History of Evangelical Works of Missionaries in Puducherry
P.CHARLES CHRISTOPHER RAJ
M.A., M.Phil. M.I.M., M.L.I.S.C., M.C.A., B.Ed.,P.G.D.T.A.,
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR of HISTORY
DEPARTMENT OF HISTORICAL STUDIES
KASTHURBA COLLEGE FOR WOMEN
VILLIANUR, PUDUCHERRY 605 110
Puducherry Mission has a hoary history of 356 years.
But this history, like any other
history is not built up with dead wood, but with the flesh and blood of the missionaries, who
toiled and worked, did not cow down under pain and suffering, met with opposition and refusal,
did not back down from sacrifice, fasting and prayer.
Christian missionaries in India reached areas hitherto inaccessible to most of the civilized
people and there, braving all sorts of hardships and sufferings had brought the benefits of
civilization to the most backward and illiterate people. This paper tries to trace out the evangelical
activities by the missionaries in Puducherry.
Puducherry is bounded by the Bay of Bengal on the east and by South Arcot district on
the other sides, it is irregular boundary winding in and out of the district in a complicated manner.
The Union Territory of Puducherry comprises four regions viz., Puducherry, Karaikal, Mahe and
Yanam. Puducherry and Karaikal located on the east coast of Tamil Nadu have an area of 293
sq.kms and 160 sq.kms respectively. Mahe, situated on the west coast, four miles of Tellicherry,
has an area of 9 sq.kms. Yanam lies on the eastern coast in the East Godavari district of
Andhra State, and has an area of 30 sq.kms.
Puducherry is 492 sq.kms1.
The total area of the Union Territory of
First Missionaries to India :
Tradition says that Christianity on the Malabar coast of India originated with
St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. St. Thomas is supposed to have landed at
Cranganore in about 52, preached the Gospel to people and organised Christian communities in
several places and established seven churches. St. Thomas being a first missionary he worked for
nearly 20 years and was murdered at Mylapore 2.
As San Thome, Mylapore which was named after the arrival of the missionary of
St.Thomas, became an important commercial centre for the Portuguese on the Coromondel Coast,
it was but natural that it became the seat of missionary activities. With the Portuguese merchants
and seamen, there were priests and religious in the region with a Bishop in 1606. In fact Pope
Paul V erected Mylapore as a diocese on 9 th June 1606 under the Archdiocese of Goa. The first
Bishop was Dom Sebastio de Sanctuary Pedro of the Order of St. Augustine 3
Xavier was the first Jesuit priest to arrive in India. He landed in Goa, alone on 6 th May 1542 just
two years after the canonical erection of the Society of Jesus.
were very much limited.
In North Tamilnadu, his activities
He just made a passing visit to San Thome and Nagapattinam.
Memories, traditions and miracles are attributed to his presence in these places. At Puducherry
he was in Upallam which keeps a vague remembrance of his stay and his abode called as
‘Saveriar Cherry’. It was during a storm at sea while travelling from Nagapattinam to SanThome
he would have landed at Upallam, a small fishing village at Puducherry 4. With the advent of
these saints as missionaries Puducherry mission grew up like a banyan tree and they should be
applaud at all times.
Beginning of the Missionary activities in Puducherry :
The French came to India not only to gain commercial profits and, if possible,
political supremacy, but also to propagate their religion—Christianity.
Hence, like all other
Europeans who came to India after the fifteenth century, the French took up the propagation of
Christianity in all earnestness. Indeed, when Colbert formed the French East India Company in
1664, it was made obligatory on the part of the Company to propagate the Christian religion. By
Article XXX of the Royal Edict issued on August 27,1664 the company was enjoined to make
suitable arrangements for the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in all its territories.
Even before the establishment of the French settlements in India, the Capuchin Fathers visisted
Surat in 1639.
And they established themselves in Madras, in 1642.
At the invitation of
Francois Martin, who succeeded Belanger De Lespinay, the Capuchin fathers from Madras had
assumed the religious service in Puducherry5.
Capuchin missionaries at Puducherry :
Around the year 1673, the first missionaries arrived in Puducherry.
They were the
Capuchin Friars. Perhaps the missionaries were in two minds and were studying the attitudes of
For more than 12 years there was no Church in Puducherry and all the religious
ceremonies were performed in the house of the Capuchin Friars. And only in 1686 the Dubash
to the French Company by name Lazaro de Motto built the first Church and dedicated it to
It was known as L’Eglise des Malabares.
A few years later, the Capuchins built
themselves a convent and a chapel which was called L’Eglise des Capuchins or L’Eglise du Fort 6.
In 1707 they built a new church attached to the official Church St. Louis within the Fort where
tamil mass was performed. 30 years later second church known as Our Lady of Angels Church
was constructed where French mass was performed 7. This church in French was called Notre
Dame Des Anges, was planned by Louis Guerre and built in typical Roman Style by Lalande de
Calan and Vernian S’Maur the Governors of French Settlements in India.
opened in March 1855.
This church was
A large size oil portrait of Our Lady of Assumption presented by
Emperor Napoleon III, on August 15, 1863, is still preserved here 8. Hence, Capuchins took the
first place in evangelization of people at French Settlements. Gradually, this work was taken up
by the Jesuits.
Jesuits at Puducherry :
The French Jesuits who were expelled from Thailand in 1681 due to political revolution
took shelter at Puducherry. The Jesuit priests found a vast field open to their evangelical work.
In 1691, Rev. Fr .John de Britto put them in charge of the Malabares, a term then popularly and
erroneously used for the Indians.
And he entrusted the Capuchins with the spiritual welfare of
the Europeans and the Creoles. But the Jesuits had no Church to call their own they built a
church dedicated to Virgin Mary and called it as Notre Dame de la Conception 9.
However, the church was commonly called ‘Saint Paul’s Church. In Tamil, ‘San Pauol
Koil’ the pronunciation was distorted into ‘Samba Koil’ (this expression is used even today).
The reason for it is that the Jesuits were then known as Saint Paul’s Fathers or Paulists, owing to
their famous College of Santa Fe at Goa, which was inaugurated on the feast day of the
Conversion of St. Paul. That College was popularly known as ‘Saint Paul’s College’ 10.
The Jesuits started a small Boarding High School where they began to teach competently
various subjects such as Mathematics, Science, Navigation, Philosophy and Theology. In the
Parish, Fr. Dolu and mostly Fr. Turpin did great work at the beginning of the 18 th century. Yet
their ignorance of the Hindu customs prevented the development of these institutions. Due to
their excessive zeal for spreading Christianity, the Hindus became apathetic towards them. New
conversions were made almost everywhere 11.
The glorious days began to decline as the French Governor Dupleix was asked to return
Under his successors, the Carnatic war went on against the British. In 1761, the
British captured Puducherry. There came the natural end for the work of the Jesuits. When the
French power in India was ruined in Puducherry, the Jesuits were persecuted in Europe also
simultaneously. The Carnatic Mission felt the repercussion. The suppression of the Society of
Jesus in 1773 by Rome was a terrible blow for the already struggling and impoverished Carnatic
Mission and for the churches in the whole of South India. During the period between 1736 and
1761, the country was stained with blood because of the war between the British and the French.
Portugal suspended the Society of Jesus and recalled the missionary Jesuits of the Portuguese
origin. Many priests were arrested and deported to Portugal. Moreover in 1784, the Sultan of
Mysore, Tipu Sahib began to persecute the Christians. Many were killed and Catholics were
forcibly converted to Islam. In 1776, the situation was so bad that a missionary wrote “ A good
number of our Churches were deserted, the civil wars, the fall of Puducherry, the lack of
missionaries and poor income have been the causes of complete collapse of the churches. We are
in a state of distress”. Though the Church has survived the most awesome changes in the world’s
history. It will still survive many more of them. Its discipline is an example for an estimate of
all men and women Catholics were about 2,75,000, in South India and 10,000 Catholics were
there in Puducherry. 12
It was under these bad conditions the Society of Paris Foreign Missions usually called
M.E.P (MISSIONS ETRANGERES OF PARIS)
was called upon in 1776 to take care of the
Coromandel Coast Mission.
M.E.P Fathers at Puducherry:
A Roman decree was given on 30th September 1776 and the official letters of the
King of France, Louis XVI were dated 30th December 1776.
As these documents reached
Puducherry only in the middle of 1777, the official ‘registration’ by the upper council of the
Government of Puducherry of the taking over of the mission by Mgr. Briggot and the Society of
Paris Foreign Missions took place on 18th September, 1777 13.
French Mission House at Puducherry:
The M.E.P fathers intention was to develop the Apostolic Mission that was already done
by the Jesuits.
For this purpose they constructed a mission house in the year 1771 by name
Similar kind of this was at Siam established in the year 1666 but was
closed in 1767 due to an invasion from Burma. So Puducherry ‘College Generale’ became the
first of its kind and it acted as a base for the mission.
The Directors of the M.E.P bought a splendid piece of land at Virampatinam, near
Puducherry and constructed a college. In 1775 Pope Pius VI approved the College Generale of
Virampatinam and put it under the special care of the Holy See 14.
The first Rector was Fr. Pigneau de Behaine.
He remained as Rector till 1774 even
though he was nominated coadjutor of Cochin China already in 1771.
Due to insufficient
students in the Seminary it was closed in the year 1781. With the British attack in the year 1793
the Mission House was used as hospital for many years 15.
One can see even today the imposing ruins of the former seminary, in a delightful spot on
which the Romans had set up an “emporium” in older times. The enormous Roman bricks found
in the remains have been used for the building of the Seminary, a few of which are still seen in
the portico. The life in the Seminary was a studious as it was practical: “Everyday, the brothers
spent four hours in study and one hour in gardening, baking, etc.” And it was only in 1807 that
the Seminary of its kind was reopened at Penang. But there was a small seminary at Oulgaret
established by Fr. Magny which trained the first batch of Tamil Seminarians for the priesthood.
The first Puducherry priest was Fr. Thomas ordained in the ember days of Advent in 1788. The
second was Fr. Philip ordained on the octave of Epiphany 1789. Thereby the missionaries were
able to breed their kind gradually at Puducherry and other French settlements 16.
Education of Girls :
The training of the local clergy is the priority of M.E.P society.
It demanded the
education of youth in general, particulars of girls who will become mothers and as such, they
have an important role and influence on priestly vocation of local boys. In the year 1843, the
Administrator of Karaikal, Mgr. Bonnand, M.E.P, the Apostolic Vicar of Cormandal Coast, with
the help of Cluny sisters set up a Needle work centre.
Three schools were opened in 1844 and
three workrooms for Indians and Harijans, one orphanage for girls were opened 17.
Commitment to local Church and Adaptability :
One of the outstanding features of M.E.P was their commitment to local church.
training of indigenous clergy has been the priority of M.E.P missionaries.
They took keen
interest in all round development of the rural poor, especially in their faith formation. The
interest shown by M.E.P in fostering the indigenous culture and traditions are praise worthy.
They encouraged in promoting local vocation to priesthood and religious life. Their principles
were ‘Be good to the natives, protect them by every means possible. Inspire them with the love
of God and love of Mary18.
Catechical and Biblical Formation :
The M.E.P fathers took great interest in the Catechetical and Biblical formation of the
laity and religious.
The services were rendered by Fr. Becker as Diocesan promoter of
Catechetic, Catholic centre at Tindivanam and the services of Fr. Carof Andre in Tindivanam
Fr. Pennel Gerard, Fr. Roland, Fr. Rossinngol, Fr. Mahe Auguste, Fr. Cornu,
Fr. Dussaigne, Fr.Olivier, Fr.Legrand in this field are worth mentioning.
Their simple life style,
adaptability, contribution to Christian literature are exemplary.
They had been always
inspiration to the people of Puducherry19.
Fr. Carof Andre towards the youth and his tireless zeal in bringing back the lost sheep to
the fold, and his profound love towards the Christian youth, his service in the animation centre in
guiding the youth will ever be cherished.
His constant cry was ‘Give them Jesus, the world
Other Religious Congregation founded by M.E.P :
Amantes de la Croix – Lovers of the Cross founded by Mgr. Lambert de la Matte, one of
the first Vicars Apostolic in Thailand in 1667. Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of
Mary founded in Puducherry by Fr. Louis Savinien Dupuis M.E.P in 1840 where Fr. Dupuis was
the most honoured author and publisher of several books in tamil, nearly 35 religious books, 18
biographies, 6 story books, 5 dictionaries,6 tamil grammar. Under his incharge Mission Press was
established and a weekly Christian pamphlet called ‘Sarvaviyabi’ was brought out. Bon Secours,
St. Louis de Gonzague, a pious association founded in Puducherry by Fr. Ansaldo S.J., in 1775
was raised into a Religious Congregation by Mgr. Bonnand in 1858. Fr. Lehodey M.E.P was put
in-charge of the new Congregations21.
Statistics showing the gradual growth of Puducherry Mission** :
Status of the
From the statistics it is possible to estimate that M.E.P served the Diocese to which they
were sent and spent all their resources, in building churches, parishes, when they left the place
they left all to the native priests in the diocese. Native priests were trained by them to take up
the work started by them.
Many of the M.E.P fathers chose to work and die in the Diocese
where they were called upon to work.
A casual look at the cemetery of priests attached to
Puducherry Cathedral will testify it. They lived a simple and austere life without claiming any
special privileges. They took pains to learn the language of the people.
In the past there were
no such facilities as we have now. In spite of the draw backs they travelled by cycles, horses,
bullock carts to reach the parish and sub-stations. In short they are the ideal missionaries.
seems that M.E.P sends financial help to our Archdiocese even now. ‘Missionary Zeal’ of the
M.E.P should be a source of inspiration to all the Indian catholics 22.
Progress in the extension of the Kingdom of Our Lord has a price to be paid. During the years,
many good and active missionaries paid their efforts with their life and were called back to the Presence of
The people of Puducherry have great admiration for missionaries who did yeomen’s service for
the all round progress of this city of peace.
The missionaries spread out into the villages and did
dedicated service. Their service in all walks of life helped effect the social change, the results of which
are witness today23.
Henceforth, Puducherry which was under the Colonial rule of the French had experienced great
difference from colonizers of other nationalities like the Portuguese, the British, the Dutch and the Danes
for their missionaries identified themselves with the local population and nurtured the local customs,
manners and culture. They were one with the local people in their aspirations. They learned the language
of the people and made contributions to their development.
demeanour and conduct. They were ever ready to help the poor.
Footnotes and References
They were not supercilious in their
1. Ramasamy, History of Pondicherry,Puducherry 1986, p.1-2.
2. T.K. Joseph, Six St. Thomas Of South India,Delhi, 1955 p. 27.
3. Sampathkumar P.A and Andre Carof M.E.P,History of Pondicherry Mission: An
4.Clement Iswar, Diocese of Pondicherry – Cuddalore (A.D 1545-2000),Puducherry,2003,p.8-9.
5. Revue Historique de Pondicherry, Vol.II,1973,p.46.
6. Raja & Rita Nath Kesari,Glimpses of Pondicherry,Puducherry,2005,p.10-11.
7. Sampathkumar P.A and Andre Carof M.E.P,op.cit.,p.11
8. Ramasamy, op.cit.,p.200.
9. Raja & Rita Nath Kesari, op.cit.,p.10.
10. Sampathkumar P.A and Andre Carof M.E.P,op.cit.,p.13.
11. Ibid, p.14.
12. Ibid, p.18-24.
13. Ibid , p.30-33.
14. Ibid, p.28.
15.Jacob, History of Pondicherry Mission,Puducherry,1976,p.16.
17. Sampathkumar P.A and Andre Carof M.E.P,op.cit.,p.140-145.
18. Sampathkumar P.A and Maria Joseph.S ,(ed), Call to Asia, Missions Etrangeres de
Paris(MEP) 350 years service,Puducherry,2009.
21. Clement Iswar,op.cit.,p.126-129.
**--Consolidated the statistics from the books Clement Iswar, Diocese of Pondicherry –
Cuddalore (A.D 1545-2000),Puducherry,2003 and Jacob, History of Pondicherry
Mission,Puducherry,1976,p.16.also Supplement to the ORDO for the Ecceleisastical Province of
Pondicherry & Cuddalore,2010-11 August,Puducherry.
22. Sampathkumar P.A and Maria Joseph.S ,(ed), Souvenir on Call to Asia, Missions
Etrangeres de Paris(MEP) 350 years service,Puducherry,2009.
23. Mathew.K.S (ed), French in India and Indian Nationalism
(1700- 1963),Delhi, 1999, p.311.