Bishop Gervas Rozario releases doves to mark 100 years of migration, faith and culture at St. Rita’s Church in Rajshahi Diocese on May 28. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Hundreds of Catholics thanked God for blessings and paid tributes to their ancestors as they joined a grand celebration to mark the centenary of migration and faith in northern Bangladesh.
About 1,500 Catholics from various parishes in Rajshahi Diocese marked the jubilee with a host of programs including spiritual devotion, a special Mass, cultural function, cutting of cake and candle lighting at St. Rita’s Church in Pabna district on May 27-28.
Most of the participants are descendants of Bengali Catholics from the Bhawal region, one of the country’s oldest and largest Catholic strongholds in central Bangladesh and covered by Dhaka Archdiocese.
Starting from 1920, hundreds of Bengali Catholics migrated to Pabna and neighboring Natore district, largely to escape poverty and seek economic prosperity.
The resettlement of Catholics marked a new era of Christianity in the area and gave birth to six predominantly Bengali Catholic parishes. Two in Pabna — St. Rita’s Church in Mothurapur and St. Francis Xavier Church in Foiljana — and four in Natore: Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bonpara, Maria Virgo Potens Church in Borni, St. Francis Xavier's Church in Bhabanipur and Queen Assumed into Heaven Church in Gopalpur.
St. Rita’s Church, established in 1925, is the oldest among them. Altogether these parishes have about 14,000 Catholics out of an estimated 67,700 Catholics in predominantly indigenous Rajshahi Diocese.
Christianity did not exist here but God sowed the seeds of Christ here through us
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, himself a descendant of migrant Catholics in Bonpara Parish, said migration played a significant role in the growth of the local Church.
“This 100-year history is not a man-made history. It is a history made by the will of almighty God himself. God blessed us and sent us to this region. Christianity did not exist here but God sowed the seeds of Christ here through us,” Bishop Rozario said during his sermon at the Mass on May 28.
“The hundredth year is a year of gratitude, a year of giving thanks to God. God loves us, shows us the way. As a result, we have been able to work for the development of education and health in this area.”
The migration led to economic prosperity, development and sustenance of a distinct Bengali Christian culture and rituals associated with Bhawal, Catholics say.
Sontos Costa, 42, a Catholic from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bonpara, said their ancestors took a courageous decision to migrate and faced challenges like diseases and lack of education, but all proved worthwhile. They worked hard, purchased land at low prices and sent their children to school for education while practicing faith with devotion.
“I’m proud to be a descendant of migrant Catholics. I think had our ancestors not migrated to this area, they could not prosper in life. Local people of other religions didn’t know anything about Christianity. Because of the efforts of Christians, interfaith friendship has been forged, leading to peace and joy,” Costa told UCA News.
The advent of the Church through migration in the region also saw the establishment of good schools and health clinics by Catholic missionaries, providing vital services irrespective of caste and creed.
Church-based charities like Caritas are credited with socioeconomic development, while Christian cooperatives in parishes have developed a savings mentality among people.
Out of 55 priests in Rajshahi, 40 are descendants of migrant Catholics from Bhawal
Ahead of the 25-year jubilee of Rajshahi Diocese in 2015, a survey found Catholics from Bengali parishes in Pabna and Natore districts have a higher literary rate and income than the predominantly ethnic parishes.
Father Daniel Rozario, a senior priest and director of web-based Radio Jyoti (Light), said Bengali Catholics have made great contributions to spirituality and faith formation in the diocese.
Out of 55 priests in Rajshahi, 40 are descendants of migrant Catholics from Bhawal, he said.
“The preaching of the word means not only how many people have become Christians but also the socioeconomic, educational, health development and propagation of Christian values, and we have done well in these areas,” Father Rozario told UCA News.
Children perform a dance during the celebration at St. Rita’s Church. (Photo: Stephan Uttom)