Christianity in Vasai : ‘Longer History ; Higher Ancestry’
Does Christianity in Vasai have its own history worth talking about? How old is that history? When did it begin? The answer to these questions is given by none other than the supreme head of the largest democracy in the world – Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India. While affirming the long-standing history and the higher ancestry of this land he said, “Remember, St. Thomas came to India when many of the countries of Europe had not yet become Christian. And so, those Indians who trace their Christianity to him have a longer and a higher ancestry than the Christians of many of the European countries. And it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened……”, these were the undisputable and memorable words uttered by the highest authority in the country in the form of a glowing tribute to the long-standing heritage of Christianity in India on the occasion of the ‘St. Thomas Day Celebration’ held in New Delhi on 18th December 1955. What the president said in reference to St. Thomas and his Christians is, to a certain extent, also true in the case of St. Bartholomew and his Christians residing along the shores of Northern Konkan. St. Bartholomew preached the Gospel in the vicinity of Kalyan. A reference to ‘India Felix’ and the Christian community of Kalyan described as ‘foundation town’ is found in the Council of Nicea, held in 325 AD. Little wonder then that the Catholic Bishops of India unanimously paid glowing tributes to both these Apostles at their C.B.C.I. meeting.
The history of the journey of Christianity in Vasai can be traced from the time of the Apostle Bartholomew. When Panthenus, a scripture scholar was sent by Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria to the Konkan region towards the end of the II century, he found the people using a copy of the Gospel of St. Mathew written in Aramaic. Around 520, Cosmas Indicopleustes (also known as Cosmas the Monk) who sailed to India was a Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt came to this place and he found a Bishop here already appointed by Persia in the VI century itself. History unfolds to us that there was a Church at Sopara dedicated to St. Thomas with a cemetery attached to it in which the ‘Martyrs of Thane’ were buried by Fr. Jordanus Catalani (o.p) in 1321 A.D. It was the same French Dominican Priest, Fr. Catalani who was later appointed the first Latin Rite Bishop of Quilon in 1329.
The first Church of the Latin Rite was established in Vasai Fort under the title of ‘Nossa Senhora da Vida’ in 1536, when the Citadel in the Fort was erected in Vasai. The following year, the Franciscans put up a magnificent Church in the neighbourhood dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua. In 1549, the Jesuits put up a church in honour of the Holy Name of Jesus in the same area. The Dominicans put up a church dedicated to Blessed Gonsalvo in 1583 and the Augustinians put up a church under the title of ‘Nossa Senhora da Annunciada’ in 1595. With the untiring efforts of the zealous missionaries of these four Congregations, Christianity spread in Vasai and the parishes with their churches emerged one after the other along the western coast of North Konkan.
Initially, Vasai was placed under the Archdiocese of Goa (1535-1886). Subsequently, as the Indian hierarchy was established in 1886, it was placed under the Diocese of Damaun between 1886-1928 and from 1928 it came under the Archdiocese of Bombay till it was erected into a new Diocese by Pope John Paul II in 1998. The people of Vasai witnessed the glorious ceremony of the Episcopal installation of the Most Rev. Dr. Thomas Dabre on 15th August, 1998 at Papdy in the historic Church of Our Lady of Grace, elevated to the status of a Cathedral. The nine Talukas of the then District of Thane were registered in the eternal city of Rome to form part of the newly created Diocese of Vasai.
The establishment of the new Diocese was a new Pentecost for Vasai. The people were spirit-filled. Vasai got a set of young clergy, enthusiastic, dedicated, committed and well qualified. The people were captivated by their eloquent preaching and mastery over the local language. That revived most of the old church-associations and brought new waves of liturgical, catechetical and missionary revival in them. About seven-eight thousand women-sodalists came under one banner of: ‘The Federation of Our Lady of Remedy’. Parish-wise units of ‘Mission Mitra Mandal’ were started and the enthusiasm of both the organizations had no bounds. Charismatic movement placed the Holy Bible in the hands of the faithful and the Eucharistic Chapels, kept open for the whole day, made the people reflect over the main personality of the Bible, Our Lord Jesus Christ. B.C.C. became the backbone of the Catholic revival and renewal. The Diocesan Synod held in the year 2000 gave the ‘magna carta’ in the hands of the laity, clergy and religious to prominently place the diocese on the map of India and the Mission Congress which followed gave impetus to the mission and placed concrete measures in the hands of the laity.
Today, trying to implement the resolutions passed at the said Diocesan Synod, the diocese is making rapid progress both quantitatively and qualitatively. The Mission Congress made this missionary diocese re-committed to its cause, which the supreme Pontiff has placed on the shoulders of the hierarchy, the clergy, the religious and the faithful. It goes without saying that receiving inspiration from the all-embracing zeal brought to these shores by St. Francis Xavier, and the blood, shed by St. Gonsalo Garcia, the son of the soil, in a distant country of Japan, the 1,30,000 strong Catholics of this local Church will rise to the occasion in fulfilling the desires of the Universal Church.