CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF PORT BLAIR

LATIN RITE
Ecclesiastical Province of Ranchi


Geographical Note

The Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is an Archipelago of about 550 Islands situated in the Bay of Bengal at 920 to 940 East longitudes and 60 to 140 North latitude. The archipelago, covering an area of 8073 sq. km., is spread over about 780 km. from North to South. Of the entire area of the islands, 7464 sq. km. are covered under Reserved and Protected Forests. 36% of the Reserved Forest has been earmarked for the Aboriginal Tribes preserved under the provision of Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation Act 1956. Leaving aside 13% of total area along the coast for protection against erosion, 12% of the area comes under Revenue settlement. Of the 572 plus islands, only 34 Islands are inhabited.

Port Blair, the capital of the Union Territory is connected by air and sea with the mainland, namely with Kolkata, Chennai and Vizagapatnam. The distance by sea from Kolkata to Port Blair is 1255 km; from Chennai it is 1190 kms, and from Vizagapatnam it is 1200 km. With the annual rainfall of 3000mm from May to October, the climate is tropical and humid. Humidity ranges between 70% to 90% with a minimum temperature of 230 C, and a maximum of 310 C.

As per the 2011 census, the population of this Union Territory is 380581. However, the actual population now will be more than 4 lakhs. The majority of the population is Hindus (69.44%), other Christians (21.27%), Muslims (8.51%) and other (1%). The number of the Catholics is 38,596 as per Annual Returns of 2014.

The population is a cosmopolitan group of Bengalis, Punjabis, Malayalis, Tamilians, Telugus, Adhivasis from Chotanagpur (Ranchi) and a sprinkling from the other states of India. Infact, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are truly a Mini-India.

The original inhabitants of this Union Territory are Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Onges and Sentinelese, belonging to the Negrito stock are confined to the Andaman Islands, and the Shompens and Nicobarese, belonging to the stock of Mongoloids, reside in the Nicobar Islands.


Historical Background

The first reference of historic value to the Islands was during the British rule in late 1788 when, under the orders of Lord Cornwalis, Lt. R. H. Colebrook and Lt. Archibald Blair, the hydrographer of East India Company, reached Port Blair in order to survey the Islands for settlement purposes. Following a favourable report of this study team in 1789, the first settlement took place at Mark Island, which is now called “Chatham Island” at Port Blair. It was then transferred in 1792 to Port Cornwallis which is now called Diglipur. Due to health reasons, the settlement came to an end in 1795. For the next 60 years the Islands were almost forgotten. In 1857 an event of national importance took place. It was the first revolt against the British Empire. The prisoners of war of that first war for independence of India were exiled to the Andamans. A special committee headed by Dr. F. J. Mouat gave a favorable report for the establishment of a Penal settlement in the year 1858. The first batch consisting of 200 freedom fighters of the 1857 revolt were brought initially. By the end of 1858 there were 1949 convicts at the Penal settlement, by then notoriously named Kalapani.

As the freedom movement grew, the number of convicts grew along with it. The British authorities were not content with only banishing the convicts. They thought of preventing contamination of ideas and thoughts, and so they resolved to build a jail complex, where the convicts would be confined to their cells with no contact with each other. And so a massive jail complex, called the “Cellular Jail”, sometimes referred to as the Indian Bastille, was constructed. It took ten long years for its construction. When completed in 1906, it was a three-storied edifice with an entrance block and seven wings. It had 698 cells, one each for a prisoner. Hence its name “Cellular Jail”. With the efforts of the Ex – Andaman Political Prisoners’ Fraternity Circle and of the representatives of the public, the Cellular Jail has now been converted into a National Memorial. The Honorable Prime Minister, late Morarji Desai inaugurated the national Memorial on 11th Feb. 1979.


Catholic Church in the Islands

As recorded in the history of the Missions of the East, the Catholic Christianity came to these Islands as early as 1690 when Fr. Agnelo a Portuguese Franciscan of the Pegu Mission in South Burma landed at Car Nicobar. In 1711, two French Jesuits, Fr. Bonnet and Fr. Faure of the Pondicherry-Carnatic Mission settled at Car Nicobar, but were later killed. In 1780 the Barnabites of the Pegu Mission attempted mission work on the islands, but made no headway. Infact, they lost one of their newly ordained Bishops. He died at Car Nicobar the same year.

In 1836, the Jesuits – Frs. Supries and Galabert followed by Charles Beaury, John Baptist Lacramp and Chopard resumed their attempts at Car – Nicobar. They worked here for some years and tried to put down their dialect in Roman Script. But due to growing hatred towards the colonialists, the mission suffered severe setbacks, and came to an end. The catholic population of the Islands then consisted of some convicts of the Penal settlement and a few British Officers.


Steady Growth of Post – Penal Settlement

At the end of the World War I the Government abolished the Penal Settlement on the advice of the Indian Jail Committee. The Andaman Administration felt the need of man-power to clear the Jungles, to extract timber, to construct roads, etc., a job till then done by the convicts. This need was promptly met by recruiting labourers from Chotanagpur tribal area, through the Catholic Mission of Ranchi (Jharkhand). Most of them were Catholics.

It is known that from 1928 onwards, a Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Rangoon was visiting these Islands twice a year to cater to the spiritual needs of the Catholics. Because most of the Catholics were labourers belonging to the Chotanagpur (Jharkhand) Ranchi mission, the hierarchy of Rangoon, used to send priests who were better equipped to fulfill the spiritual needs on account of their knowledge of language and culture of the people.

Upon the request of British officers at Christmas 1945, Fr. R. Bossuyt, s.j., a Jesuit Priest from Ranchi, had visited these Islands bringing solace to the grief-stricken survivors of Japanese occupation. There were 900 Chotanagpur labourers stranded in the Islands. Of these 123 had passed away.

The Holy See officially did the transfer of the mission of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands from the Jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Rangoon to that of the Archbishop of Ranchi in the year 1947. The Islands saw the first resident Catholic Priest in the person of Fr. John Decoq, s.j, a Belgian Jesuit, belonging to the Ranchi Province of the Society of Jesus. At that time, the entire administrative establishment was shifted from Ross Island to Port Blair. The abandoned Catholic Church building was dismantled and brought to Port Blair, where the construction of the new church and presbytery was started in 1949 using salvaged timber posts and arches of the old church on Ross Island. Although the first Mass was celebrated on Palm Sunday in 1950, the new church was solemnly blessed only on the 8th of December 1950. Fr. John Decoq s.j, was succeeded by another Belgian Jesuit Fr. A Verelst s.j, in 1953. After the sudden departure of Fr. Verelst in April 1955, the Islands remained without a resident priest for eight months. Fr. John Lakra, a tribal priest of the Arch–diocese of Ranchi was sent in December 1955. Assistant Priests started coming in turns.


Birth of the Diocese of Port Blair

The initial problems being cleared, the atmosphere being congenial and peaceful the Catholic Church true to her vocation of Mother and Teacher, began to spread her wings for the enlistment of the people. In January 1962 His Grace Dr. Pius Kerketta, s.j. the Archbishop of Ranchi paid his maiden visit to the Islands. During the Holy week of 1964 another eminent visitor paid a visit to the Islands. He was Archbishop J. R. Knox, the then Papal Inter-nuncio in New Delhi. Soon after this historic visit, at the request of His Grace Pius Kerketta, s.j, Archbishop of Ranchi, the mission of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, till then constituting only one parish at Port Blair with a resident parish priest, was handed over by the Holy See to the Society of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier, commonly known as “Pilar Fathers” (SFX) Pilar, Goa.

Two pioneers of the Pilar Society, Fr. Marian Dias, sfx, and Fr. Tiburcio Ferrao, sfx, arrived at Port Blair on 15th December, 1965. The second batch of two more Pilar Fathers joined them at Port Blair on 3rd March, 1967. For the establishment of the full fledged Local Church the Pilar Society deployed more manpower, and opened new parishes culminating in the creation of the Diocese on the 18th August 1984. On this historic day His Holiness Pope John Paul II, by the Bull “Ex Quo Christus,” elevated this mission to the status of a Diocese - the Diocese of Port Blair, at the request of the then Archbishop of Ranchi, Most Rev. Dr. Pius Kerketta, s.j. Most Rev. Alex Dias, SFX, a member of the Pilar Society, was ordained its first Bishop on 20th January, 1985 at the Port Blair Catholic Church Ground, by His Grace Most Rev. Dr. Pius Kerketta s.j, the Co-consecrators being Most Rev. Raul Gonsalves, the Archbishop–Patriarch of Goa and Most Rev. Joseph Rodericks, the Bishop of Jamshedpur.

The Diocese of Port Blair extends from Diglipur in the North to Campbell Bay (Great Nicobar) in the extreme South. The whole Diocese is divided into 13 full-fledged parishes viz. Port Blair, Prothrapur, Wimberlygunj, Ferrargunj, Oralkatcha, Adajig, Rangat, Mayabunder, Ramnagar, Diglipur (Radhanagar), Hut Bay, Katchal–Karmorta and Campbell Bay.

The Diocese of Port Blair stretches over a length of more than 700 kms from North to South with 36 inhabited islands. It has 23 Diocesan Priests, 04 Congregations of men Religious and 8 Congregations of women religious.

The laity co-operate through various Associations and Parish Councils. Activities in the Diocese are on the increase and the seed planted over 305 years ago, is growing according to the eternal design of God. The natural beauty of the island and tahe sea that surrounds them is God’s special gift. Wonderful also is the composition of our Church, for it is a Church consisting mostly of Chotanagpuri Adivasi (Tribal), Tamilians, Malayaleees and Locals. It is, indeed, like a beautiful garden with, basically, 4 kinds of flowers.


The Achievements and Vision for the Future

The Bishop as well as the Priests and the Sisters, having long distances to travel either by ship, by small rowing boats, by road or on foot. These journeys often have their share of adventures and risks. The Catholic people, many of whom are laboureres in the Forest and Public Works Departments, live scattered in distant villages and camps. They are not able to come to Church every Sunday, so it is the shepherd who goes in search of his flock. In every village there is a catechist who conducts the Prayer Service, when there is no priest. The catechist also takes care of the burials, where the Priest is not able to reach.

The Diocese has taken up the formation of Small Christian Communities as a top priority. This has been done in response to the very strong recommendation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India which sees these Small Communities as one way of revitalizing the Catholic Community to enable it to live in the Spirit of the first Christians.

Aware of the fact that sound education is a must for an all-round growth and development of our people, the Diocese has Senior Secondary Schools, Secondary School, Middle School, Primary Schools and Pre-primary Schools which are run by the Diocesans Fathers, Apostolic Carmel Sisters and Pilar Fathers, and where we try to build up the character of the future citizens of India by instilling in them the kind of values, which are necessary for society.

We also have Hostels in Port Blair and other Parishes where children from the remote areas stay as boarders, ad study in the Catholic Schools in Port Blair, and in other schools at the various centers. Hence, it is the wish of many parents to send their children to Port Blair and the other Parishes where the teaching is better. Apart from the above, we also have free coaching classes for the children in our Parishes.

In the field of healing ministry, there is one hospital with 70 beds in Port Blair and also dispensaries are there in the Parishes. The nuns who are trained nurses also reach out to interior villages to provide health care. Besides, the nurse Sisters also strive hard to educate the people in health-care, nutrition, child care and hygiene and so on.

The Church has been helping the people in the Social field, too, by running 2 Kishori Sashaktikaran Kendras, where illiterate as well as less educated girls (Class bellow IX) of marriageable age are taught to fend for themselves and their families with home-bound works like sewing, embroidery, etc. Adult education and saving schemes also form the part of the syllabus, and thereby enabling these girls to better care for their families when they become wives and mothers.

Non-formal Technical Education has been other successful ventures of the Diocese. The Diocese has also been helping the people to have little plots of land and a house for themselves, and to have means of transport like rowing boats and motor boats, without which they would be forced to walk for long hours.


Tsunami Response

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were, perhaps, unknown to the rest of the world, until they were hit very badly by earthquake and Tsunami on December 26, 2004. About 15,000 people died in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands alone and the devastation caused was unbelievable. Nearly all the Churches, presbyteries, convents and schools in the Southern Group of Islands were washed away, but Bishop Alex rose to the occasion and rebuilt these structures in record time. The Priests and the Sisters and the people of all 4 communities in the Diocese promptly came forward to support the Bishop in this reconstruction work with the help of several donor agencies. A major role in Tsunami Rehabilitation Projects has been played by the Diocese with the construction of Temporary and Permanent Shelters for displaced people and the establishment of Self Help Groups for the uplift of the poor people, which has been highly appreciated by the Andaman and Nicobar Administration. ACANI (Association of Catholic Andaman and Nicobar Islands), the Diocesan Social Wing is working in three districts and thus, the operational area are South Andaman (Port Blair & Little Andaman), Middle Andaman (Baratang, Adajig, & Rangat) , North Andaman (Mayabunder, Kalaphad, Diglipur & Ramnagar) and Great Nicobar (Campbell Bay) and covers 18 Panchayats with Development Programmes, such as livelihood, Education, Health, Disaster Preparedness, Environmental Protection Programme, etc.

The Diocese was fully involved in the Relief and Rehabilitation Works. With the help of friends and benefactors it has been able to do quite a lot and it is still doing much. At the centre of these activities is JESUS CHRIST. He is the source of inspiration and foundation of all that has been achieved. In his footsteps, the local Church has dedicated herself to establish his vision for a better society.


Silver Jubilee Year

The Diocese of Port Blair has celebrated the Silver Jubilee of its establishment and of the Episcopal Consecration of its Bishop, Most Rev. Alex Dias, sfx, with a simple yet grand meaningful celebration in which 25 Catholic Bishops from mainland Dioceses participated. It had been the desire and hope of everyone that the Celebrations would spur the Church on to greater heights. Through the Celebration, the Lord said to His Beloved in Port Blair, “I am with you always to the close to the age.” (Mt. 28:20).