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Bangladeshi Catholics celebrate heritage of faith

Dhaka Archbishop's House is hailed as a cradle of faith and a national heritage site during events to mark its centenary
Young Catholic dancers perform during centenary celebrations marking the founding of Dhaka Archbishop’s House at St. Mary's Cathedral on Nov. 17

Clergy, religious and lay people release pigeons during the centenary celebrations of the Archbishop’s House at St. Mary's Cathedral in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Nov. 17. (Photo: Piyas Biswas)

Published: November 20, 2023 08:22 AM GMT
Updated: November 20, 2023 04:13 PM GMT

Thousands of Bangladeshi Christians attended the centenary of the founding of the Archbishop’s House in the capital Dhaka, a national heritage site that Church leaders hailed for playing a significant role in the growth and development Catholicism in the country.

The daylong celebrations at St. Mary’s Cathedral titled “Faith, Heritage and Service” drew about 3,000 people, mostly Catholics from various parts of country on Nov. 17, organizers said.

The program included Holy Mass, a documentary on the history and heritage of the Dhaka Archbishop’s House, sharing and reminiscences, the launching of a souvenir magazine and a cultural show.

Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, Oblate Archbishop Bejoy D’Cruze of Dhaka, the Vatican embassy’s charge de affairs, Monsignor Marinko Antolovic, and Catholic parliamentarians Jewel Areng and Gloria Jhrana Sarker were among the dignitaries present.

The history and growth of the Catholic Church in Bangladesh is closely linked to the Archbishop’s House, Archbishop D’Cruze told reporters.

“Since its establishment [in 1923] it has become the beacon of Church education and other services in the county. We thank God for the blessings and expect this occasion can boost unity, communion and brotherhood within the Church,” D’Cruze said.

He paid tribute to his two late predecessors — American Holy Cross Archbishop Lawrence Leo Graner (1947-67) and the first native Bengali Holy Cross Archbishop T.A. Ganguly (1967-77).

Graner is credited withr founding three top Church-run institutes — Notre Dame College, Holy Cross College and Holy Family Hospital in Dhaka.

Ganguly, a candidate for sainthood, is hailed for his rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts after Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971 following a civil war, D’Cruze said.

He is credited with helping Catholic charity, Caritas Bangladesh, become a national voluntary organization assisting the poorest and most afflicted people.

“He wanted to make Caritas a charity that could serve the poorest of the poor irrespective of caste and creed,” D’Cruze said.

Church leaders wanted to prove “Christianity is a service-oriented religion,” he said, adding that many Church-run schools, colleges and organizations were first conceived in the Dhaka Archbishop’s House.

“It is not just a building but a cradle of faith and national heritage,” he added.

Alphonse Ponkaj Gomes, 58, a Catholic singer from St. Mary’s Cathedral Church, said the celebration was an occasion to thank God because today the Catholic Church is present at grassroots levels with values and services.

“The Archbishop’s House of Dhaka is a cradle of faith, so it has been a pilgrimage of faith for a century, which reminds us that we must continue to preserve our heritage and move ahead,” Gomes told UCA News.

Gomes, a social worker, said the centenary is also a reminder there are notable challenges for the Church today.

Priestly and religious vocations are declining, and young generations lack religiosity, he said.

“I won’t say young people are lost, but their way of thinking and lifestyle have changed. Many are reluctant to accept and adapt to these new realities.”

The clergy needs to do research, internalize and act better according to the changed realities — what young people seek today and what new kind of formation they need, he said.

“Sometimes I feel what I hear from the priest at the altar, or in the pulpit is not what I need or want to hear,” he added.

Lay people also need to rethink their life of faith, he said.

“It seems people are too busy today that they don’t have time for God and for prayer.”

Catholicism in what is now Bangladesh dates back to the 16th century. The first Portuguese merchant ship landed at Chattogram port in 1517. The second group of Portuguese Catholic traders who arrived in 1518 settled around Chattogram, marking the beginning of first Catholic settlements, Church records say.

Jesuit priests Francesco Fernandez and Domingo D’Souza became the first Catholic missionaries to set foot in Bengal in 1598. Fernandez pioneered establishing the first churches and became the first martyr of Bengal in 1602.

In 1850, the Vatican created the Vicariate of Eastern Bengal and entrusted it to the newly founded Congregation of the Holy Cross, whose first missioners arrived in 1853. The Holy Cross is still the largest religious order in Bangladesh.

Dhaka was canonically erected as a diocese on Sept. 1, 1886, and its territory included that of the present-day dioceses of Chattogram, Silchar (Assam, India), and Prome (Myanmar). Chattogram became a new diocese in 1927.

In 1950, when East Bengal was part of Pakistan, Dhaka was elevated to a metropolitan archdiocese.

The archbishop’s house was constructed during the time of American Holy Cross Bishop Joseph Armand Legrand (1916-29), the fourth bishop of Dhaka in 1923.

There are about 400,000 Catholics in two archdioceses and six dioceses, according to Church records.

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