Carmelite in India


The Carmelites
Carmelites take their name from Mount Carmel, a beautiful mountainous region in Palestine.  Palestine had belonged to the Philistines before it was conquered by Israelites.  The great Hebrew Prophet Elias was often to be seen on Mount Carmel - sometimes challenging the false prophets who were leading Israel astray, at other times, deeply immersed in prayer and the contemplation of the Divine.

In the seventh century, the Arabs occupied the Palestine, which had by then become the Holy land of the Christians.  European Christians were still allowed to make their regular pilgrimages and visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary and other holy places.  Later , however, the Turks occupied Palestine and the Holy Land and made things very difficult for the Christians, who felt themselves compelled to organize crusades in order to win back the Holy Land from the Turks.

After the first crusades had set up a European kingdom in the Holy Land, some of the crusaders decided to lay down their weapons and settle on the lovely slopes of Mount Carmel as hermits, and to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer in imitation of the prophet Elias and wage a spiritual battle against the powers of evil, instead of fighting other human beings.  They soon realized it would be better to form a community in which each could try to live for God Alone.  Around 1209, they requested and obtained from St. Albert, the Patriarch of Jerusalem a Rule of life.  Thus was born Carmelite Order.  It would eventually migrate to Western Europe and grow into the great Carmelite family.

Due to various crises, the first fervour of the religious declined so much that the Albertine Rule itself had to be mitigated in the 1430s. Almost immediately, reform movements appeared within the Carmelite family, even before the colossal attempts made by the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) to reform not only the Religious Order but the entire Church.  The most effective and lasting of these reforms was that led by Saints Teresa and John of the Cross.

Discalced Carmelites
In the sixteenth century, when many of the older Order were being reformed – either from within or from without because of the decrees of Trent – St. Teresa of Jesus, the great Spanish mystic, established her first cloistered Carmel at Avila in 1562.  She secured permission to extend the reform to the friars.  Providence gave her St. John of the Cross, another extraordinary mystic for the realization of this project.  The net result of their combined efforts was the foundation of the Discalced Carmelite Order in 1593.  These were mission- minded mystics with great aspirations for the universal salvation of mankind.  Their ideals inspired the Holy See to found the Italian congregation of Discalced Carmelites in 1600.  Several very ardent missionaries of this congregation, including Father Peter of the Mother of God, John of Jesus, moved and even urged the popes to establish a central office for organizing and giving direction to the missionary activities of the Church.  This was finally realized in 1622 when the offices of Propaganda were set up in 1622.

Missions in India
Even before the Propaganda had begun to function, there were Carmelites in the regions of present-day Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.  By 1620 the Carmelite missionaries had reached Goa and made a foundation there.  Such was their zeal and enthusiasm that even some of the Portuguese initially appreciated the non-Portuguese Carmelites more highly than they did, some of their own Portuguese missionaries. Later on however conflicts erupted between the Portuguese and the non- Portuguese missionaries because the Carmelites were being sent out on their mission by the newly established propaganda, which – to the Portuguese – appeared to be disregarding the older privileges of Portuguese patronage (Padroado).  In 1709, after about ninety years in Goa, the Carmelites missionaries had to leave everything they had in Goa and to flee in order to escape an arrest warrant sent by the king of Portugal ordering that Carmelites in Goa be deported to Portugal.  The Carmelites found place at Sunkery neat Karwar where they founded a mission.

The British, the Dutch and the French had begun competing with the Portuguese early in the seventeenth century.  Towards the end of the century, Portuguese power in India had greatly declined.  The Portuguese who had made considerable progress in evangelization in the sixteenth century, were unable to fulfill their commitments at the end of the seventeenth century, but were unwilling to give up their patronage rights.  Dioceses were left without bishops, parishes were left without pastors.  Yet Portugal objected to bishops being appointed by the Holy See.  The Holy See therefore used the ploy of calling its new prelates “apostolic vicars” and their jurisdictions, “apostolic vicariates”.

In North Karnataka
The Carmelites, entering Karnataka through Karwar, after escaping from the Portuguese established themselves at Sunkery in 1709 under British protection.  In this village they built a church and a mission from which eminent missionaries emerged.  Some of these were appointed vicars apostolic for the dioceses of Verapoly and Mumbai. Karwar in fact came under the jurisdiction of Mumbai quite early in the history of the mission, and British ships were willing to carry letters from Karwar to Mumbai for the missionaries.

From Sunkery the missionaries attended to needs of the faithful in neighbouring areas like Kumta and Ancola especially after the suppression of the Jesuits.

After Tippu Sultan destroyed the church in 1784, it was re-built by the Carmelite Father Francis Xavier of St. Anne, a Genoese who was appointed vicar apostolic of Verapoly in 1831.

In Kerala
In 1657, the St. Thomas’ Christians in Kerala, dissatisfied with the treatment meted out to them by the Portuguese requested the Holy See to send them Carmelites who were for the most part, non- Portuguese.  Thus it was that the Verapoly became the first apostolic vicariate to the entrusted to the Carmelites.  Since then seventeen Carmelites have been at the helm of the Verapoly church in Kerala for two and half centuries.

During the term of Msgr. Francis Xavier of St. Anne as vicar apostolic, there appear Indians who aspire to follow the Carmelite way of life.  Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara was one of these, whose efforts built up the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a congregation that is flourishing today.  Blessed Kuriakose, along with Fr. Beccaro OCD, founded the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel in 1866.  That same year, the same Fr. Leopaord Beccaro, with the help of Mother Elisua, founded the Congregation of Tereian Carmelites(CTC).

In 1874, the vicar apostolic Msgr. Leonardo Mellano inaugurated the Mnajummel monastery by a group of tertiaries.  These tertiaries would be joining the first order in less than a century and form the now thriving Manjummel Province.

Among other women who were keen in sharing the spirituality of St. Teresa, was Grace D’Lima who would eventually be the flounders of the congregation of the Sisters of St. Teresa in 1887.

Quilon was entrusted to the Carmelites in 1845.  Among the most eminent of the bishops of Quilon was the Swiss-born Msgr. Benziger, one of the great pioneers who opened the doors of the first Order to the sons of India.

In Maharashtra
Bombay had been gifted by the Portuguese to the British in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine Braganza to Charles, King of England.  It was fear of the Dutch who had an eye on Bombay that brought the English and the Portuguese into a temporary alliance. But soon the Portuguese clergy in Bombay became an occasion of alarm.  The British decided to expel them and so the Franciscans who had evangelized the region had to leave.  In 1720, the Carmelites were invited to see to the pastoral needs of the Catholics in Mumbai.  The vicars apostolic of Mumbai continued to be Carmelites for the hundred and thirty years that followed.

Fr. John Chrysostom of St. Joseph, a Tuscan Carmelite, is found in the middle of the nineteenth century in Pune, Hyderabad, Belgaum.  He died in Pisa in 1884.

In Gujarat
At Diu there was a residence founded by Fr. Leander in 1638, and dedicated to St. Joseph.  The mission seems to have been destroyed in an Arab invasion from Muscat in 1669.

In 1634 Carmelites had a residence in Surat that lasted till the middle of the eighteenth century.  Fr. Peter Paul of St. Francis was there in 1700 with one John of St. Mary. Fr. Philip of the Conception, a Neapolitan, who was in Surat in 1707 was sent to Delhi where he was followed in 1711 by Fr. Joseph Felix, a Lombard, whose mortal remains were laid to rest in a cemetery in Agra.Fr. Maurice, who had been in Mumbai, died in Surat in the Capuchin residence in1726.

Fr. Irenaeus of St. Teresa, Piedmontese, sent to Bombay in 1844, was for 5 years close to Ahmedabad (1855), in Quion(1858), finally in Mangalore (1868).  Fr. John Chrysostom of St. Joseph, Tuscan is found in the middle of the nineteenth century in Pune, Hyderabad, Belgaum.  He died in Pisa in 1884.

In Mangalore
The 1830s were a period of serious misunderstandings between Portugal and the Holy See. A candidate seems to have been designated for archbishopric of Goa without the approval of the Holy See.  The Catholics of Kanara were therefore placed under the jurisdiction of Verapoly.  The faithful in Mangalore, experiencing the inconvenience of such an arrangement, petitioned the Holy See to make Mangalore an independent diocese.  This was done in 1845, initially on a temporary basis.  The first three vicars apostolic of Mangalore in the nineteenth century were Carmelites (1845-1873)

The third bishop of Mangalore, Msgr. Marie Ephrem, had earlier met Sister Veronica, a convert from Anglicanism who laid the foundations in 1868 of the Apostolic Carmel as well as the congregation of Carmelite Religious. Msgr. Marie Ephrem, moreover wanted the Cloistered Carmel in his diocese.  After Pondicherry, where the cloistered Carmel had been introduced by a French Jesuit in the eighteenth century, and which had been attached to the French Carmel in the mid-nineteenth century, the Kankanady Carmel in Mangalore is the first of its kind in India.

Into the Twentieth Century
The extraordinarily rich flowering of the Carmelite charism in different parts of India that we have been attempting to sketch, all took place before the Carmelite First Order was actually transplanted to Indian soil. In a very peculiar sense, quite different from that of the Gospel, the first came last.  The above mentioned vicars apostolic, bishops and missionaries belonged to what is known as the first order.  Being missionaries they were often exempt from regular religious observance. Nor did anyone think of admitting Indian natives into European religious orders in those days – an attitude that is perfectly understandable.

A certain Fr. Vincent, one of the early members of the Goa community, after referring to the rules and practices of Jesuits and Capuchins, raises the question in a letter written to Rome in 1624: “.. I do not know whether it is fitting to close the doors to all without distinction seeing that God has no respect for person.”

The Indians could be only tertiaries.  Thus we find Carmelite tertiatries in Goa in the eighteenth century, and in Kerala, in the nineteenth.

When Msgr. Marie Ephrem was bishop of Quilon he did start a novitiate of the first order in the 1860s.  Another attempt was made in Quilon about twenty years later.  Both attempts were failures for some reason or other.

Indian Carmelites
It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that thanks to the initiatives of men like Father Benziger, that Carmelite houses of regular observance and novitiates were opened to recruit and receive Indians and form them for the Carmelite charism and way of life.

Born into a rich Swiss family, the young Benziger gave up all worldly ambitions and entered Carmel in the Belgian province.  Sent out to India, he was a professor in a seminary in Kerala when the apostolic delegate to India met him and took him away as secretary.  He accompanied Msgr.  Zaleki everywhere and saw for himself how Indians functioned in the religious communities of other congregations.  He became a champion of the Indian cause and later used all his influence to introduce to the first order into India and promote the admission of Indians.  He wrote vigorous letters to the Definitory General: his ideas reached his Belgian superiors; they were re –inforced by suggestions from Msgr. Zaleski; and finally the chapter of the Belgian province decided to the necessary action. 

Finally, on 19th March 1902, the first house of regular observance and novitiate of the ‘first order’ were blessed at Cotton Hill in Trivandrum.  Cotton Hill was re-named Carmel Hill. 

In this novitiate were formed candidates not only from Kerala but also from Tamilnadu and from faraway Goa.  By 1937, the number of houses and members in the region was sufficient for establishing the first Indian semi province destined to become a province in the course of time. 

The following year, 1938, was the third centenary of the glorious martyrdom of Blessed Denis and Redemptus, who had started their journey to Sumatra from Goa.  Msgr. Benziger, in his old age, personally met the archbishop of Goa and secured permission for  a foundation in Goa.  This was realized in a couple of years.  By  1947, the Belgians had already made arrangements for a foundation in Mangalore.  That was the year of Indian independence and they had to take into account, the fast changing political situation. 

In the mid-fifties, the Manjummel Carmelite Tertiaries requested admission into the first Order.  They were not only granted this request but were set up into an autonomous unit in 1964.  By the end of that year, the monasteries in Mangalore and Margao had become part of the Manjummell province. The administration of the new province added to the two monasteries just mentioned, a third foundation outside Kerala. The site of this new foundation made in 1965, was in Mysore. 

Today the number of houses on this branch of the Order as well as the number of Priests thanks to the mediation of the Queen of Carmel – has tripled Besides the communities and parishes in various parts of India. 

Fr. Paul D'Souza OCD
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