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Jesuits launch first school in Bangladesh

Jesuits became first Catholic missionaries to arrive in Bengal in the 16th century but did not settle for various reasons
Children perform on stage during the inauguration of Jesuit-run St. Xavier's International School in Gazipur district of Bangladesh on Aug. 13.

Children perform on stage during the inauguration of Jesuit-run St. Xavier's International School in Gazipur district of Bangladesh on Aug. 13. (Photo supplied)

Published: August 18, 2022 10:59 AM GMT
Updated: August 19, 2022 05:38 AM GMT

More than four centuries after Jesuits became the first Catholic missionaries to land in East Bengal (present Bangladesh) of India, the religious order kicked off its education ministry in the country.  

Jesuit-run St. Xavier’s International School, an English-medium institute, in Gazipur district near Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, held its first classes on Aug. 16.

It currently has 34 students who can study up to A-Level. It has a capacity of about 600 students in its fifth-storied building. It is located near St. Augustine of Hippo Catholic Church in Mathbari of Gazipur.

The school was inaugurated in presence of a host of dignitaries including Oblate Archbishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of Dhaka on Aug. 13 with the slogan, “a fire that kindles other fires.”

Jesuit Father Ripon Rozario, superior of Jesuit Bangladesh Mission, noted that it took a long time for the order to start education apostolate as the missionaries came to Bengal at different times and did not settle for various reasons.  

“Jesuit missionaries first came to present-day Bangladesh to preach the Gospel and they built the first church building in 1600 at Ishwaripur in Satkhira district. Jesuit missionaries came at different times, but they could not settle due to political, geographical, and other reasons,” Father Rozario told UCA News.

The priest said that Jesuit missionaries arrived again in 1994 at the invitation of Bangladeshi bishops and decided to settle permanently. Jesuits in Bangladesh are part of the Kolkata Province of India.  

Over the year, Father Rozario said, Jesuits have found a strong footing in the country thanks to an increase in local priestly vocations.

“Now the number of our local Jesuits has increased, we are quite strong, and our community feels that we need to work for our own country. That’s why we have started this school to expand our ministry,” Father Rozario told UCA News.

Bangladesh has produced 23 local Jesuits who are active in various ministries including spiritual, cultural, youth activities, refugee services, and parish work.

Father Rozario said that St. Xavier’s School was set up outside the national capital to provide quality education to students in rural areas.

The school prioritizes moral values and international-level English-medium education at a relatively low cost.

“Most English medium schools are located in cities like Dhaka. Many parents move to the city to allow their children to have an English-medium education. Another reason was we had our property to start a school here,” Father Rozario said, adding that Jesuits would expand their education ministry in other parts of the country.

Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Francesco Fernandez was the first Catholic missionary to set foot in Chittagong of Bengal province in 1598.

Two Jesuit priests — Father Melchior de Fonseca and Father Andre Boves — and two Dominican priests followed in his footsteps in 1599, and a band of Augustinian missionary priests turned up in the 1600s.

Jesuits and the Augustinians spearheaded the evangelization of thousands of lower-caste Hindus and were credited for laying the foundation of the first churches in Bengal.

Father Fernandez became the first martyr of Bengal in 1602 following his arrest, incarceration, and death at the hands of Arakanese soldiers amid a tug-of-war between the kings of Bengal and Arakan, which is part of the present Rakhine state of Myanmar.

Father Boves was also detained and tortured by the soldiers.

Today, Catholic Church has an estimated 400,000 members spread in eight Catholic dioceses. Among the church’s main ministries are education, healthcare, and social development.

Catholic Church runs one university, 10 colleges, and more than 500 primary and high schools, offering education to about 100,000 pupils a year, most of them Muslims.

Rinku Gomes, 38 a local Catholic and development worker, said that had the school started earlier his wife and five-year-old son could have avoided going to Dhaka for English-medium education.

“If this school was here earlier, I could have left my children and wife in the village. I could have avoided spending so much in Dhaka,” Gomes, who is now based in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district, told UCA News.

He noted that English-medium schools in Dhaka are expensive, and many cannot afford them even if they want their children to study in those schools.

Gomes said the monthly fee in the Jesuit school is only 1000-1500 taka (US$ 11-16), but schools in Dhaka charge five times more.

Bangladesh Catholic Education Board Trust (BCEBT) welcomed the first Jesuit school in Bangladesh.

“I hope the Jesuits will contribute more to the Bangladesh church and the country,” BCEBT secretary Jyoti Gomes told UCA News.

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