The involvement of the Augustinians in Calcutta grew out of their ministry in the surrounding area of Bengal. Christianity came to Bengal initially with the Portuguese in the 16th century. This initially was with the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), but it was the Augustinians who were responsible for the major part of Christian activity. The Augustinians established a monastery at Hughli in 1599, from where they reached out to other centres, including Dhaka (now within Bangladesh, as the capital city of that nation). By about 1630 there were 7,000 Christians at Hughli, consisting of Portuguese, their Eurasian descendants, and converted slaves. Their monastery was destroyed when Shahjahan attacked Hughli in 1632, but the Augustinians were subsequently allowed to resettle at Bandel, where they built a church which still survives.
Europeans living at Hughli were considered the dregs of European society in Asia: deserters from the Portuguese army, escaped criminals, fortune-hunters seeking rapid wealth, pirates or persons willing to be hired as mercenary soldiers. This isolated and distant area was beyond the reach of effective Portuguese control. Two other religious Orders - the Dominicans and Jesuits - had both previously ministered there, but had withdrawn in a sense of futility. In 1599, the Augustinians came, and managed to make a degree of positive impact on the situation. They did, however, write about the difficulty of the task, and its unpromising prospects. As well as the proportion of Europeans who did not want any Christian ministrations, there was a significant Moslem population who at best were neutral towards the Augustinians. Furthermore, any access to especially the higher Hindu castes was almost impossible.
Most of the work of the Augustinians was focused on Europeans and captured slaves brought to the area by raiding parties based in Hughli. Within a few years the Augustinians reported 7,000 converts to Christianity, consisting mainly of captured slaves. The position of the slaves, and also their degree of strength of the Christianity they came to profess, were often both precarious. The Portuguese had been able to settle at Chittagong in the 16th century under the auspices of the King of Arakan. The Augustinians established themselves there in 1621, and baptized thousands who had been captured in the piratical raids in the Ganges delta area. Later in the 17th century Nagari became an important centre, following the conversion of about 20,000 mainly low-caste Hindus by Antonio de Rozario, son of the raja of Bhushna (Jessore), who himself was converted to Christianity. By the 1690s there were thirteen Augustinian churches in Bengal, but the majority of Christians received only rudimentary instruction and tended to migrate to new centers as they rose in importance – including the English settlement at Kolkata from 1690, where the Augustinians built a chapel. In 1690 Charnock founded Calcutta. Portuguese from Hugli settled in the new town. What appears below is not purported to be a balanced history of the church in Calcutta generally. They built a small church there that was served by Augustinian priests. In 1799 this small building was replaced by the beautiful church dedicated to Our Blessed Lady of the Rosary, which is used today as the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, commonly known as the Portuguese Church, in Kolkata, is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta. (See photo above.) It is also known as the known as the Murgihata Church. It was begun in 1799.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1910 edition) stated, "The Augustinians of Bengal have been severely criticized by Protestant travellers, and, it must be granted, not without foundation. It can cause no surprise if in some cases the conduct of poorly trained priests who were sent into the country, far from any spiritual help or control, should not always have been exemplary. Besides, they were living in the middle of pagan, Mohammedan, and Christian corruption. The defect lay in the way they were recruited. The Augustinians of Goa refused all candidates of native or mixed origin, and were therefore compelled to accept all European candidates, however unfit. As the supply was not equal to the demand, the training was necessarily short. Even so, Catholic communities had to remain without a priest for many years. The Augustinian superiors of Lisbon did not approve of such a policy.”
“They pointed out that it was much better to select the best of the native candidates than to accept indiscriminately the young men seeking adventure or refuge, whose families had sent to India to get rid of them. These superiors and the King of Portugal himself, in virtue of his right of patronage, threatened more than once to recall the Augustinians from Bengal. At the end of the eighteenth century there were Augustinians in Calcutta and Bandel only. Elsewhere the Catholics were attended by clerics from Goa. The condition of the 25,000 Catholics then living in the eleven parishes of Bengal may he summed up in two words: ignorance and corruption."
(Continued on the next page.)Photo GalleryFor the Augnet photo gallery on the Augustinian Vicariate of India (including Goa), click here.