Kannur Diocese

Though there are strong traditions about the visits and evangelization in various parts of India by the Apostles St. Thomas and Bartholomew, north Malabar, mainly the present revenue districts of Kannur and Kasargod which constitute the Diocese of Kannur, did not have presence of Christians till the end of 15th century. As a State with Arabian Sea as one its boundaries, traders came here from Arabia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Sumatra, Pegu and China from 10 the century onwards. As some of these countries had Christianity, some knowledge about Christianity must have been current in this area through these traders. But there is no evidence of any organized evangelization in this area before the advent of the Portuguese. Hence, the history of the Diocese of Kannur may be traced from the last decade of 15th century.

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The Mandate to Portugal:

Through the Bull RomanusPontifex of January 8, 1454, Pope Nicholas V gave exclusive right for evangelization and trade of Africa and India to King Alfonso V of Portugal. This Bull was further confirmed by Pope Callistus III in 1456 and Alexander VI in 1493. As the subcontinent of India became the area of operation of Portugal, they have sent several expeditions for trade and evangelization of the area every year.

Vasco da Gama and his team were the first to reach this region as part of this mission on 20th May 1498. Two Trinitarian Monks had accompanied Vasco da Gama and one of them Padre Rodrigo Anees died during the voyage in Mozambique. The other was Fr. Pedro de Covilham. But, Fr. Pedro de Covilham, the first missionary who came to Malabar with Vasco de Gama was martyred on 31st July 1498. As the Portuguese traders could not get along smoothly with the ruler of Calicut,  “the Zamorin” (Samudiri), they moved to Kannur and the “Kolathiri”, King of Cannanore welcomed them.

The Portuguese who came to India had two main motives. They wanted to have trade in relation to their country on the one hand and conversions to Catholicism as part of commit- ment to “Patrado”(the mission entrusted by the Pope) on the other hand . As per the account of Gasper Correia the spice supplied by the Kolathiri Raja of Cannanore in 1498 earned for the group of Vasco da Gama sixty times the cost of expe- dition on sale in Lisbon. Given this advantage of economics and crisis that came about in Europe due to the conquest of Constantinople forced Europeans to go for the discovery of sea route to India.

The landing of Portuguese for trade and evangelization was not welcomed by people who were already enjoying the benefits of such trade, namely traders of Muslim community. There were problems between these groups in the first visit of Vasco da Gama itself in Calicut where Vasco da Gama himself was retained on his return to the ship after meeting the Samudiri, the ruler of Calicut and his brother Paul had to threaten the blasting of the ships in the port for the safe release of Vasco da Gama as per the narratives . This explains better the turning of attention of the Portuguese to Cannanore for trade and mission work.

Missionaries did not and could not come on their own for mission work and they accompanied various groups that came from Portugal and elsewhere, it is relevant to look at these people who came here in various waves. In 1500, Dom Pedro Alvarez Cabral from Portugal came as the next wave in this line and he had in his team one Vicar, 8 Secular Priests and 8 Franciscans. These were able to preach the Gospel in Calicut in the initial period. But they had problems in the later days. But in Cannanore the atmosphere was more conducive for evangelization. But we do not have accurate details of evangelization work conducted by these missionaries are not available.

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The Expedition of Joao da Nova:

This expedition reached in India in 1501. “He continued warfare with Calicut and strengthened the friendly relations with the Raja of Cochin. The Franciscans probably divided themselves between Cochin and Cannanore. Owing to the generosity of the Raja of Cannanore the Portuguese ships were soon loaded with spices and da Nova sailed for Portu- gal in the beginning of 1502 leaving his European merchandise with two clerks in a factory at Cannanore”.

Vaco da Gama reached a second time in Cannanore in the end of 1502. He brought presents from the King of Portugal for the King of Cannanore. Vasco da Gama had Franciscans on his ships which was a boost for the evangelization of the area. This was further strengthened by the advent of the first Viceroy of India Don Francisco D’Almeida. “In 1505 Don Francisco D’Almeida who had been appointed first Viceroy of East Indies by King Manoel, reached Cannanore with a strong fleet. He had with him more Franciscan missionaries. He obtained permission from the Raja of Cannanore to build a fort which he did, and he called it ‘Sant’ Angelo. In Fort Sant’ Angelo, they built also a Chapel with materials brought from Europe, which is one of the oldest built by Europeans in India. This Chapel still exists, but is changed into a Guard Room.

As the Angelo Fort was built with the cooperation of the Kolathiri Raja, it was easier compared to the Samudiri of Calicut; that Cannanore became a settlement for a considerable number of Portuguese. “The urban settlement of Cannanore attracted both Portuguese and Indians. It was second to Cochin only as far as the Malabar Coast was considered. There were more than 50 Portuguese men settled in Canna- nore with their Indian wives in the early part of the second decade of 16th century”.

As part of further commitment to trade and evangelization another new fleet of nine transport vessels sailed for India under Tristao de Cunha in March 1506 once again with secular Priests and Franciscans on board . With all such efforts on a sustained basis, it gives one the impression that evangelization work in the area was highly effective and productive. But the author rightly bemoans: “The annual fleets from Portugal continued to bring new missionaries to India. But the evangelization of the country was not carried on far from Portuguese guns; a matter of expedience perhaps, but hardly in accordance with the Spirit of Christ”.

The King of Portugal was very much particular about evangelization of the area and he had ordered that a Franciscan Convent has to be set up in Cannanore to support the mission of evangelization. It was called Convent of Sant’ Antonio. Fr. Paul de Coimbra, the Commissary of Franciscans in India, was to be the guardian in Cannanore. However, it may be noted that no sooner it was ready he left it to go and preach among the Arabs of Maskate. But book of Durate Barbosa completed about the year 1518 and translated by Mansel Longworth Dames,Haklyut society 1921, Vol II. p.81, gives those details: “In this city the King our Lord possesses a fortress and a trading factory in perfect peace love and safety and around the fort is a town of Christians of this country, married men with their wives and children, who were converted to our Holy Faith, after it was built and continue daily to be converted” .


First Conversions to Christianity in Cannanore:

We are not sure of who were the first converts to Christianity were in Cannanore. As seen from the description, it may be noted that conversion work in the initial years was going on smoothly and this must have gone on up to 1507 when the King of Cannanore wrote his first letter objecting to con- version. In fact there was conventional organization of the conversion work gradually taking the form of formation of parishes. Records testify to this effect. One of such reads: “The Church at Cannanore had its Parish Priest who sent his opinion to the King of Portugal in 1510 about the conduct of his colleagues with a view to reserving high moral standards. He regularized eight marriages. He looked after the education of some boys during his work there”.

Further descriptions go on to state the number of Chris- tians and churches in the area too: “By 1514 there were 340 Christians at Cannanore under the Parish Priest Alfonso Velho. People from different sections of society namely Muslims, Nayars, Thiyyas and Mukkuvas embraced Christianity. Some of them were the offspring of the inter marriage between Portuguese men and Indian women. Around 1519, there were two churches in Cannanore for Christian worship, one within the fortress and another very close to the sea which was called the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Victory”.

Evangelization and conversion in slow pace in North Malabar: Though here have been great initiatives from Portugal for trade and evangelization, the latter did not really keep the pace, as one expected. There were only about 6000 Catholics in the whole of Malabar consisting of six civil districts in 1923 when the diocese of Calicut was erected. It may be understood that some of these have migrated from Travan- core and Mangalore due to various reasons. The slow pace of evangelization of the area was due to several reasons. Some of these reasons are:

1. The Conventional Demand on the Missionaries:

The missionaries who accompanied the Portuguese in their journey had a threefold task as per the testimony of Ferroli. They were basically Military Chaplains to the Portuguese troops and they had to spend much of their energy in moderating their excesses. Secondly, missionaries were to cater to the spiritual needs of the Portuguese who manned the fortresses and factories. Thirdly, they instructed the natives who lived near or who were associated with the Portuguese for some work or the other, mainly the menial work. As a result of these limitations, the number of Catholics in Cannanore was only 340 in 1514. Among these 85 were converts from Islam, 7 from Nayar community, 160 from the other Hindu groups like the Thiyas and Mukkuvas,and the rest were 33 children who came from lower castes.

2. Resistance to Missionaries and Martyrdoms:As per the testimony of Souza Amado  from Cannanore many a zealous missionary went on to preach the Gospel. “The Moors having taken Fr. Martin da Guarda, proposed to him the alternatives of renouncing Christianity or dying. He refused and his head was cut off.” . “Fr. John of Elves and Fr. Xistus were two other victims. Whether they were martyred near Cochin or near Cannanore is not certain.” . Once again, “in the fortress of Cunhale near Badagara – in a Mosque Fr. Francis Gallego (Gallyo) was beheaded. Later on 21st September, 1551, Fr. Francisco Estevan was pierced by a lance and done to death by the Moors in Malabar Coast while going from Goa to Cochin.

3. Opposition of the Rulers:

As already referred above in 1507 itself Kolathiri Raja of Cannanore wrote to the king of Portugal expressing his dis- approval of some of his subjects getting converted to Chris- tianity. Once again in a letter to the king of Portugal in 1512 too, the king reiterated his position against conversion . Records show that such restrictions on conversions which were prevailing in South Kerala were overcome in certain ways by the stakeholders. It may be noted for example that St. Francis Xavier could negotiate with success on ban of conversions imposed by Rama Varma and MarthandaVar- ma, the rulers of Travancore area as they were eager to get the support of the Portuguese in their war against Pandya kings . There were no serious and effective moves in North Kerala in overcoming the ban on conversions imposed by the rulers.

4.Reduction in the Importance of North Kerala for Trade:

The relationship between Portuguese and Samudiri was not at all cordial. There have been various confrontations on ac- count of the importance of the Muslim community in trade which the Portuguese wanted to replace. As per a report of 1574 Cannanore did not play an important role in the trade conducted by the Portuguese. Only some ginger was collect- ed from there. On account of the unrest in the Malabar Coast trade could not go on well. Moreover, there were concerns raised on the reasonable sum that had to be spent by the Por- tuguese in the upkeep of the institutions and personnel both ecclesiastical and civil .

5. Slow Flow of Men and Material:

Given the distance between Portugal and North Kerala and the perils of the sea voyage, it was not easy to feed with all the men and materials required for the conducting of smooth trade and expansion of evangelization of the area. Portuguese lost their hold on the movement of commodities via the Persian Gulf and Red Sea regions and spice began to be available in Mediterranean Sea and centers of trade like Venice 

6. Priority of Trade over Evangelization:

The Portuguese who came to Kerala in 16th century had mixed motives of trade and evangelization. But the interest on the former many a time superseded the latter. But it may be noted that “while trying to achieve these aims, they mainly concentrated on St. Thomas/Syrian Christians. They were interested in them because the Syrian Christians held sway over trade in Kerala during that time” . As a result of this arrangement, the concentration of the Portuguese was more in Travancore where Syrian Christians had a greater presence. This reduced the importance of North Kerala as a centre of trade and much more as a venue of evangelization

7. The First Community of Evangelized was not Mission Driven:

Given the restrictions, stringent of social stratification and the strong taboos that prevailed then, the first community of the evangelized in North Kerala was not convinced of the need of becoming evangelizers in their turn, this com- munity practically segregated itself from other communities in many respects. Noted historian Sreedhra Menon remarks: “The Portuguese ecclesiastical authorities in Kerala even decreed that Christians should not allow themselves to be treated by non-Christian doctors or shaved by non-Christian barbers” . The author further states that “each Portuguese fort was an exclusive colony of Portuguese citizens and natives who became converts to Christianity. Non-Christians who refused to embrace Christianity or give their women folk in marriage to Portuguese soldiers were expelled from within the fort areas” .

It may also be noted that the neophytes were not instructed properly to nourish their Faith and to internalize the same. Padre Giacomo Fenicio, a Jesuit called to give a Mission in 1607 to the Cannanore fort testifies that the area had a Parish Priest and a Franciscan Monastery. As per his testimony none of these knew Malayalam, the local language and hence there was no instruction given to the neophytes. He further remarks: “the poor people were almost entirely ignorant of Faith and they were Christians only in name. To satisfy the precept of the annual confession they came to the Priest, and throwing themselves at his feet, without confessing their sins, they got his blessing and went away” . This shows that the miniscule Christian community did not have adequate pastoral care and spiritual, and this situation persisted in the Church then.

Diocese of Goa and Mission Work in Cannanore:

On 3rd November 1534 as part of evangelization and organization of Church in this area, Pope Paul III erected the Diocese of Goa as a suffragan to the Archdiocese of Funchal giving it jurisdiction from the Cape of Good hope to China. Given this vast area of jurisdiction and operation, it was not easy to have active evangelization. Moreover, the right to appoint missionaries in this area and to give them jurisdiction was vested with the King of Portugal independently of the Bishop of Goa. The Portuguese went on with their priorities to Ceylon, Malacca, and Moluccas and even to Japan. Hence, mission work of the area could not keep the desired pace. Ferroli remarks that the power of Archbishop of Goa was felt in the countries near Goa. Elsewhere, it was but a shadow .

Thalasserry (Tellicherry) was another area of operation of the Portuguese. But it is not clear as to when work in Thalasserry was initiated by the Portuguese. As per the manuscript “Return of Jesuits to Malabar”, there is no mention about Tellicherry in political history of the area prior to the arrival of Westerners here. As there was the threat from the Dutch in Calicut, the British people got engaged in spice trade basing themselves in Thalasserry, thus forming and sustaining a Christian community . Malabar Manual of Logan testifies that before 1699 the British have set up their factory in Tellicherry . One Domingo Rodriguez a trader has given assistance for the building the Church there in the name of Our Lady of Rosary and this area was under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Goa. In 1708 when British East India Company established their fort in Tellicherry this church was renovated by the Jesuits.

In 1853, Kanara became a special Vicariate and the jurisdiction of this Cannannore area came under this Vicariate. The administration of the new Vicariate was situated in Karnataka and hence mission work in this area was coordinated from Kanara by them. Given the grave needs of Kanara to be addressed to, the Vicariate could not give enough attention to the expansion of this Mission. However, care was taken to maintain the already evangelized by the pastors here.

In 1867 Fr. Lewis Martelli OCD, the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Burnaserry, brought six Apostolic Carmel Sisters to give formal education to the girls. This was something not done in those days. The parish had under it three schools functioning and one which was solely for girls was handed over to these Sisters in 1867. This is today known as St. Teresa’s Anglo Indian school for Girls and this has educated generations of women in the area. The parish had also initiated two Orphanages (one for girls and one for boys) for the care and protection of the orphans and children from the broken families. The orphanage of the girls was later on taken over by these Religious women. Another school initiated for the education of boys was run by Brothers of Christian Doctrine who worked in the area – St. Michael’s Anglo Indian School Burnaserry for the education of boys and this school was later on given to the Jesuits and it has become one of the first schools of the area.

After the restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1878, Jesuits reached in Burnaserry for residential work. Rev. Frs. Otto Ehrle, Gallo,Maffei and Buzzoni were some of them under whom, the evangelization and pastoral care of the area was carried on. These missionaries responded positively and creatively to the various social evils and problems of the times as part of evangelization. Rev. Fr. Buzzoni’s letter to the Provincial testifies that the Cannanore Mission is beset with many problems like acute poverty of the people, various health issues and the challenges springing from the several languages of the place viz., English, Kokani, Malayalam, Tamil and Portuguese. The letter says that people here depended for their livelihood on work available in the regi- ments of soldiers like that of carpentry and tailoring. But the regiment is shifted from here and so the need of supporting the people in this dire need is elaborated in this document.

Fr. Zanette S J (1896 – ‘90) who reached in Cannanore after Fr. Buzzoni S J, had to address severe problems during his tenure like the spread of Cholera. The Karnataka Jesuit Province archives give some of these details . As per these records the epidemic was severe in the Malabar Coast, especially in Cannanore and it obliterated certain families fully, made many children orphans. The severe famine that too accompanied this has aggravated the situation. The Church took the lead in treatment, relief and rehabilitation measures.

However, the work of the Jesuits was restricted in this area mainly because of the dearth of men and material. Only 10 Jesuits could be active in the whole area of Cannanore, Tellicherry and Calicut in between 1879 and 1924 as per the records . In other words mission work in this area was not really carried out with desired level of involvement of personnel due to various reasons. As a result in between 16th century and 20th century the increase in Catholic population of the area was very minimal.

Diocese of Calicut: 

The vast area for evangelization and pastoral work under the care of Mangalore diocese, brought about the erection of the Diocese of Calicut on 12thJune 1923, separating the areas south of most of the parts of present revenue districts of Kasargod and Cannanore. The new Diocese had about 6000 Catholics, 16 Priests, and 50 Sisters in 3 convents and 12 educational institutions spread out mainly in Calicut, Kannur Vythiri and Mananthavady. The diocese was blessed by the services of able and dedicated Prelates. Most Rev. Dr. Paul Perini (1923 -32) was the first Bishop who could lay a solid foundation for the new diocese and Most Rev. Dr. Leo Proserpio ( 1938 – 45) took lead in initiating the great work in Chirakal mission, succeeded him. Most Rev. Dr. Aldo Maria Patroni (1948-80), Most Rev. Dr. Maxwell Noronha (1980-2002), His Grace Joy Kalathiparambil (2002-2011) and made strides ahead in evangelization area and development of the people. Most Rev. Dr. Varghese Chakkalakal (2012 – ), the first Bishop of the Diocese of Kannur carries on with enthusiasm the great work done by his predecessors.

Kolayad and Chandragiri Missions:

Kolayad area had sizable tribal population and Fr. Paul Ro- sario Fernandez of the diocese of Mangalore began his mission work in this area in 1921. As the new diocese of Calicut was erected in 1923, Fr. Paul Rosario Fernandez went back to his mother diocese of Mangalore. The Kolayad mission was handed over to the Discalced Carmelite Fathers for further work and development in 1952 by Bishop Aldo Marian Pathroni. Fr. Paul Rosario Fernandez did not stop his mis- sion work. He opened new mission area known as Chandragiri mission in some of the areas of present civil district of Kasargod like Nileswar, Kangahad and later on this area was handed over to the diocese of Calicut as the language of the people of the area was Malayalam.

Chirakal Mission:

Under the patronage of Bishop Leo Proserpio in 1937, Fr. Peter Caironi S J started his mission among the Pulaya community of the then Chirakkal Thaluk in the present revenue district of Kannur. This marginalized community which has taken the worst burn of caste atrocities was given human dignity through the proclamation of the Gospel. These people who had no land or proper houses of their own were given own land and decent houses together with Baptism. They were also given facilities for basic education which was denied to them so far. Fr. Peter Caironi and others in fact brought about real social liberation of this community by assisting them to assert their due rights as human beings with self-dignity. Rev. Fathers John Sequeria, Joseph Taffrel S J, James Montanari S J, Aloysious Del Zotto S J, Michael Vendermin S J and so on worked hard in this area with wonderful result of conversion of thousands of people to Catholicism. Fr. Linus Maria Zucol S J who continued this work until 6th June 2014, became a missionary legend here. These missionaries were very well supported by Canossian Sisters under Mother AntoneittaSala, Deena SevanaSabha founded by Servant of God, Mother Petra, the Ursuline Sisters and others. Consequently we have today about 40,000 Catholics spread over 63 Parishes, in the two revenue districts of Kannur and Kasargod.

Erection of the Diocese of Kannur:

The diocese of Calicut was spread out to an area of 13051 sq.kms.in six revenue districts. In the context of such an extensive area there was the need of a new diocese for the benefit of the faithful. Bishop Maxwell Noronhna, in consultation with the priests, religious and the laity requested the Holy See to establish the new diocese of Kannur. The Holy Father Pope St. John Paul II, by the Apostolic Brief dated 5th November 1998, created the diocese of Kannur from the diocese of Calicut. On the same day, Rt. Rev. Dr. Varghese Chakkalakal who was a professor at St. Joseph’s seminary Mangalore, and a priest of the diocese of Calicut, was appointed the first Bishop of the diocese of Kannur and the Bishop elect was consecrated on 7th February 1999 and he took charge of the diocese on 8th February 1999. The Bishop has taken as his motto “according to Your will” “Daivathirumanasinu Vidheyamai”.

The new diocese comprises the territory of the civil district of Kannur to the north of Mahe River, excluding Pallur, Chelakara, Panthakal and Chenkallai which belong to the Municipality of Mahe and the territory of the civil district of Kasargod which falls to the south of Chanadragiri River. The erection of this new diocese was a historical event for Kannur which has more than 500 years of Christian tradi- tion. The establishment of the new diocese on the auspicious occasion of the Platinum Jubilee of the Diocese of Calicut was welcomed with cheer, by the people who consider the diocese of Kannur as a gift of God to this region.

On 15th May 2012 Bishop Varghese Chakkalakal was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the Bishop of the Diocese of Calicut and the apostolic administrator of the diocese of Kannur. Thirteen long years of selfless service of Bishop Varghese Chakkalakal for the people of God in Kannur dio- cese and to the Church in Kerala brought tremendous chang- es in the life of the Church. His simplicity, generosity, care and love are a few of the many God given gifts by which people experienced God’s love. The newly constructed Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Bishop’s house and many other churches, presbyteries, schools and college are the fruit of his commitment and dedication to the diocese of Kannur. Bishop Varghese Chakkalakal will always have a sure place in the hearts of everyone.

On 1st February 2014, Holy Father Pope Francis appointed Msgr. Alex Vadakumthala, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Verapoly as the second Bishop of Kannur. On 23rd March 2014, Msgr. Alex Vadakumthala was consecrated as the Bishop of Kannur. His Grace Salvatore Pennacchio, the Apostolic Nuncio for India and Nepal was the main celebrant of the ceremony. Archbishop Francis Kallarackal and Bishop Varghese Chakkalakal were the coconsecrators. Bishops from various dioceses in India, priests from various dioceses and thousands of people witnessed the consecration ceremony. The motto of Bishop Alex is “to witness to His love and compassion”.

The diocese of Kannur has entered another era of remarkable growth under the ministry of the new prelate. Bishop Alex has made it a point to meet in person as many people of the diocese as possible as part of his apostolic endeavors. He has already finished visit of all the houses of 29 parishes already as part of his scheme of knowing his flock. The yearly Bible conventions held in Pilathara, Burnaserry and Iritty are highly beneficial for the spiritual renewal of the people. The diocese gives due emphasis for the coordination of the various ministries and commissions and this has rejuvenated the journey of people to genuine spiritual and social development. The new shepherd has made it empowerment of the laity as one of his priorities and this has resulted in the better organization of the various social organizations of the diocese for the laity, bringing lay people socio political leadership roles in various places. Believing in the adage of ‘empowerment through education’ the Diocese has launched new education projects through the initiation of Grace International School near Kannur airport and rejuvenation of St. Joseph’s College, Pilathara. Planned education- al development of each child of the diocese is one of the dreams of Bishop Alex Vadakumthala and ‘Vidhyajyothis’ is an attempt of the diocese in this line. Several strategic initiatives are taken for the development of local sustainable income sources for the diocese by developing shopping complexes in relevant spots. As the diocese prepares itself for the celebration of the silver jubilee of its erection, many schemes are in anvil for the promotion of better evangelization of the area and the development of the people of God.