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"Since the Franciscans first attempted the Christianization of Bombay Island some four hundred years ago, the church in this foremost city and Archdiocese of India, has grown and developed to such an extent that today it forms, if not numerically then in influence, one of the most important bodies of Catholics in this sub-continent. Moreover, the Catholics of Bombay are progressive, well informed, fervent, generous. Vocations, both religious and priestly, abound so that at present almost all the Parishes and institutions are staffed by Indians. Last, but not least, Bombay is the see of India's first Cardinal, Valerian Cardinal Gracias."

"Organization of the Franciscans in India"

Talking of the "Period of Exploration (1500-1518)". The author states "We have called this period a period of exploration since the Franciscans as yet were not aware of the problems that would beset them and consequently were forced to explore the situation. Many of them had been led to believe that beyond the sea-board, great stretches of the country were populated by Christians anxiously awaiting liberation from their Mohamedan overlords or that the Gentiles were impatiently waiting for redemption from sin through their hands, They were soon disillusioned and then it was a groping in the dark, a peering into the future, an evaluating of conditions and possibilities, a discussing of where to establish centers and erect Churches and Friaries. No wonder then that we fail to discover any organization in the canonical sense of the word.

The number of Friars who came out during the first period (1500- 1518), also during the following period, has in general been grossly exaggerated. The consequence has been that authors have borrowed Friars from one period and fitted them somehow into another or that the date the Friars commenced Mission work in certain areas, has been considerably ante-dated, or that at times they have been blamed for not having accepted certain assignment, whereas they simply couldn't for lack of personnel. This has also happened as far as the Friars of Bombay are concerned. It is for this reason that we begin our history of the Franciscans in Bombay with a discussion of the organization of the Friars in India. "

"In order to prove our statement as to the number of Franciscans during this period, we have compiled a list of names and numbers, chiefly from documents, collected and edited by Silva-Rego and others."

"Most documents pertaining to the first era of the Portuguese power in India, and preserved in public archives and libraries, have been carefully studied and edited. As far as Franciscan archives are concerned, we must admit that there are hardly any documents pertaining to India in them. All the letters the Friars wrote to their Provincials in Portugal were destroyed when St. Francis' Friary in Lisbon was burnt down, the fatal night of the earthquake, 1st November 1755. The documents, which were preserved in the Generalate at Rome, too have perished, chiefly when the Ara Coeli Friary was looted during the various Roman risings and finally destroyed during and after the Garibaldi revolution. The documents, which had been kept in the various monasteries in India, were confiscated by the Portuguese Government in 1835. Of these some disappeared into private hands, others through neglect became a total loss, others finally found a place in the Public Archives of Goa.

Now if we count up the number of Friars, we will notice that they hardly reached the total of twenty at any one time. They were then organized neither into a Commissariat nor into a Custody; they came out "soltos" or "loose", as they express it in contemporary documents.

Naturally the Friars must have discussed the future and the question of having Friaries in India must have come up. After the first reports were sent to Portugal, the provincial may even have suggested or given orders to explore possibilities.

However during this first period, not a single Friary was constructed.

The actual building of St. Francis Friary, Goa took place at the earliest at the end of 1518. In any case the Friars must have realized already during the first decade, that they had come for good, that therefore they should seek permanent establishments and organize themselves in a more cononical fashion.

"Saints And Martyrs"

"The Church of God, and each unit of that Church, whether Diocese or Religious Order, love to point to their Saints and Martyrs, whether these heroes formed part and parcel of their organization or they but shone for a brief period in the environment. The Archdiocese of Bombay, like all the great dioceses in the world, has seen Saints and Martyrs within her boundaries either as visitors and Preachers of the Gospel or merely to end their earthly career in glorious martyrdom. There are even some who can claim that their birthplace lay within what is now known as the Archdiocese of Bombay.

The Franciscan Order has the proud privilege of having in this sense given a number of Saints and Martyrs to the Church of Bombay. This episode forms one of the most glorious pages in the history of the Friars in Bombay. It is for this reason that we begin this account of their activities by sketching the lives of these Saints and Martyrs.

Blessed Thomas of Tolentino, Fr. James of Pauda, Fr. Peter of Siena, a Cleric and Br. Dementrius of Titlis.'

Martyred at Thana, 9th and 11th, April 1321."

The artistically done stained glasses in Good Counsel Church, Sion portray the martyrdom of these martyrs.

A little historic information on the above martyrs will not be out of place. The author reports: "These four Friars had embarked at Ormuz for Quilon whence they would either make their way cross-country to Mylapore and there seek passage to China or sail to Ceylon and thence on to their destination farther East. However against their will the master of the ship took them to Thana. Here they were hospitably received by a Nestorian Family. The Khazi however came to know of their arrival. They were summoned to appear before him. A religious discussion ensued in which Blessed Thomas and Fr. James took part, Br. Demetrius acting as interpreter. Friar Peter had remained behind. In a positive manner the Friars explained the Catholic doctrine, but when the Khazi and his partisans felt that they were losing the argument, they concerned by demanding that the Friars say what they thought of Mohammed. This they eventually did in no uncertain terms. Thereupon they were put to death, on the 9th of April, 1321. Two days later Fr. Peter of Siena was discovered and he too martyred."

We are familiar with St. Gonzalo Garcia O.F.M. who was martyred at Nagasaki (Japan) on 5th February 1597, and being an Indian and a Franciscan Friar, the saint deserves a life sketch for the benefit of readers. The author reports: "On the day of the Martyrdom, Gonzalo Garcia was forty years old. This means that he was born, either towards the end of 1556 or in the beginning of 1557."

"He was born in Bassein, and in his own words was "the son of a Portuguese gentleman and a lady of that place. For fifteen or sixteen years he lived with his parents at Bassein. During that period he was a pupil of the Jesuit school, and it was probably shortly after 1568 that the first seeds of a religious vocation were planted in his soul by Fr. Sebastian Gonsalves."

"According to several authors, Gonzalo Garcia went to Japan when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, in 1572 or 1573." During the next eight years, he asked repeatedly to be admitted into the Jesuit Order, and if it had dependent on Fr. Sebastian Gonsalves, his request would not doubt have been granted. But it so happened, that for reason unknown to us, his request was not granted by the Superiors; at last after eight years of weary waiting, Gonzalo Garcia made up his mind to join Franciscan Fathers.

During his stay in Franciscan Monastery in Manila, Brother Gonzalo Garcia's services were employed in the kitchen and dining room. He also had to do the shopping, and became quite a familiar figure in the Manila bazaar, though the merchants did not consider him a good customer; the Franciscan Fathers fasted frequently and they lived sparingly. While going about on his lawful occasions, Brother Gonzalo Garcia came into contact with the Japanese of whom there were many at Manila. He visited them when they lay sick in the hospital, and before long the members of the Japanese community came to know him rather well; for one thing he spoke their language rather fluently, having spent eight years in Japan.

In this manner Providence was preparing the way, which would ultimately lead to glorious martyrdom. When the Manila Franciscans thought of opening a mission in Japan, Brother Gonzalo Garcia was appointed to accompany Father Pedro Baptista. In 1591 Brother Gonzalo Garcia sailed from Manila to Japan.

At first Brother Gonzalo Garcia was the official interpreter of his superior, but in course of time he became the official "contractor" of the mission. This means that his services were required in the building of Franciscan Churches in Meaco and Osaka, convents and one or the other hospital for the lepers.

This last phase of his humble useful life did not last long. When the persecution broke out in Japan, Brother Gonzalo Garcia together with five other Franciscans, seventeen layman, and three Jesuits were arrested and condemned to death. He was crucified on the wind-swept hill overlooking Nagasaki and won the Martyr's crown on February 5th 1597.

He, together with his companions, was canonized by his Holiness Pope Pius IX, the 8th of June 1862.

"The coming of Franciscans to Bombay"

The author writes : "Only after they had established themselves in Bassein and Salsette did the Franciscans venture on Bombay-island."

When the Portuguese took possession of Bombay, the seven small islands out of which it had formed had by then partly coalesced. Colaba and Al-Omanis still remained to the South separated by narrow channels. But between the islands of Bombay, Mazagoan and Parel the creeks had silted up. A broad but shallow lagoon occupied the center, invaded by higher tides. But for the most part consisting of salty marsh. The sea flowed in by a narrow channel between Mahim and Worli, while the deep gulf between Mahim and Sion, while the deep gulf at Breach Kandy was the only one which always required passage by boat.

This "seven-island kingdom" as some authors wish to call it thus identifying it with the Heptanesia of Ptolemy, was not thickly populated. The inhabitants with the exception of some Mohammedans at Mahim, were mostly Hindus of the Kolis and the Bhandari castes, agriculturists, toddy tappers, gardeners, fishermen.

In the course of the 16th and the 17th centuries, the Franciscans established or are said to have established several Churches and Chapels in Bombay. They are:
  1. Church of O.L. of Expectation (N.S. da Esperanca) in Bombay-Island proper dating back to 1570 though there has been some difference of opinion on the matter, it seems certain after Hull's studies and calculation, that the church of O.L. of Expectation stood more or less in the center of the present Victoria Terminus. This is the church where the Fransiscans administered upto 1720, the year they were expelled from Bombay.
  2. Church of St. Micheal, Mahim
  3. Church of O.L. of Glory, Mazagaon.
  4. Church of O.L. of Salvation, Dadar.
  5. The Parel Chapel
  6. Chapel of O.L. of Good Counsel, Sion.
  7. Chapel of O.L. of the Mount, Mazagaon Hill or St. Bernadines?

"The Expulsion of the Franciscan From Bombay"

The discord between the Portuguese (the Friars were Portuguese) and the English is highlighted through this example.

An instance where the Friars seem to have voiced their protests and opinions rather loudly, occurred in 1676. The Portuguese had chased a Malabarian vessel. It had fled to and received shelter at Bombay. The Portuguese demanded that it be handed over to them. The Friars sided with them and their attitude became known to the English.

A decision was taken by the English on the basis of such incidents that the Franciscans would remain expelled.

"The Return of the Franciscans to Bombay"

The author reports : "When Charles Boone, Commander General of the island and Castle of Bombay, the 13th of May 1720, signed the order expelling the Portuguese Franciscans, he could hardly have foreseen that Friars of his own nation would be the instruments in the hands of Divine Providence to re-establish the Order in Bombay. But thus it came about.

In 1925 the Franciscans of the ancient "Provincia Angliae" arrived in India. For three years they worked in Hyderabad, Deccan.

In 1928 a new ecclesiastical unit with headquarters at Bellary was formed, consisting of undeveloped portions of the Archdiocese of Madras and the diocese of Hyderabad entrusted to them. The Catholics in this area numbered only a few thousands. It was therefore just a territory where priests and missionaries were needed, where there was scope for real zeal and a spirit of sacrifice. However, there was one great drawback. The few Catholics who inhabited these regions, were not of those classes, whence vocations to the priesthood and religious life are ordinarily drawn. Therefore almost from the beginning, the Franciscans of Bellary were obliged to look outside the limits of their territory for Indian vocations.

Very early they let their eyes fall on Bombay. Bombay possessed a large and excellent body of Catholics and vocations were numerous. Moreover Bombay was the port the Friars disembarked and where they had to transact a certain amount of business. At the same time there was a great deal of work available in the line of Triduums, Novenas, Missions, Retreats and special sermons. It was now a question of awaiting an opportunity to make the request. This opportunity came in 1943. The war was on and the number of English speaking people, chiefly army and navy personnel, had increased to such an extent that there was real need for another English priest. Dr. T. Roberts S.J., Archbishop pf Bombay, was therefore willing to have one of the English friars in Bombay. Fr. Fidelis McGee was appointed and since he was a Tamil scholar as well, he would also be able to look after the Madressee Community. Thus it came about that Fr. Fidelis was attached to the Holy Name Pro-Cathedral.

But the purpose of his coming was ultimately to establish a Franciscan Friary. In the course of 1943-1944, Archbishop Roberts offered the Friars the choice of three places : Byculla, Chembur, Sion. It was decided to accept Byculla with a view of setting up a new Parish there. In February, 1945, Fr. Fidelis took up residence in the compound of St. Anthony's Home, Bellasis Road. He would act as Chaplain to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who maintain an orphanage and a school. At the same time he would look after a portion of St. Anne's Parish. The Mother General F.M.M was so kind as to permit the Convent Chapel to be used on Sundays and holidays and for all parochial functions. We must add that the Sisters agreed to board and lodge the Friars free of charge.

Since Fr. Fidelis, after having served in India for twelve years, was due to go on leave. Fr. Egbert Barnes was appointed to Byculla in August 1945. Besides looking after the Parish, one or two neighboring Hospitals and the Chaplaincy, invitations from the local clergy were received to preach special sermons. Triduums, even Novenas. No wonder that his health broke down and that in 1948, he was replaced by Fr. Damian Brady.

For some time it had become evident that it would not be possible to find a Parish and residence in Byculla. Not only was it difficult to find a suitable plot, but above all the price was prohibitive. A proposal was then made that the Friars should take over St. Ignatius', Jacob Circle. Again difficulties, financial and otherwise, came in the way, so that this idea too had to be dropped.

In the meantime Archbishop, now Cardinal, Gracias, had taken over the Government of the Archdiocese of Bombay. It was His Grace who kindly allowed the Friars to review their original choice and apply for Sion. Sion up to then had only been a chapel at ease, dependent on St. Michael's Mahim. His Grace separated it from Mahim, constituted it into an independent Parish and entrusted it to the Franciscans.

In June 1949 Fr. Damian Brady was transferred from Byculla to Sion and was soon joined by Fr. Bonaventure Davis. Some time later, two more Fathers were added : Fr. Anthony Richards and Fr. Gratian McEvoy. In 1951 Fr. Damian left India to take up the Directorship of the Franciscan Missionary Union at London.

The Residence of Sion constituted of two rooms, which had to serve as quarters for the Fathers, refectory, library, Parish and school Office. The school too was badly housed. Part of it functioned in the Church, part in a dilapidated shed. It was therefore necessary that the Friars build. A loan was obtained, the Residence extended and part of the new school premises erected.

When the Bishop of Bellary, Dr. John Hogan O.F.M., came to Bombay for the grandiose reception of India's first Cardinal , H.E Valerian Gracias, it was decided that since the residence had been completed, another Father could be appointed to Sion. Fr. Egbert, who had worked at Byculla a number of years, was named the new Superior and took possession both as Guardian and Parish-Priest on the 11th, of March 1953. Thus the present community (1957) consists if Frs. Egbet, Bonaventure, Anthony and Gratian.

The Parish of O.L. of Good Counsel, Sion, consists of about a thousand Parishioners. One Priest, who receives periodical help from one of the other Fathers, is sufficient to perform all the duties necessary for the well-functioning of the Parish. The other Friars are occupied with special work, such as preaching of Missions, Retreats, Triduums, special sermons, conferences for Sisters. To illustrate this latter apostolate of the Bombay Franciscans, a rough summary of the work done in the 16 month period during 1955-1956 shows that the Friars preached 41 retreats, 72 special sermons, 8 missions, 11 novenas and triduums, 6 days of recollection, besides a regular series of monthly conferences to various congregations of nuns in Bombay.

As far as the school is concerned, it had grown to such an extent that it was necessary to extend it still further. Another storey was added this year(1957) and within a few year it will have developed into a full-fledged High School.

The Franciscans returned to Bombay. Their forebears, the founders of the Church of Bombay island, worked for the salvation and sanctification of many. The present generation no less are working for the same purpose. That God is blessing their efforts and labours is apparent from the fact that by their example and preaching they have attracted a dozen young men to the Order, thus showing that the hopes they entertained, when settling in Bombay, have been realized.
     


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