On a wintry morning in February, Sonia Jengcham headed to a hilly, forested area in Chittagong, a seaport city in southern Bangladesh, to thank the Blessed Mother for a special blessing she received 15 years ago. Sonia, 34, an indigenous Garo Catholic and mother of three, joined 3,000 devotees in prayer and Mass Feb. 8-9, during the annual pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in the district of Diang, one of the oldest settlements of Catholics in Bangladesh. Pilgrims attribute miracles to the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes and founded by Canadian Holy Cross Brother Flabian Laplante in 1976. "Fifteen years ago my husband was falsely accused of stealing money from the house of a landlord he worked for. I prayed to Mother Mary and promised I would offer a manot
(a gift for fulfilling a wish) if we could get rid of the problem," she told ucanews.com. "Within two days the owner was able to get back the lost money. Since then I have been coming here to thank Mary, and also to pray for the well-being of my family," added Sonia, a textile factory worker from northeastern Netrokona district who migrated to Chittagong in 2004.
People attend Mass during the annual feast day at the Marian shrine in Diang, on Feb. 9. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
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Uzzal Rozario, 32, a Bengali Catholic and private jobholder in the capital Dhaka, was visiting Diang with some friends for the first time. Uzzal said he was thrilled to fulfill his long-held wish of visiting the shrine. "I have prayed here in silence, taken part in a candle-lit Rosary procession and attended Mass. I vowed to give a manot and found solace in the presence of the Mother Mary," Uzzal told ucanews.com. He said the shrine needs more publicity and the church authority should adopt "creative plans" so that more young people like him can come here to find peace and obtain spiritual blessings. During the homily, Chittagong Archbishop Moses M. Costa reminded thousands of devotees that the shrine and church in Diang stand as the legacy of early missionaries and Christians, who shed blood for their faith nearly five centuries ago. "We thank God for sending missionaries who brought their faith to us. We also exalt in the heritage of a faith that missionaries and early Christians kept alive amid persecution and martyrdom," Archbishop Costa said. To honor the sacrifices of those early missionaries and Christians, a jubilee celebration will be held in Diang in November. Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelizations of Peoples, will attend, according to the archbishop. Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong Archdiocese delivers Holy Mass at the shrine on Feb. 9. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com) Martyrs and missionaries
On the other side of Diang stands Miriam Catholic Church, originally set up in 1600 by two Portuguese Jesuits — Father Melchior De Fonseca and Father Andre Boves, who both arrived in 1599. They followed in the footsteps of Jesuit Father Francesco Fernandez, the first missionary of East Bengal (now Bangladesh), who came to Chittagong in 1598. Missionaries followed the Portuguese Christian merchants who first landed at Chittagong port in 1517. Some settled down in Chittagong and Diang in 1518, creating the first Christian settlement in this part of what was then India. Two Portuguese Dominican priests also arrived in Diang in 1599 and set up an ashram. However they had to discontinue their mission and were soon replaced by Portuguese Augustinian priests. The Augustinians are believed to have spearheaded a massive conversion campaign and baptized 28,497 people between 1622-1635. The new church faced massive political and social pressure amid a tug-of-war between the Mughal Empire and the Arakan Kingdom now, part of Myanmar's northern Rakhine State. Originally set up in 1600 by Portuguese missionaries, the shrine was destroyed by the Arakanese army in 1607 and was newly built in 2009 by the Miriam Church of Diang. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ucanews.com)
In 1600, the Arakanese army invaded and looted Chittagong and Diang in retaliation for the Portuguese navy's support for the Mughal emperor, which resulted in the defeat of the king of Arakan. Some attribute the longstanding rivalry between the Portuguese and the Arakanese over control of Sandwip Island in the Bay of Bengal. In 1602, the Arakanese army launched a second attack and completely destroyed Diang church and adjacent areas by arson. Soldiers detained Father Fernandez for helping Portuguese families. They physically assaulted and blinded the priest, who died in captivity on Nov. 14 of that year, becoming the first martyr of Bengal. The army also detained, enslaved and tortured Father Boves. The bloodiest Arakanese invasion took place in 1607. Soldiers massacred 600 Christian men, women and children and set their bodies on fire on the grounds where the shrine and the church now stand. In 1625, Arakanese soldiers beheaded 14 Portuguese Christians in Chittagong for refusing to denounce their faith. In Diang, descendants of those first Portuguese Christians proudly continue the legacy of the missionaries and martyrs. The shrine attracts people young and old from all over the country. Here they are shown attending the same Holy Mass on Feb. 9. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Richard de Roza, 62, ranks as the Catholic head of one of 14 families belonging to two clans of those first Portuguese settlers in the district. "Our ancestors were spice traders. They shuttled back and forth between Chittagong and other places starting in 1517. They didn't go back to Portugal because they liked it here so much, or perhaps it was too hard for them to go back," de Roza told ucanews.com. Following the Arakanese invasion, Christianity in Diang went into a state of decline. "Christians slowly started to disappear but some families held onto their faith. There was no church, so our ancestors took a three-hour journey by boat to the nearest church in Patherghata (part of Chittagong)," added de Roza, a father of three. Today the church in Diang has 800 Catholic members from 150 families. Apart from those early missionaries, the shrine and the church are manifestations of the legacy of another great missionary. Brother Flavian: The real fisherman's friend
Brother Flavian Laplante of the Canadian Holy Cross went to East Bengal in 1932. He devoted himself to working for the education ministry and providing social services in the Diang area throughout the 1940s. However, the missionary was saddened by the plight of poor people, especially Hindu fishermen. He set up an orphanage, a health center, a number of schools, a fishing assistance center and a sewing center to help improve their livelihoods. His simple lifestyle and the love and compassion he showed the local people soon made him massively popular. As a result, many Hindus converted to Christianity. In 1946, Brother Flavian set up a grotto for the Mother Mary and an ashram (hermitage) in Diang. People flocked to both to pray with him. Three decades later, Bishop Joachim Rozario of Chittagong officially elevated the grotto to the status of a shrine. Brother Flavian died in 1981 and was buried near Miriam Church in Diang. The then Bishop Patrick D'Rozario of Chittagong reopened the newly constructed Diang Church and elevated it to a parish in 2009. He was later made a cardinal. That same year, the prelate declared Brother Flavian a "servant of God," beginning the first step toward possible sainthood.