Fishery Coast had received the sacrament of penance.

Christianity was also spreading to some of the villages in the interior and to the villages of the Marava coast. By 1602 there were five churches and 2,400 Christians in the interior. The village of Tirupalakudi on the Marava coast was almost entirely Christian.

As can be gathered from what has been stated above, the seventeenth century opened on a very promising note for the Pearl Fishery Coast. The years which followed, however, did not correspond to the earlier ones.
Deplorable controversies (even jurisdictional controversies) and fights marred the peace and prosperity of the coast during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Pearl Fishing, for more than 30 years after 1604 was a failure, hence the Christians were not able to pay their taxes, which led the ruler in Tuticorin to pillage churches and many houses.

There was even a time when civil war broke out between the paravas. Famine too showed its ugly face, taking, once, the life of 1500 people in Tuticorin alone.

In 1658, the Dutch arrived and drove the Portuguese out of Tuticorin. They endeavored to make the paravas embraced the reformed religion, but in vain, thanks to the solid work done by the Jesuit priests earlier.

By the end of the century, there were only five Jesuit fathers in the whole of the Pearl Fishery Coast. The Christian had become so poor, that it was with great difficulty that they maintained even these few priests.

(From History of Christianity in India, Bengalore, 1982, vol. II (1542 -1700), pp. 163 -184. The numerous footnotes have been omitted for reason of space.)

Indian and Asian priests

Priests' Retreat in India, in January 2002,
by Fr. Joseph Pfeiffer, SSPX

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