Holy Father Francis erected the diocese of Sultanpet, in Palakkad district, Kerala, as a new Latin Catholic Diocese on 28th December 2013. The Syro-Malabar diocese was created some 40 years ago in this district of Palakkad as: The Diocese of Palakkad. Therefore in order to avoid confusion this new Latin rite diocese in the same district of Palakkad was named as: the Diocese of Sultanpet. Sultanpet is a small area inside the Palakkad town, where the new Cathedral (St. Sebastian’s, near the stadium bus stand) is situated in the town of Palakkad.
This new diocese was bifurcated from two civil States of Southern India: Tamilnadu and Kerala. In this new diocese there are twenty one parishes of Tamil speaking people and one parish of Malayalam speaking people from the diocese of Coimbatore and five parishes of Malayalam speaking people from the diocese of Calicut. The Latin Catholic Christians living in the civil district of Palakkad belong to this new diocese: Sultanpet.
This is the 12th Latin Catholic Diocese in the ecclesiastical region of Kerala and 31st Catholic diocese of Kerala (including three rites) and 167th Catholic diocese of India. There were 35 priests (22 Diocesan and 13 religious priests) and 31,500 Latin Catholics when it was bifurcated in December 2013.
History of the Diocese
The Tamil Catholic people of this new diocese migrated some 250 years ago from the districts of Dindigul and Tiruchirapalli of Tamilnadu, a southern state of India. As Latin Catholics, they migrated to the Palakkad district and in particular, in the Kovilpalayam area, on account of livelihood and the war of Hyder Ali against the Britishers. At that time this area belonged to the Madras Presidency, having the same language of these migrants: Tamil until 1950 when this Palakkad district was added to the State of Kerala. Now, Malayalam is the official language of this district. However Tamil speaking people are recognized as a linguistic minority group.
Fr. Francisco Savario Bavoni,sj (in 1760’s), a Jesuit missionary, is considered to be the founder of Christianity in this area of Palakkad and Kovilpalayam is considered to be the birth place of the Latin Catholics of Palakkad district. However, there is a strong tradition in this area that Fr. Bavoni SJ, on account of the persecution of Hyder Ali, the Islamic ruler, went from Karnatic Mission to Madurai Mission and later on he continued his Mission among the migrant Tamils in Palakkad area from 1762 onwards.
The migrants settled, first, at Kallampilly (Peria Kovilpalayam) then to Kollengode, Perunkulam, Vandazhy, Vadakkanchery, Athicode etc. In 1761, Fr. Bavoni obtained from the Rajah of Palghat a plot of land in Peria Kovilpalayam; but initially built a small chapel at Perungulam, near Alathur. This first chapel was dedicated to Kangunthamal (Cunegundes Empress, a German saint, died in 1040) in 1765. It is commonly said that a Hindu Malayali went to Germany and brought a statue of Kangunthamal and spread that devotion here. Today this village is in the parish of Vadakancherry; this chapel is re-built many times and still people gather here every year for worship and venerate this saint.
Even after the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1776 Fr. Francisco Bavoni, sj, continued to remain in the area of Palakkad, hiding from the rulers, and did the spiritual and pastoral ministry to these Tamil migrants. He built a Chapel dedicated to Arokiamadha (Our Lady of Good Health) at Kovilpalam in 1783. As this was a bigger church than that was at Perungulam the people began to call it: Peria Kovilpalayam (settlement of the big church). This was also destroyed by the Islamic rulers. However the people rebuilt a chapel in the same place. The Church that exists today is the third one which was built in successive period. The people consider, even today, the Church at Peria Kovilpalayam as their Mother Church.
However, on account of lack of water for agriculture the people, in course of time, migrated to various parts of the neighborhood. Later in Athicode which was called Chinna Kovilpalayam. Fr. Bavoni, sj, himself built a Church there dedicated to St. Antony of Padova in 1799. During this time, because of the suppression of the Society of Jesus this mission of Palakkad was entrusted by the Propaganda Fide, Rome, to the French Foreign Mission Society (MEP) which began to spread the Mission as Karnatic Mission from 1820 onward. However they had to withstand the problems given by the Portuguese Padroado missionaries from Goa.
Around the year 1700 the Pondicherry Mission, also known as the Carnatic Mission or Malabar Mission was started. Prior to this mission the French Capuchins arrived in Pondicherry in 1632, but remained only for a short time. Later in 1673, Mr. Bellanger de Lespinay, a French Naval Officer, invited three French capuchins from Madras to take care of the sailors in Pondicherry. At the French port in Pondicherry they built a chapel dedicated to St. Peter, but later the name was changed to St. Lazurus after the name of a generous Indian benefactor Mr. Lazarus de Motha; later it was called the church of “Malabars.” At the initiate of the French King Louis XIV in 1695 the Capuchins were entrusted with the Europeans and the Eurasians while the French Jesuits would look after the Indians of the French territories. These Jesuits later started their Carnatic Mission developing the north of Madurai Mission. In the meantime, the missionaries of the French Foreign Society (MEP) were expelled from Siam by 1667 they too arrived Pondicherry and worked along with the French Jesuits.
The MEP started the Carnatic Mission in 1703, consistent the Tamil region and the Telugu region. At the approval of Pope Pius VI, King Louis XVI officially, gave commission to the MEP to be in charge of the Malabar/Carnatic Mission in March 1776 and Msgr. Pierre Brigot was appointed superior (having the power of the Vicar Apostolic) of this mission. Under his missionary leadership and of his successors the Carnatic mission was extending and flourishing. After the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1776 the French Foreign Mission Society (MEP) started its mission, as Carnatic Mission, from Pondicherry to Mysore under the leadership of Bishop Pierre Prigot, mep. The French missionaries in this Carnatic Mission had to face many religious, social, and political problems. The Padroado (Goa) priests and the Syrian rite priests of Malabar area started harassing them, while they had to withstand the political antagonism of the Muslim rulers (like, Tippu Sultan of Mysore). These missionaries, by and large, had to tackle the deep rooted casteism, poverty and many more superstitious practices of the local people. Moreover, on account of the above mentioned social and political situations Christians migrated from place to place. However the MEP priests under the leadership of Abbe Dubois gathered the Christians and started building up centres/churches. Thus they started the first mission at Karumathampatty with 3500 Catholics in 1803. On account of famine the MEP priests in this period started rehabilitation centers and free meals scheme in several places.
The Dioceses of Mysore and Coimbatore were created from the Pondicherry MEP Mission in 1846. Msgr. Charbonnaux as the first bishop of Mysore and Msgr. Marion Bresillac as the first bishop of Coimbatore were appointed. Msgr. Bresillac was consecrated bishop of Coimbatore on 14 October 1846. In his time, among the ten vicariates in the diocese of Coimbatore, four vicariates (Palakkad, Kovilpalayam, Athicode and Vadakancherry) were in the district of Palakkad.
The first MEP missionary of this Palakkad area was Fr. Brot Boclair who started his mission in 1845. Fr. Joseph Bardou, MEP. (later became the first Bishop of Coimbatore) was the parish Priest of Palakkad (Sultanpet) between 1860-1865; there he built a ‘magnificent’ Church in 1862. Today it is the Cathedral of the new diocese: Sultanpet, in Palakkad.
The MEP priests in this area of Palakkad constructed five more churches in Euthenpathy, Savariarpalayam, Sorapara, Chittur and Vadakancherry in various years. Six school were started by MEP (Vadakencherry, Chittur, Palakkad, Attikode, Palaniarpalayam)- In these, only the school at Palakkad is existing with the Presentation Sisters. The rest were absorbed by the local Government because the local priests were unable to run these schools.
The Period of Msgr. Augustine Roy, mep. (1903-1932)
Msgr. Augustine Roy was made the bishop of Coimbatore on 28 December 1903. During this time there were Latin Tamil 9000 Catholics in the district of Palakkad. There were five main parishes (Palakkad, Chittur, Vadakancherry, Eruthenpathy and Athikode) and many mission stations. However, due to conflict between the Christens and many court cases among the people the missionary work was affected. When Kozhikode was created in 1923 as a new diocese the areas of Shornur and Mannarkad (then Wallavanad taluk) were ceded to this new diocese (the same areas were again ceded to the new diocese of Sultanpet in 2013). After the death of Msgr. Roy on January 12, 1931 Msgr. Louis Tourner, mep, became the bishop if Coimbatore and when he resigned as bishop of Coimbatore on 18 May 1935 there was no leadership for next two tears. Only in 1938 Rev. Fr. L. Bechu, mep was appointed administrator of the diocese of Coimbatore. During this time, nothing notable undertakings were done in the district of Palakkad.
The following notable Indian Missionary Priests who worked for a long time in the district of Palakkad in the reign of the MEP mission:
The initiative took by Fr. Joseph Bardou, MEP, in 1880 came to the realization only on 28th December 2013. Thus the creation of this new Diocese has a long history of 126 years. This small diocese of Sultanpet was strongly founded by the MEP society in past history. The blood these missionaries shed and the spirit with which they toiled would surely bear fruit and build a strong witnessing Church in the new Diocese of Sultanpet.
Rev. Msgr. M. Ambrose (1980-2002)
Rev. Msgr. M. Ambrose, a priest of the diocese of Coimbatore, did his doctoral studies in Canon Law in Rome. When he returned he took up various ministries in the diocese and in particular he was the rector of the minor seminary from the year 1962 and in 1965 he was also the Vicar General until he was made bishop of Tuticorin on 9 December 1971. After serving nine years there, the sudden death of Bishop C. M.Visuvasam, he was transferred to the See of Coimbatore on 18 January 1980. During his tenure, many churches and chapels in the vicariate of Palakkad were built. To name few of them: churches at Eruthepathy, Vadakancherry, Walayar, Attapallam, Kovilpalayam, Kanjikode, Malampuzha. He also built the presbyteries at Walayar, Sayathurai, Eruthenpathy, Sorapara, Vadakancherry and Knjikode. He purchased a land of fifteen acres at Kanakankalaqm/Elipara and at the initiative of Fr. Albert Nelson Bishop Ambrose College of Arts and Science was started there (but n course of time, due to the lack of due preparations this effort was abandoned). This land is still to be fully rectified from some legal hurdles. However, the initiate, during his time, taken by Fr. Albert Nelson to start a technical Institute became successful. St. Sebastian’s Technical /Centre/Institute (ITC) is functioning well this date and helping the poor students of this area to have the technical certificate course which gives job opportunities.
Other notable contributions of Bishop Ambrose to this Palakkad vicariate are the following: he bought a piece of land of four acres at Olavacode where a new parish has been erected in 2017. He also took active collaboration in building up the Paalana Hospital in Palakkad (on the main road to Trichur) along with the Syrian diocese of Palghat, CMI of Devematha Province (Trichur) and nine other religious congregations. It is a joint venture to which Bishop Ambrose, on behalf of the diocese of Coimbatore, had contributed Rs. 55 lakhs of rupees. The new diocese of Sultanpet has inherited this partnership. Moreover, he had contributed Rs. 75 lakhs for constructing new blocks at Kozhinjampara school and thus raised St. Paul’s High School to St. Paul’s Higher Secondary School in the year 2002. In his tenure Fr. K. P. Vincent reconstructed and extended beautifully St. Sebastian’s church at Sultanpet in 2002; this has become the cathedral of the new diocese of Sultanpet. At the age of 75 he got retired but continued in office until 2002 and started residing at the Presentation Novitiate, Othakalmanadapam. He died of cancer on 15 November 2009.
Rev. Msgr. L. Thomas Aquinas (2002- )
Rev. Msgr. L. Thomas Aquinas, born in the district of Kanyakumari in Tamilnadu, ordained a priest of the diocese of Vellore, had his doctoral studies in Canon Law in Belgium. After returning from Belgium he was teaching Canon Law at Sacred Heart Seminary, Poonamalle, Chennai. After some year of teaching, he went back to the diocese, taking up various ministries. When he was the Vicar General of the Diocese of Vellore he was made bishop of Coimbatore on 10 July 2002. He was consecrated bishop of the diocese of Coimbatore on 28 August 2002.
In his tenure as bishop of Coimbatore new churches were constructed in Attapallam, Aathupathy, Mononpara, Sayathurai, Nemmara, Muddor and Manalkad in the vicariate of Palakkad and new presbyteries at the Cathedral, Palakkad, Chittur. Palaniarpalayam and Kanjikode were constructed. St. Paul’s High School was renovated and new blocks were built with many funds. The greatest and historical achievement of Bishop Thomas Aquinas was the erection of the new diocese: Sultanpet. It is purely his strenuous initiative that the dream and vision of Fr. Joseph Bardou, MEP (1880) came to realization of the erection of a new diocese in December 2013. With much interest he prepared all the required documents and submitted them to Rome; besides, he could convince the administration of Rome for establishing a new Latin Rite diocese for all the Latin Catholics, of Tamils and Malayalees, living in the whole civil district of Palakkad. This is mainly for a better pastoral and spiritual development of the Latin Rite Catholics of the District of Palakkad. His tireless effort was made successful by the grace of God on 28 December 2013 when a new diocese of Sultanpet was announced.
The New Diocese: Sultanpet
This new diocese: Sultanpet, at present, there are 21 parishes of Tamil speaking Catholics and one parish of Malayalam speaking Catholics which were, so far, under the care of the diocese of Coimbatore (Tamilnadu) and five parishes of Malayalam speaking Catholics which were under the care of the diocese of Calicut (Kerala). This diocese, being in the civil district of Kerala, is a member of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC: (comprising of three rituals) and Kerala Region Latin Catholic Bishops’ Council (KRLCBC). The new bishop Rev. Msgr. Antonysamy Peter Abir, a priest of the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore, was consecrated as the first bishop of this new diocese on 16 February 2014.
The new diocese is grateful to God for His mercy for sustaining and leading ahead for the ministry of Jesus Christ, not only among the Catholics but also among the non-Catholics, in particular, through the activities of the diocesan Social Service Society and through the education and medical mission.