Bandel, West Bengal
The Bengal region of India and the large city of Calcutta are in eastern coastal India, where today India borders with Bangladesh. What appears below is their story, and not purported to be a general history of the church in Bengal. Augustinians from Portugal served on both sides of that present-day boundary from 1599 until about the year 1867. They built the Church of Nostra Senhora do Rosary (Our Lady of the Rosary) at Bandel, about 40 kilometres from Calcutta, India. It is one of the few churches built during the seventeenth century by the Portuguese Augustinians in the Asian area that is still in use. It is the oldest Catholic church in Bengal. The Vatican issued a decree on 25 November 1988 that granted the status of Minor Basilica to this church.
From 1517 onwards, Portuguese merchants from Goa used the sea route to Bengal but, because of the power of the local rulers, had not yet been able to establish trading posts in this part of India. These Portuguese traders did not live in Bengal, but held their ships there with the arrival of the monsoon at the end of May, and then in October sailed back to Cochin on the western coast of India. Most historians agree that in 1537 Admiral Sampayo entered the Hoogly River in Bengal with nine Portuguese vessels to support Mahmud Shah, the Pathan Nawab of Gaur. Being hard pressed by the famous Sher Khan, Mahmud Shah had asked the Portuguese representative in Goa for assistance. As a reward for their efforts the Nawab allowed the Portuguese to set up a factory and a customs house at Satgaon, (near the Hugli, or Hooghly, in the State of West Bengal, India) and a second customs post at Chittagong (in present-day Bangladesh).
During the 1570s a certain Captain Pedro Tavares was a favourite of Akbar, the great Mogul emperor then residing in Agra. Tavares obtained from the Mogul some very important concessions for the Portuguese. The Portuguese were to be allowed to build a town on the Hoogly River. They received permission there to preach the Christian faith publicly, to erect churches, to send for priests and to baptize any local people who might wish to become Christian. Hugli, a port on the banks of the Hoogly River, became a centre of trade and commerce. (It is forty miles from the city of Calcutta.) The Portuguese merchants and settlers soon flocked to it. To protect their interests there, the Portuguese built a fort.
The Augustinians arrive
The first Christians in the Bengal region of eastern India were the Portuguese themselves. After their intermarriage with local women, their descendants became the first indigenous Christians. Then came the local converts to the Christian religion from both Hinduism and Islam. By the year 1598 the number of Catholics in Hugli was five thousand, of Portuguese, native, or mixed origin. Initially no regular provision had been made for the supply of priests and the building of churches throughout Bengal. Hugli alone had a church and a parish priest. Elsewhere in Bengal, Catholics had to depend for spiritual ministrations on any priest who happened to be travelling through the country. Originally, all Catholics in Bengal were under the jurisdiction of church in Goa, far away on the eastern coast of India.
They then became part of the Diocese of Cochin (not much closer) when it was erected in 1557. In 1599 all of Bengal was entrusted to the Augustinians who were stationed in Goa. They sent five priests and took possession on any churches already there. In 1599 the first Augustinian community was established at Bandel, a village under two kilometres (one mile) from the factory at Hugli. In a short time two additional churches were built within the limits of the factory area. A military chapel was also added to the Bandel fort, and an alms house under the title of 'Santa Casa da Misericordia’ - the Holy House of Mercy - , which provided help to the poor, was also used as a school. A few years afterwards the Augustinians were established in Angelim (Hidgelee), Tambolim (Tumlook), and Pipli.
In 1625 there was a terrible famine at Bandel, followed by a plague. (Plagues were not uncommon.) Two Augustinians died there while serving the sick. The barbarous warfare of the Portuguese of Chittagong brought about the ruin of Hugli in 1632 by the Moguls. Eventually through a truce Christians were allowed to resettle in the area, not however in Hugli itself but only at Badness, just under two kilometres distant.
The Church at Bandel
Bandel thus became a Christian focal point, and has remained somewhat so right to the present time. By the year 1650 the Christian community around Bandel numbered nearly 10,000, and it was a thriving centre of commerce. At Bandel in 1660 the Augustinians built the substantial Church of Nuestra Senior do Rosary (Our Lady of the Rosary), which is still in service today (see church photo above). Their Augustinian priory in Bandel was dedicated in honour of the Augustinian saint, Nicholas of Tolentino. The Augustinian Order gave up its charge of Bengal in 1867, and local secular priests took their place. The last Augustinian in Bandel died there on 12 November 1869.
Italian (and later Indian) members of the Salesian Fathers took over at Bandel. The people continued to refer to the Salesian priest in charge by the term, "Prior", a word they had correctly been used previously for the leader of the Augustinian community. Although not part of Salesian terminology, the usage of the Augustinian title of Prior has endured at Bandel for the Salesians serving there right to the present time. Several Priors submitted petitions to the Holy See in recent decades to have the Shrine elevated to a Minor Basilica. The Vatican did not grant the requests considering the poor condition of the building and the lack of Catholic population at Bandel. Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta personally visited the Vatican and moved the Holy See to finally elevate Bandel shrine to a Minor Basilica. The official decree is dated 25 November 1988.
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