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Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal

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Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal
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In a land area of 147,181 square kilometers, the country has a population of 28 million people. As of year 2001, the country has a population of 25 million people. As of year 2001, the population growth is 2.24 percent and the ratio between rural and urban population is 85 to 15. The life expectancy of local people is 60 years. The average age at first marriage for women is about 17 years old. Languages used in the country include Nepali, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu, Tamang and Newari. The overall literacy rate is 54 percent: 43 percent among women, 65 among men and 41 percent among children.

The history of the service of the Catholic Church to the people of Nepal is short in the context of the 2000-year long history of the Church. As far as is known today, the first Catholic priest to enter Nepal was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Juan Cabral who passed through the Kathmandu valley in the spring of 1628 and was received graciously by the king of that time, probably King Lakshminarasimha Malla of Kathmandu. He was just passing through, however, on his journey from Shigatse to Hugli in India.

On the eve of Christmas in 1661, two Jesuit priests, Albert d'Orville, a Belgian from Brussels and Johann Grueber, an Austrian from Linz, visited Kathmandu from the imperial Chinese Observatory in Peking via Lhasa. Pratap Malla, the then King of Kathmandu received them and was ready to grant them permission to preach the new religion in the kingdom, but without waiting for the permission they left for Agra, the headquarters of the Tibet-Hindustan Mission, in India.

The first attempt to a more permanent presence in Nepal dates from a special session of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome on March 14, 1703 when it was decided to open a mission in Tibet which would include a section of north India and the whole of what now is Nepal. This new enterprise was assigned to the Italian Capuchin Fathers. The first Capuchins set out from Europe in May 1704.

Of the six who set out for Tibet, two died on the board ship, one was put ashore at Cyprus, too ill to carry on; one remained at Chandanagore in India. Only two were able to set out from India for Tibet. They arrived in Kathmandu on Feb. 21, 1707, but stayed only long enough to arrange their journey to Tibet, departing on June 12. The first part of their work was beset with many difficulties; illness, lack of man power and lack of resources.

It was only after a re-organization in 1714 that the Capuchins were able to send three men to open a more permanent station in Nepal. They arrived in Kathmandu in the middle of January 1715, settling first in the kingdom of Kathmandu where they were favorably received by the King.

Over the next 54 years, despite many difficulties arising from suspicions, misunderstandings, lack of manpower and lack of material resources, their work grew and the Capuchins extended their service to the kingdoms of Bhaktapur and Patan. In addition, they were in contact with the kings of both Gorkha and Tanahun.

On Nov. 18, 1737, King Ranajita Malla of Bhaktapur issued a Decree of Liberty of Conscience in favor of the priests. King Jayaprakash Malla of Kathmandu had issued a similar decree in the previous month. On March 24, 1760, Father Tranquillius blessed a small church, situated in Wotu Tole in Kathmandu under the title of the Assumption of Our Lady. There was also a small chapel in Bhaktapur dedicated to Our Lady under the title of the Annunciation and another one in Patan.

In 1744, King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha had begun his military campaign that ultimately ended in the conquest of the three kingdoms of the valley in 1768 and 1769. The Capuchin Fathers had known Prithvi Narayan Shah earlier and were on friendly terms with him, providing medical aid to his brother who was wounded in an attack on Kirtipur.

Toward the end of this period, however, when King Jayaprakash Malla of Kathmandu sought the help of the East India Company in his fight against Gorkha, suspicion fell on the Capuchins as having been involved in this scheme. After the Gorkhali conquest of the valley this suspicion hardened. This suspicion, plus the lack of manpower and resources, made the position of the Capuchins, who numbered only three at the time, untenable.

They asked the new king for permission to leave Nepal. Permission was given for one of them to leave and Father Joseph of Rovato left the valley on Feb. 4, 1769 with some 57 Christians who settled at Chuhari, where their descendants still live. Within a few weeks, the remaining two Capuchins, who had been retained as a sort of hostages against any further interference from the plains, were given permission to leave.

The Capuchins left Nepal with a promise to return, but it was 1786 before they were in a position to fulfill their promise. In that year, Father Joseph of St. Marcello came to Nepal where he stayed for three years, being joined for one year by Father Charles Mary. Lack of manpower in India forced the superiors in the plains to recall Father Joseph in 1789. In 1794, Father Joseph, along with Father Romuald of Senigallia, returned to Nepal. Father Romuald left because of ill health after a few months, but Father Joseph stayed on, dying in Kathmandu on Nov. 9, 1810.

The year 1814 saw the outbreak of war between Nepal and the East India Company. The treaty of Sugauli of 1816 brought an end to the war, but one stipulation of that treaty stated that the king of Nepal must not "take or retain in his service any British subject, nor the subject of any European and American State, without the consent of the British government." This stipulation effectively closed the borders of Nepal to all foreigners, and both sides observed the stipulation until Indian Independence in 1947.

Tribal people from Bihar started coming to East Nepal in search of employment in the tea gardens from the early decades of the last century. A number of these people were Catholics. Priests from the north Bihar region bordering Eastern Nepal kept visiting incognito, these Catholics who had migrated to Nepal, at least from the early 1940's. However, no systematic ministry was possible due to the prevailing condition in the country at that time.

In the fall of 1949, Father Marshall Moran, S.J., then principal of St. Xavier's school in Patna and a member of the Senate of Patna University, was asked by the University to go to Nepal to supervise the annual examinations at the Trichandra College, then affiliated to Patna University. On Oct. 1, he crossed the border into Nepal from Raxaul. While in Nepal he was taken to meet the Prime Minister, Mohan S.J.B. Rana, who raised the question of the possibility of the opening of a school in Nepal similar to St. Xavier's in Patna.

Negotiations were begun and a year later on Nov. 1, General Mrigendra S.S. Rana, the director of public education, arrived in Patna to inform Father Moran that the government of Nepal was inviting him to open a school at Godavari. Within a few days, however, the Rana government was overthrown through the initiative of King Tribhuvan; further planning had to await confirmation by the new government. In March of 1951, formal approval came from the new government through the minister of education, Nrip Jung Rana.

Father Moran returned to Kathmandu in May to prepare for the opening of Godavari School, which opened on July 1, 1950 with three Jesuits, Fathers Moran, Francis Murphy and Edwin Saxton, two Nepali teachers and 65 students, classes one through six. Facilities at Godavari soon proved inadequate for the growing number of students and in September 1954 father Moran acquired a piece of property in Jawalakhel for the primary section of the school. St. Xavier's Jawalakhel opened officially on Sept. 8, 1954.

Work in Nepal began with the Jesuits from the Patna diocese and their work was thus a part of the diocese of Patna. On his first pastoral visit to Nepal in November 1954, Bishop Wildermuth of Patna brought with him two IBMV sisters from Patna (sisters Benigna and Rita) to explore the possibility of the sisters offering education to the girls of Nepal. The proposal met with approval and three sisters arrived on Jan. 27 1955 to open St. Mary's school. From these humble beginnings the work of the Church in Nepal has spread to other areas and includes social service, research, health, education for the poor and disadvantaged, pastoral and retreat work. In 1983, after the government of Nepal requested diplomatic relations between Nepal and the Holy See, the Vatican separated Nepal from the Patna diocese and erected a 'Missio Sui Iuris.' The Holy See, as the first superior of this new ecclesiastical unit appointed Father Anthony Francis Sharma, S.J., the first native Jesuit.

Monsignor Sharma was installed as the first ecclesiastical superior of Nepal on Dec. 8, 1984 and Archbishop Agostino Cacchiavillian presented his credentials to the king as the first Pro-Nuncio in 1985. Archbishop George Zur was the next Nuncio and Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri followed him in 1999. In July 2003, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana presented his credentials and became the fourth nuncio to Nepal. With these events the Church in Nepal entered a new era, no longer an appendage to an Indian diocese but a Church in its own right.

After Monsignor Sharma took over the reins, the Church began expanding its presence outside Kathmandu valley both to the East and to the West. Several missions were opened outside Kathmandu and many Congregations of men and women were invited to work in Nepal. It was a period of great political changes too, in Nepal, absolute monarchy along with its 'Panchayathi' system of governance was abolished and parliamentary democracy was introduced in the country.

The new constitution promulgated by the late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah in 1991 gave freedom to practice one's religion provided that there was no attempt to convert others. Part III article 19 of the constitution states, "Every person shall have the freedom to profess and practise his own religion as coming down to him hereditarily having due regard to the traditional practices -- provided that no person shall be entitled to convert the religion of any person."

On Feb. 10, 2007 parish priests announced all over Nepal that Pope Benedict XVI has raised the local Church to the status of a vicariate and appointed Monsignore Anthony Sharma as the first apostolic vicar of the new apostolic vicariate, at the same time elevating him to the dignity of bishop.

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