A Brief History of the Diocese of Thanjavur:
The Diocese of Thanjavur was created on November 22, 1952 through the papal bull “Ex Primaevae Ecclesiae” when it was bifurcated from the ancient See of Mylapore. It had to wait for four more months for the nomination of its new bishop. Most Rev. Dr.R.A.Sundaram, an illustrious son of the soil, was nominated the first Bishop of Thanjavur on February 4, 1953 and was consecrated at Chennai on 19th March 1953. It is interesting to note that in 1843 itself, the then Apostolic Prefect of Pondicherry, Msgr.Bonnand proposed that Thanjavur be erected an Apostolic Vicariate.
Mylapore had become a diocese in 1606 and was the third oldest diocese of India till it was amalgamated with Madras in 1952. Its jurisdiction extended from the present Diocese of Thoothukudi in Tamilnadu to what is now known as West Bengal. Many missionaries including Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans and Jesuits like Robert de Nobili (the Father of Tamil Prose), Balthasar da Costa (the founder of Thanjavur Mission), John de Britto (the first Jesuit saint in India), Antam de Proenca (whose Tamil Portuguese, Dictionary was the first of its kind to be printed) and Costanzo Giosseffo Beschi (fondly called by the Tamils Veeramamunivar, who was the author of the Tamil Catholic epic Thembavani, the first European scholar to scientifically study Tamil grammar and compose new Tamil grammar both in Tamil as well as in Latin and the first to compile a Tamil Tamil Dictionary called Saduragarathi) had toiled laboriously in the area presently covered by Thanjavur Diocese.
In 1570 Caesar Frederick, who visited Thanjavur, describes it as a great city and very populous of Portuguese and Christians of the country and many gentiles. The local Christians must have been settlers from the southern districts of Tamilnadu where Christianity was already established in 1536. Fr.Francisco do Oriente, O.F.M., who made an attempt in 1585 to found a church at Thanjavur was not permitted to do so by the Nayak of Thanjavur. The Nayak was not averse to Christians living in his kingdom but would not allow any missionary to work there or construct churches.
In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, though Thanjavur was mentioned as a parish or mission centre in the Annual letters of the Jesuits, the local princes, who were opposed to the Christian faith and often persecuted the Christians, did not allow the missionaries to stay and do their ministry there. Therefore the Catholics, living within the Thanjavur kingdom, had to go to priests residing in Nandavanampatti or Koonampatti or Elakurichi for their Christian obligations. Fr.Balthazar da Costa speaks about Nandavanampatti, for the first time, in his letter dated 29.10.1644. He preached the Gospel in that area, converted many and constructed a church there. Later he was able to enter Thanjavur Town, convert many and construct churches within the town itself. In 1654-56 there were 985 Catholics in Thanjavur, up from 180 in 1647. Soon Christian communities were formed in Vallam and Sellappanpatti.
Nandavanampatti and Koonampatti are presently substations of the Parish of Muthandipatti in our Diocese, while Elakurichi belongs to the Diocese of Kumbakonam and is a famous Marian Shrine of the area. Beschi mentions Koonampatti in many of his letters. There was until recently a small chapel, which, according to the Jesuit Annual Letter of 1667, was constructed by a local Catholic lady named Margaret during the time of Fr.Domingo de Almeida. It was known as the Chapel of Five Wounds and had a small presbytery attached to it. It has now been replaced by a new construction. The tombs of two Jesuit Priests are still found in the village tank. We are informed that the Marattas imprisoned two of the Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Joseph Carvalho and Fr.Charles Michael Bertholdi, a dear friend and compatriot of Beschi, at Vallam or Thanjavur and one of them, Fr.Carvalho died in prison in 1701. Fr.Emmanuel Machado was arrested at Vallam, spent about 23 months in prison and freed on 06-06-1717.
We first hear of Christians living in Nagappattinam when Ludovico de Varthema visited it in 1505 which was much before the Portuguese had settled there. When St.Francis Xavier stayed with the Vicar of Nagappattinam in 1545 on his way to Mylapore, the Portuguese were well established there. Nagappattinam had about 3000 Christians in 1577. The Franciscans were the only religious in the place till almost the very end of the 16th century. Later the Jesuits came in 1597 and started a college in 1618 which was preceded by a school in 1602. The Dominicans came there in 1604 and the Augustinians in 1625. The priests, who stayed in Nagappattinam, often visited the Catholics in Tranquebar, where a chapel, dedicated to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, had been constructed around 1597. In 1620, Tranquebar had a resident priest. In 1642, there were five churches in Nagappattinam, administered by the Franciscans, Jesuits, Augustinians and Dominicans while the main church was always administered by a diocesan priest. Besides, the Franciscans ran a Mercy Home and a hospital there. By 1642, there were 7000 Christians above the age of seven in the town. In 17th Century, six persons born at Nagappattinam of Portuguese parents became Jesuits. A church, dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, was erected in Sathangudi, presently a substation of Tranquebar, in 1726.
Among the ancient missionary centres, now under the jurisdiction of Thanjavur, the following are to be mentioned: Pillavadanthai and Kozhai (both of which were served by St.John de Britto 1847), Mannargudi, Pattukkottai, Vedaraniam, and Kozhai near Palayamkottai (served by many Jesuits including St. John de Britto), Moolangudi (where, according to a local tradition, St. Francis Xavier had erected a chapel to Our Lady at Serugalathur), Kottaikkadu, Sammanasur,(ancient parishes in Pudukkottai area), Mayiladuthurai (served by St. John de Britto ) and Eylur (a substation of Kattumannarkoil now and mentioned in the letters of Beschi who constructed some buildings there). Most of these were served by Jesuits and some by Franciscans and later by M. E.P. Fathers to whom Thanjavur mission was entrusted by the Holy See after the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1759. Many priests from Goa and Kochi were sent to work in the area.
The Jesuits of the New Madurai Mission came to Thanjavur in 1845 and served in various parishes like the Sacred Heart Church (the present Cathedral), Vallam, Sammanasur, Pudukkottai and Nagappattinam. They had to hand over these parishes to the Diocese of Mylapore in 1893.
Initial struggles of the New Diocese:
With such a hoary past and rich missionary traditions, the new diocese came into being with the Sacred Heart Church in Thanjavur as its Cathedral. It is to be noted that the new bishop was a Parishioner of this Church.
As there was no Bishops House, a portion of the Cathedral Presbytery served as the Bishops House and the Diocesan Office. After eight months, the Baroda Villa on the Tiruchi Road was purchased and converted into the Bishops house. In 1957 a new Bishops House was constructed in the adjacent land.
When the Diocese was started, it had only 41 Parishes served by 51 Priests. Of these, Fr.Januario L. DSouza is alone with us today. Though a good number of them were advanced in age, there was no dearth of zeal and pastoral commitment among them. There were a good number of Goan priests serving in the Diocese at the beginning so much so two of the four Vicars Forane in the Diocese used to be Goans. To foster vocations in the new diocese, the Bishop started St. Marys Minor Seminary in a small room in the St. Xaviers Boys Home in 1953. It was then shifted to a rented house in New Town (presently VOC Nagar) and when a new Bishops House was constructed, the Baroda Villa became the Minor Seminary. It is a matter of notable pride that practically all the Priests serving in the diocese today, including the Bishop, are the products of this Minor Seminary. Since 2002 a new building at Bishop Sundaram Complex, Arulanandammal Nagar in Thanjavur, houses the Minor Seminary.
Frs.R.Savarimuthu and S.T. Amalnather (former Bishop of Thoothukkudi), who were serving in the Seminary in Mylapore as well as Fr.Paul K.F. Belevendram, then serving in Kovalam, joined the new diocese. Similarly Brothers S.A.Arulaiah (former Bishop of Cuddappah), P.M. Joseph and Y. Leo Michael, belonging to the Archdiocese of Madras – Mylapore and studying in Sacred Heart Seminary, Poonamallee joined the Diocese later. This helped to solve the problem of the initial scarcity of Priests. The Diocese now has 182 Priests and 86 Parishes. The parishes, which became part of the diocese in 1953, were full of old buildings -churches, presbyteries, schools and convents. Almost all of them wear a new look today with new buildings -some renovated and some replaced by new and modern structures.
There were only a few convents in the new diocese in 1953; but over the past 57 years, many new congregations have established their houses and have taken up new ministries. This has contributed to the establishment of many educational and other institutions in the diocese. It is to be noted that, in addition to many convents, quite a few men religious congregations are functioning in the diocese. At present, 8 men religious congregations and 41 women religious congregations are working in the diocese.
In 1953 St. Anthonys High School was the only High school run by the diocese. Today we have 7 Higher Secondary Schools, 9 High Schools and three Matriculation Schools under the management of the diocese and 10 Higher Secondary Schools, 17 High Schools and Matriculation Schools run by various religious congregations. Practically all the Parishes have a school and about half of them have orphanages attached to them. While there was only one Industrial School (St.Xaviers Industrial School, Thanjavur) in the diocese in 1953, the diocese is presently running three Industrial Centers in Thanjavur, Namanasamudram and Vanamadevi. To cater to the needs of the time, the Diocese now runs a Teacher Training Institute, a College of Education offering B.Ed. and M.Ed. courses, a Nursing School and a Nursing College as well as an Arts and Science College.
Many of the diocesan Priests have high academic qualifications in religious and/ or in secular studies. On account of this, many of them are able to serve in schools and Industrial Centers in the diocese or as professors in various Major Seminaries.
Homes for the Aged:
Two Charitable Trusts, established by individual Catholics of erstwhile Perumpannaiyur parish and entrusted to the Diocese, one in Pannaivilagam and the other in Elanthavanancherry, are running Homes for the Aged, both for men and women. The diocese has started one such Home in Vailankanni. There is also a Home for the Aged in Thanjavur run by St.Vincent De Paul Society. Many a destitute are able to find shelter in these Homes in their old age.
The Marian Shrine at Vailankanni:
Our Lady of Health, Vailankanni is the second Patroness of the diocese. Though no historical records exist, according to an age old and strong tradition Our Lady appeared to two poor boys besides saving the Portuguese sailors from shipwreck in Vailankanni and this led to the origin of a Marian Shrine at Vailankanni centuries back. A Chronicle of 1635 and a letter of 1642 mention a Christian centre at Vailankanni with a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Health. The Franciscan priests of Nagappattinam were looking after Vailankanni which in course of time had a Franciscan priest stationed there. Later it came under the administration of the Diocese of Mylapore.
In 1933, a spacious Gothic church replaced the old church, constructed by the sailors, though part of the old altar can be seen even today. The shrine was raised to the status of a Minor Basilica in 1963 and a two-storied extension church was added to it in 1975 to accommodate the ever growing number of pilgrims. On the way to Our Lady’s Tank, Stations of the Cross and Mysteries of the Rosary were constructed. The Shrine now has many quarters with convenient rooms at affordable rates of rent for the benefit of the pilgrims. The Shrine Retreat House and the Institute of Mariology are milestones in the development of the Shrine. It is also to be mentioned that perpetual Eucharistic adoration and counseling centre were started and confessions in different languages are heard. The administration was reformed to give better service to the pilgrims.
The Apostolate of the Laity:
Parish Councils have been formed in sixty seven parishes and Basic Ecclesial Communities (Anbiams) are functioning in sixty eight parishes. This helps the laity to play an active role in the life of the church. The Catholic Association, Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Vaazhvurimai Iyakkam and Third Order of St. Francis are some of the lay organizations, which are active in the diocese. It is a matter of great pride that Thanjavureans have distinguished themselves by holding high offices at the national level in the lay organizations.
Most Rev. Dr. R.A. Sundaram served as the first Bishop of Thanjavur from 1953 to 1986 and has left a long record of great achievements. He built the Diocese from scratch and put it on a sound track. It was due to his strenuous efforts that the Marian Shrine at Vailankanni became a Basilica in 1963 and many buildings were constructed to provide proper accommodation to the growing number of pilgrims. After reorganizing the Thanjavur Multipurpose Social Service Society in 1978 and making it more democratic, he started the Pudukkottai Multipurpose Social Service Society in 1984 to concentrate on the social development of the area. He wanted every parish to have a decent church, presbytery, school and a convent so that the people of the area can be served with great effect. With future vision he bought 130 acres of land in the heart of the town for future development of the diocese. He spent his retired life in the Sacred Heart Home for Retired Priests in Arulananda Nagar, Thanjavur and died peacefully in the Lord in August 1998 at the ripe age of 94.
Archbishop Packiam Arockiasamy succeeded him in 1986. He created many new parishes and constructed necessary parish churches and other necessary infrastructure in the rural areas. He started new High Schools in Palayamkottai, Vichoor and K.Aranthangi as well as Industrial Centres in Namanasamudram and Vanamadevi. He encouraged the Charismatic Movement in the Diocese and started the Diocesan Charismatic Centre at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Mangalapuram, Thanjavur. It was during his time that the Diocese of Thanjavur Society was reorganized and many Committees were formed for the better functioning of the Diocese. He retired in 1997 and died peacefully in the Lord in May 2003.
Dr. M. Devadass Ambrose, who hails from the Diocese of Thanjavur, was nominated the Bishop of Thanjavur in July 1997 and was consecrated in September of the same year. He continues to tread the path paved by his predecessors and concentrates on the overall development of the people. He has erected new parishes in Anna Nagar, Amaradakki, Siluvaipuram, Kuthalam, Machuvadi, Veerakurichi, Adaikalamatha(Thanjavur), Adhanur, Arasadipatty, Parithiur, Nagore, and Munnayampatti. Bishop added more commissions like anbiams, women etc. He has sent many priests for both religious and secular studies within India and abroad. He has started an Educational Fund and asks the people to contribute to it monetarily instead of honouring him with shawls and garlands during his visits to parishes. He has regularized the contracts with many Religious Congregations working in the Diocese. Bishop also had upgraded many schools according to the need of the people. He upgraded Primary school into Middle School in Moovanur, Middle School into High School in Pattukkottai and Thirukkanurpatti, High Schools as Higher Secondary Schools at Palayamkottai, Pudukottai and Vichoor. Realizing the need for higher education for the youth, he started six institutions of higher education which is very much appreciated by the people. In order to have decent place of worship for the villagers, Bishop is constructing many village chapels.
When the Tsunami hit the shores of the diocese on 26th December 2004, the Bishop rose to the occasion; he arranged to feed and shelter thousands of victims in Vailankanni. Through the TMSSS, he constructed many temporary shelters and distributed clothes, utensils etc. to the affected with the help of many donors from India and abroad. Then he constructed more than 2400 houses with the help of the State Government and donor agencies like the Caritas-India, CRS, CNEWA and the Carmelite Society. It is also to be noted that from the time of tsunami, Caritas Poland has been helping the orphan children with scholarships and the orphan children have benefitted from this assistance.
In fine, the Diocese of Thanjavur, under the patronage and protection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of Health, Vailankanni is making great strides in spreading the kingdom of God in the area entrusted to it by the Divine Providence. It has contributed its share to the growth and development of the Church in the region of Tamilnadu and India by generously lending the services of its priests. It is extending its ministry in educational, cultural, social, economic and pastoral fields, thus contributing to the overall growth and development of the people of the area, irrespective of caste or creed.