The earliest record of a Dominican in India dates back to 1291. He was Nicholas of Pistoia, a member of the Province of Rome who had been teaching Philosophy in Siena. In the company of a Franciscan it was his intention to travel to China but while they were waiting for a passage from Madras (Chennai), they had great success in preaching the Gospel. It was agreed that the Franciscan would move on to China, but that Nicholas would remain in India. He died shortly afterwards and was buried in Mylapore.
The next name history gives us is that of Jordan of Severac of Catelan. He was a member of a special group of Dominicans working in the Middle East. With four Franciscans he journeyed over land to the end of the Persian Gulf and then to India by sea. The party landed at Thana near Bombay (Mumbai) where they were welcomed by a Nestorian family. While Jordan was away on a preaching mission the four Franciscans suffered martyrdom. Having buried them Jordan then set up his own headquarters at Thana. That was about 1320.
He soon had to appeal for help to his brethren in Persia and eventually in Europe. They helped him to continue his work in Kanara, Mysore, Malabar and Travancore. Shortly afterwards he was nominated and ordained bishop of Quilon and a suffragan of the Archdiocese of Sultania in Persia. By now he had been joined by many who had volunteered in answer to his plea.
He asked for more help but it was not forthcoming and the influence of Islam was increasing. After his death – he was stoned to death in the early 1330s – the Indian mission withered away.
Nearly two hundred years were to pass before the Dominicans formally returned. The first were few in number and came as chaplains to Portuguese military expeditions, to whose authority they were largely subject. But by the middle of the 16 Century the Order as such had returned. They had the authority of Pope Paul III to set up houses which would eventually be part of the Portuguese Province.
By 1568 the Dominican Pope St. Pius V granted permission for the erection of Dominican convents even in dioceses where the local bishop refused. But by now several dioceses had their own Dominican bishops. When the statutes of 1580 for India were promulgated they showed that Dominican friars, either Portuguese or the descendents of Portuguese settlers, were working in places as far from Goa as Malacca, Indonesia, Mozambique and other parts of Africa.
There were also large converts in India itself, especially in Goa and Cochin (Kochi), with the convent of Goa ranking as a university. There were about 300 Friars we are told. With the decline of the Portuguese influence in the 17 Century, so too came the decline of the Dominicans in India. In 1835 all religious communities both in Portugal and in its overseas territories were suppressed and the few remaining friars, now only about 30, were scattered. The revival began only one hundred years later.
In 1959 a new spring time began for the Order in India as we know it today. Four friars of the Irish Province arrived in Nagpur to take charge of the diocesesan seminary at the invitation of late Archbishop Eugene D’Souza (later of Bhopal). On 4 November 2009 the Feast day of the patron of the Seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, the Seminary celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the Irish Dominicans coming to India. In 1967 a house of formation was completed in Nagpur and a novitiate was opened in a small house in Pachmarhi about 160 miles away.
Since then there has been a gradual progress and the Vice-Province of India was established on 8 December 1987 and it was raised to the status of a Province on 8 August 1997. In 2001 a house of Philosophy (separate from St. Dominic’s Ashram, Nagpur) was established on Seminary Hill and eventually shifted to Orlim, Salcette, Goa. Today we have 13 communities and 138 religious, 71 of whom are priests.
In keeping with the missionary nature of every entity in the Church the Province, though its numbers are still small, has spared two brothers for a mission in South Africa, one brother in Trinidad & Tobago. Explorations are also on to begin a mission in Zambia. We have much to thank God for.
To know more on the History of the Dominicans in India read:
INTRODUCTION TO MIRABILIA DESCRIPTA
(The Wonders of the East) By Jordan of Severac, O.P.
THE ORDER OF PREACHERS is the first truly missionary Order in the Church. It received its foundational commission from Honorius III to preach the name of the Lord Jesus throughout the world, and it took this up seriously. The tremendous missionary zeal and courage of Dominican friars down the centuries, right from the very inception of the Order, bears eloquent testimony to this. Dominicans have been ready to go as heralds of the Good news, bearers of the world of truth, to new peoples and new lands.
Just seventy years after the death of St Dominic, in 1291, the Dominican friar, Nicholas of Pistoia, along with his Franciscan companion, John of Monte Corvino, set out for Cathay (China) with a commission to preach the Good news to the peoples living there. On their way, however they touched land at Mylapore in southern India where they stayed for a little over a year preaching the name of the Lord Jesus. Their success was so encouraging that it was decided that Nicholas would stay behind in India to consolidate the work begun there, while John would continue his journey to Cathay. However, this plan was abruptly thwarted, because just before John embarked on his onward journey, Nicholas fell seriously ill and died. John buried Nicholas at Mylapore before proceeding to Cathay.
About thirty years later, in 1321, Jordan of Severac, a second Dominican friar, came to India from Tabriz in Persia. He came as a missionary to preach the Good news. Despite many hardships, he and his four Franciscan companions met with reasonably good success in their preaching mission in Thana and its adjoining towns. But just as Jordan was about to embark for Broach, north of Thana, he learnt of the martyrdom of his Franciscan companions. This left him utterly alone and abandoned in a foreign land. It was at this time, February 1323, that he wrote a very moving letter (cf. Mirabilia Descripta, p 4f) to his brethren in Persia begging them to send missionaries to India.
This is perhaps the first extant letter of a missionary who was to spend the best part of nine years labouring in the region of India till he met a martyr’s death in early 1330. In 1328 Jordan visited Pope John XXII in Avignon. He urged him to set up an independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction in India so as to serve in a better manner the Christian communities that he had established along west coast of India and also to respond to the needs of the people of this region who seemed ready to receive the Gospel message. The Pope acceded to his request and in fact appointed his the first Latin rite bishop of the diocese of Quilon (Kollam), separating it from the metropolitan See of Sultania in Persia. That was in 1328.
On his return from Europe, in 1329, Jordan wrote a descriptive account of the territories he had visited or had been informed about by trustworthy friends in order to acquaint his brethren in Persia about these regions as well as encourage them to come and join him in the enormous task of evangelization still to be accomplished in India. This account, Mirabilia Descripta, is marvellous for its detail. It attests to Jordan’s keen powers of observation and his facility in describing details. To mention just a few striking points: he describes the geographical terrain, the mineral deposits, the plant and animal life, the customs, traditions and food habits of the people, their houses, artifacts, and a host of other details. All these details are very informative. He sees all these as manifestations of the glory of God. To single out just two or three examples: he describes the coconut (nargil) tree and its peculiar cycle of life and pattern of growth; the way elephants are lured, trapped and tamed; the practice of sati according to which a widow jumps into the burning funeral pyre of her husband and is consumed by the flames. He does not write in any detail about the religion of the peoples he met. Nevertheless he does single out the nobility of the Indian people and how they would make excellent Christians if preachers of the name of the Lord Jesus were to come to labour among them. This document will certainly be of interest to many categories of readers, students of geography, history and social anthropology, those interested in travel and exploration of new lands, those charged with the spreading of the Gospel to new peoples, and a host of others.
Read more in Mirabilia Descripta. To order copies contact:
St. Dominic’s Ashram,
Nagpur – 440 006